Foodbuzz 24x24: Grass Fed Beef Tasting
The folks at Foodbuzz run a monthly feature called 24x24. 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 24x24. 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!
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:
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!"