The Good Steak
I was unpacking steaks today and came across some nice looking ribeyes from an unlikely steer: he was a three year old Shorthorn-Devon cross. We bought the steer as a bottle calf a few years ago. He never looked “finished” (the term used to describe the physiological condition of an animal that has slowed their frame growth and started to put on fat) because his topline was always peaked and his tailhead wasn’t fatty. But the steaks tell a different story.
What makes a good steak? Take a look at the frozen ribeyes above. I’m not a USDA grader but I’d say that these steaks are Choice grade. The US beef system grades meat on marbling, which is a decent measurement, but it really doesn’t tell the whole story. Well-marbled meat can tolerate grilling with less risk of drying out. Yeah, OK, fine, we all know that.
But what do you notice when you compare these ribeye steaks with an equally finished conventional grain-finished steak? The fat is a totally different color! Feedlot beef gets penalized in the market if the fat isn’t pure white. But grass fed fat isn’t the “other white fat”. The color of beef fat tells you right away that this steer was eating plants rich with beta carotene (which metabolizes to Vitamin A), not eating a high grain starchy diet. Then, of course, there’s the taste test. Grass fed beef has flavor. Corn imparts a neutral flavor to the beef, but pasture forages deposit a blend of flavor compounds. Grain fed steaks give you the double downsides of less nutrition and less taste.
So what makes a good steak? An appropriate level of marbling is a factor, but the right kind of fat is really the key!
Interesting footnotes: Note that certain breeds of cattle (especially Jerseys and to a lesser extent Shorthorns like this steer) have a disposition to more yellow in the fat. Also note that certain fat deposits in the same animal will have a different shading. But even taking these factors into account, the color-feed connection still is valid. Do the visual test and the taste test if you don’t believe me.