We don’t have to tell you that all beef isn’t created equal. You've got your bland but juicy corn-fed Texas Panhandle feed-lot beef; you've got your gamey, old boot-leather bull meat; you've got your beer-guzzling spa-treatment super-fatty A5 Miyazaki Wagyu; and, completely unbiased here, you’ve got your one-of-a-kind, unspeakably delicious Pennsylvania, pasture-raised beef.
It’s no mystery what makes animals fat—feed them a whole lot of sugary foods and don’t let them move around much, they pack on the pounds. Let them walk around all day, eating nothing but sparse grass, they don't put on much weight.
Flavor, tenderness and color variations require a deeper dive. We like to say that you ought to be able to talk about your beef like you talk about your wine. Beef terroir. Soil type, dry-aging room microbiota, breed, and most importantly, diet and age. These all produce not-so-subtle differences in how meat tastes.
What’s all the hype about ribeyes anyways?
Let’s start by looking at a ribeye from a 96-month-old (8 years!), grass-fed cow. It has a deep crimson red, very lean, and yellow fat cap. The three muscles in a ribeye, longissimus dorsi, complexus and spinalis, all separating from one another. For the perfect sear, we fire up a flame under the cast-iron, wait until it's rip-roaring hot, and throw the steak on with some salt and lard. Pull it off when a crispy crust forms and let it rest for about ten minutes before digging in. Sawing away, the ribeye center proves to be pretty impenetrable for the knife, let alone our teeth. Even the ribeye cap, the third most tender muscle in a cow, is almost unchewable. The flavor is outstanding and unique, but even that couldn’t warrant sustained chewing.
People describe ribeyes as buttery and tender, so why was this one too tough to chew? This one was from a 96-month-old cow. Most ribeyes are from factory-raised cows, slaughtered between 15 and 18 months. If you’re lucky, you’ll chow down on delicious pasture-raised meat from cows slaughtered between 24 and 30 months, which we think you’ll find just right.
Now let’s sink our teeth in.
Ever tried frying up and munching on chunks of stew meat? Uh, yeah, us neither. If you’ve made that mistake, you’ll know you couldn’t really chew them. That’s because stew meat is cut from parts of the animal full of connective tissue, which takes hours to break down.
Connective tissue is composed of mostly collagen and elastin, giving tissue it’s stretch. It wraps around bundles of muscle fibers, connecting and crossing muscle networks, and convergences of these networks are tendons. Every time the protein in muscles contract, it pulls on sheaths of connective tissue until that chain reaction reaches the tendons and eventually causes skeletal movement. The coveted tenderness is largely dictated by how often these sheaths activate. As an animal ages, the strength and amount of connective tissue increases.
Gimme all the fat.
Fat is the capital of Flavortown. An animal’s diet shines through the most in the flavor of their fat. When an animal eats, some of the molecular makeup of that food consists of “fat-soluble compounds” - amino acids and organic substances that dissolve in fat. It's these molecules that produce what our palates recognize as "flavor". They build up in the fat cells of an animal until they’re released during the cooking process. Fat cells in between collagen fibers, called intramuscular fat (marbling), weakens chewy connective tissue, increasing tenderness.
Pastured animals that spend their lives roaming around and eating different kinds of plants absorb plenty of yummy molecules that get stored in their fat cells. Animals that spend their lives hanging around eating big piles of corn don’t get much variety.
So, pasture-raised animals have stronger, more complex flavor than their corn-eating counterparts. An older animal, too, will have more flavors, as they’ve stored a diversity of fat-soluble substances. An old grass-fed animal is on the beefiest end of the flavor spectrum. A young, corn-fed animal is on the mildest end.
Red, pink and everything in between.
The color of a muscle is dictated by oxygen. Oxygen enters the bloodstream through the protein, myoglobin. Without getting too deep into the science, the more oxygenated the myoglobin is, the brighter the muscles are.
Muscles of younger animals are more oxygenated and are less densely populated with myoglobin, so are a brighter almost pinkish color. An older animal’s muscles are much less oxygenated, but have a deep store of myoglobin from years of activity, so are a deeper hue of red.
Back to our 96-month-old ribeye. It’s lack of tenderness is due to years of build-up of connective tissue, as stronger bundles of collagen and elastin form. The fat contains novel flavors due to years of a diverse, grass-based diet. The crimson color was from deoxygenated myoglobin.
Here at the Happy Valley HQ, we like ‘em goooood and beefy. Some folks don’t. Some folks also wear socks with sandals. Just sayin’.
What We’re Reading.
Acorns + CNBC: “4 simple ways to help small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic”, April 16, 2020
Our fellow small businesses are pulling out all the stops to survive. The federal government’s help isn’t enough, so consumer choice is playing an outsize role. Shameless plug alert: HVMC founder and owner, Dan Honig, shares his experience on our ability to turn on a dime to give the people what they want.
The Washington Post: “Meat processing plants are closing due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Beef shortfalls may follow”, April 16, 2020
For anyone who has an inkling of working conditions in gargantuan meatpacking plants are like, it comes as no surprise that these plants are being hit hard by coronavirus. Workers are getting sick, plants are starting to shut down, and grocery stores are going to have meat shortages. There will still be enough meat to go around, but folks may not have the kind of choice they’re used to.
The New York Times: “The Farm-to-Table Connection Comes Undone”, April 9, 2020
The farm-to-table movement has boomed so hard over the past few decades, it’s safe to call that movement a success. However, all that progress could be upended as the farm-to-restaurant pipeline is clogged by the virus. Of the many challenges outlined, one meat specific one that we share is related to packaging meat for retail: “It’s one thing to send out a whole 20-pound rib roast to a restaurant, but now it needs to get cut into pound-and-a-half rib-eyes, and [butchers] just don’t have the capacity.”
The Counter: “Three chickens a second: USDA gives more poultry slaughterhouses green light to speed up processing”, April 3, 2020
Speaking of meatpacking plant conditions, it’s about to get even worse for poultry workers. As the demand for cheap chicken continues to skyrocket, poultry producers are looking for more and more ways to increase their throughput. Under the Trump administration, the USDA falls deeper and deeper in favor with the meatpacking lobby as regulations continue to loosen up.