Foodbuzz 24×24: Grass Fed Beef Tasting

The folks at Foodbuzz run a monthly feature called 24×24. Each month, they pick 24 food bloggers to plan a meal on a specific day. In 24 hours, 24 meals are enjoyed around the world, and then blogged.

This month, Foodbuzz picked Saturday, May 29th as the day, and Christey and I were selected as one of the 24 hosts.

The meal we submitted was based on an idea I have been mulling over since Christey and I were at Foodbuzz’s Blogger Festival in San Francisco last year. While there, one of the seminars was co-hosted by Brian Kenny, head rancher at Hearst Ranch. The Hearst family (of publishing fame) own tens of thousands of acres of land and only raise grass-fed, free-range beef.

Almost all beef raised in America is “feedlot” beef — cattle either raised entirely on corn, or finished on corn to fatten them up prior to slaughter. Because of their close contact and lack of exercise, there are concerns about the hormones, antibiotics and health of the cattle, how many of these products are passed through to humans, and how the environment is affected.

On one hand, there’s something to be said for capitalism, that McDonalds can deliver half a person’s daily calories for half an hour of minimum wage. On the other hand, while starvation and malnutrition have been reduced, a wide spectrum of other medical problems are now prevalent, from obesity to cancer.

Most of this is covered in Michael Pollans’ excellent (and now legendary) book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan not only wrestles with the ideas of sustainability, health, and the environment, but also explores economics and “class” issues (yuppyism) of eating sustainable and organic foods.

Hearst is the anti-feedlot. Their cattle is hormone-free, antibiotic-free (they almost never require antibiotics and when one does, it doesn’t get slaughtered with the rest). They have the luxury of roaming around the California countryside, eating grass, pretty much doing what cows evolved to do. They take a bit of a hit in terms of production — cattle is slaughtered after two years instead of 14 months, and they’re a little smaller — but grass-fed beef is much higher in Omega-3 and beta carotene and many other important nutrients.

Putting all the benefits and abstractions aside, my main question was how the taste stacked up. Some describe it as more subtle, while others think it tastes more naturally beefy, as opposed to a more artificial feedlot “punch” of flavor. We were able to sample some Hearst ground beef in Chef Arenstam’s gourmet meatballs and they tasted fantastic, but that’s also an issue I’ve wondered about. Usually, chefs or home cooks proudly advertise that a meal is made with grass-fed beef — the taster knows exactly what he or she is eating. Some taste tests involve a naked bite of steak on a white plate. Most of us don’t eat beef that way at home or in a restaurant.

Which led me to the beef tasting idea for Foodbuzz’s 24×24. Gather a bunch of foodies, and cook beef in traditional ways, accompanied with sauces and side dishes, just like a restaurant or dinner party. Serve a Hearst beef dish and a cut of grain-fed beef from a quality butcher, side-by-side. However, the tasting would be done blind, with only the cook (me) knowing which is which.

In other words, instead of a piece of beef on a toothpick, the diners can compare and contrast beef samples covered with béarnaise sauce, after eating a variety of appetizers. Would there be an obvious difference in taste and texture? For fun, the dinner guests were given ballots to rate taste and texture, as well as offer comments.

The menu would be filet mignon with béarnaise, skirt steak chimichurri, and mini hamburger “sliders” with a demi-glace mushroom sauce, along with appetizers and sides.

Foodbuzz donated $250 to cover the costs of the meal. Brian Kenny of Hearst was also kind enough to comp the skirt steaks, something they usually only sell as part of their cattle-share program.

The steaks arrive! Exciting!

We ended up with a lot of skirt steak. I needed four skirts, and got four vac-packs of skirts (5 skirts in each). We will be dining well for a while!

While I planned the menu, Christey planned the logistics and decorating for hosting a foodie dinner party with 14 guests. Christey’s mom Cindy spent half a day helping set everything up and everything was beautiful. It was a mild Florida evening, and we were able to use inside and outside areas for eating and mingling.

For the grain-fed, I bought a whole tenderloin from Direct Seafood Outlet, a local restaurant supplier/retail store. For the skirt steaks and hamburger, I went to Petty’s Meat Market, a Florida high-end butcher.

The day of the dinner, I cleaned the tenderloin, and cut filets roughly the same size and shape as the Hearst filets. The Hearst meat is off top the cutting board, still in the packs. The meat was noticeably darker, apparently a byproduct of more beta carotene and Vitamin E.

For appetizers, I made a bisque from blue crabs I caught in our back yard (we live on a canal off the intracoastal waterway) and Maine lobster. I also made a goat cheese and chive puff pastry with a peppadew cream sauce, and a cold green-bean salad with queso fresco, slivered jalapeños, and an orange-juice vinaigrette.

The kids had Hearst cheeseburgers, with Mac-N-Cheese and green beans!

I grilled the filets first, and while I made the béarnaise, Chris Sauter from Pickles and Cake flash-sauteed some baby spinach.

The beef was served on platters A and B, the first beef course was served!

Next, was the skirt steak chimichurri:

Last meat course was the mini burgers:

For dessert, Krissy from The Sugar Pixie, brought a decadent Black Magic Cake, and Christey made a Key Lime Pie and a fruit pizza from Krissy’s recipes!

So, how did the beef match up? Here are the score averages:

Filet Taste, Hearst: 3.7
Filet Texture, Hearst: 3.5
Skirt Taste, Hearst: 4.1
Skirt Texture, Hearst: 4.3
Slider Taste, Hearst: 4.4
Slider Texture,Hearst: 3.9

Filet Taste, grain: 4.5
Filet Texture, grain: 4.5
Skirt Taste, grain: 4.0
Skirt Texture, grain: 3.9
Slider Taste, grain: 3.7
Slider Texture,grain: 4.0

Everyone was surprised the grain-fed filet outscored the grass-fed overall, though there were several guests who scored the grass-fed higher. There were even comments that the grain-fed was “like butter” and “lots of flavor”. Filet itself isn’t the most flavorful steak (which is why it’s often served with a sauce), but it was surprising. Most people also thought the filet had the widest range of texture, especially being the first steak to test. There was a noticeable leanness difference (the Hearst being more lean) and some guests based their scoring on leanness preferences.

Skirt steak is definitely a flavorful cut, and the chimichurri scored for the grass-fed. There were interesting comments (as guests shared bites) that the scoring moved around based on the way the beef was cooked — thinner, more well-done pieces scored toward the grain-fed, the medium and medium-rare pieces scored toward the grass-fed, so the type of cooking may be important.

The hamburgers, America’s most common way of eating beef, again scored for Hearst grain-fed, by a wide margin.

Other comments: “[skirts:] Both very good, very close”, “Hearst was much leaner in all circumstances”, “Hamburger was tough to tell, they both were great”, and the best comment, from one guest who hasn’t eaten beef in a long time: “If I was going to eat cows again after 8 years, I am glad it was such yummy cows!”

Comments

  1. Peter says:

    This is indepth, educational, it took a lot of work to put this post together….congrats on one of the better “24″ dinners of late.

  2. Bette says:

    This was an amazing evening, from the inviting table settings to the fabulous food! A lot of work for our hosts, before and after, but a most memorable event for your guests. Photos, as usual, are incredible, especially given the time frame. Thank you thank you thank you! And thanks also to Foodbuzz and Hearst.

  3. Joan Nova says:

    Have missed you guys, but you came back with a bang! Wonderful post – well thought out and presented.

  4. Brigitte says:

    Thanks for the beef education. I haven’t eaten beef in over 10 years, and I won’t be going back anytime soon, but this was a fun and interesting read. I’m hoping a crab party will occur soon! I haven’t caught blue crabs since I was little. I was inspired to do so again after reading the small entry on the local catch! Great photos and it looks like you all had a wonderful time together!

  5. Lindsey says:

    What a wonderful blog post! I clicked over from LiveJournal, and I’m glad I did. After experimenting with vegetarianism and veganism for health reasons, I’ve been trying to eat only all-natural meats. It is my (admittedly biased) opinion that grass-fed beef tends to be a little more flavorful, but I had never thought to do a taste testing. Your experiment was well done and I applaud your dedication to doing it right. Thank you for the lovely photographs!

  6. Kate says:

    I think part of the problem is that we’ve become accustomed to the flavor of grain-fed beef. It would be interesting to repeat the experience on a group of people who are accustomed to grass-fed only.

  7. What a great post and fantastic idea for the 24×24! Your fotos are stunning as always. Looks like a great night with great friends & FOOD!

  8. petermarcus says:

    Peter — Thanks! It’s Tuesday, and I’m still cleaning dishes!

    Bette — Thanks for coming! It was a fun evening!

    Joan — Yeah, life has been getting in the way of posts lately, but we had a lot of fun with this one!

    Brigitte — We had a 8-year no-beef guest who was pretty happy, but I understand the stand (I was ovo-lacto for 4-5 years once upon a time). We catch blue crabs all the time, it’s great living near the water on the East Coast! When it comes to eating local, you can’t beat your own backyard!

    Lindsey — Grass fed is all over the map, which is part of the charm. It can be subtle, or intense, depending on what the cattle felt like eating. I’m an avid fisherman, and it’s very similar — I’ve caught deep-sea fish where each tastes differently, even thought they’re the same species. Variety is a great thing!

    Kate — Several guests mentioned that, especially after the shock of the grain filet beating the grass filet. There’s natural tenderness, and then tenderness created through extra fat. A lot of guests thought there would be an obvious difference in favor of the grass-fed, and I think the surprise right out of the gate inspired a few to think a little more throughout the rest of the dinner.

  9. petermarcus says:

    Paula — Thanks! And you really took “Blind Taste Test” to a new level with your 24×24. Your idea was inspired!

  10. Wow! Wonderful presentation and it’s making me want to bribe the hubby into hitting the grill!

  11. What a wonderful idea. I’m an advocate of sustainably raised animals. Being from Iowa there is something to say about grain finished animals. Raised on pasture and the last month or so given grain although still allowed pasture. Never confined. Was the grain meat that you used from a feedlot? You did an amazing job and the photos were wonderful. I felt like I was there!

  12. petermarcus says:

    Diana — Thomas Keller has said he prefers grain-finished beef, too, that it gives just an extra kick of fat to otherwise lean meat. The grain-finished was from a couple local meat stores that supply restaurants. There was nothing special marked on it other than “Angus”, which usually implies industrial feedlot. (PS — my family is from Omaha, so I know that midwest beef very well!)