Few dishes satisfy Australian palates better than a slice of really good beef. In fact, as a nation we spent an estimated $6.7 billion on beef products in 2010-11 and the P&O Cruises’ fleet go through around two tonnes of beef each week. But whether grain-fed or pasture-fed cattle produce the tastiest beef has been a hotly debated topic among foodies of late. Grain-fed beef has made its way on to many a fine-dining menu over the past decade, with many chefs singing its praises. But over recent years, our interest in sustainable, fresh and locally grown produce has increased, and we want to know more about where our food comes from before it arrives on our plate.
Why choose grass? Marking the swing in demand back to grass-fed beef, Ralph’s Meat Company, which produces grass-fed beef for P&O Cruises, decided some time ago to process pasture-fed cattle exclusively. “Grain-fed beef was popular in years gone by but people are going for natural products these days, and you can’t get more natural than grass,” says Julian Ralph, the company’s director and owner.
Grass-fed beef has more than a few positives. It’s typically leaner than grain-fed beef, which contains more saturated fat and consequently more calories. And US studies have shown grass-fed beef to have higher levels of nutrients and antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, which are believed to be essential for good health.
Sustainably, there are benefits to the environment as less energy goes into producing grass than grain. And while grass-fed cattle farmers use more land, if raised holistically the animals are rotated between pastures to improve soil fertility by using natural manure, preserve local biodiversity and minimise water pollution issues associated with feedlot farms.
Grass feeding is also often better for the beast, with producers following official guidelines to keep the animals in tiptop condition. Animal welfare activists often assert that having clean drinking water and the freedom to roam leads to a happier and healthier herd.
Grass vs. grain
The beauty of grain feeding is that the quality of the produce becomes very consistent because all aspects of raising are controlled by what they are fed. The animal’s weight, the colour of its meat, the colour of its fat and even the overall flavour can be influenced by feed.
Grain-fed cattle are usually pasture-fed up to a certain point and then taken to a feedlot, where they are fed a mix of soy, corn, grains and other supplements for a set period. The aim is to make cattle gain the maximum weight in the fastest time, resulting in the coveted fat marbling you see in high-grade beef.
Conversely, with pasture-fed animals, farmers more or less allow them to live naturally. Free to roam in paddocks, eating as much or as little as they like, grass-fed cattle start on their natural diet of grass a few weeks after they’re born.
This is supplemented only by their mother’s milk until they’re about 10 months old and perhaps hay if there is a shortage of grass. Plus they have access to various types of grass, which benefits the size of the animal’s muscles and the colour and fat content of its meat.
The flip side is that such cattle are at the mercy of nature’s variables, which can include drought and not enough grass or water.
However, both grass and grain feeding can produce high-quality beef, says Harry Andrews, a director at AMPCO Group, which supplies grass-fed beef to P&O Cruises.
It’s all in the taste
The subject of taste divides chefs and consumers alike. Most agree that grass-fed beef, which is often slightly darker, has an earthier, more natural and ‘beefier’ flavour, whereas grain-fed is softer in texture and can taste either bland or have a unique flavour that reveals the influence of the grain.
The drawback of grass-fed beef is that there’s less fat to insulate the meat, meaning care has to be taken not to make it tough during cooking.
A combination of good pastures and good breeds, including British cattle types such as Angus and Hereford, will help maximise its performance and still achieve a slight marbling in the meat.
But it’s not just the meat itself. Producers and suppliers play a critical part in guiding the beef through the final steps before it reaches our plates, with one of the most important being the vital ‘ageing’ process. Ageing is a fine science where the beef is sealed in vacuum bags and stored in a refrigerated environment for 21 to 30 days. During this time, natural enzymes break down tough tissue and muscle which enhances the tenderness and the flavour profile of the beef.
When it comes to the meat on your plate, everyone is different with the type they prefer, though there’s little doubt grass-fed beef is leading the way in taste quality and is a step in the right direction for the environment and sustainable farming. Time to taste the difference – The Waterfront Restaurant serves up a variety of grass-fed beef options. Dig in!