When Bluestem Brasserie opened two years ago in San Francisco, the owners made a firm commitment to serving grass-fed beef. They even named the restaurant after an indigenous North American grass, popular for pasturing cattle.
But outside of a certain dining set, it wasn’t a terrifically marketable decision. Very few cattle in this country graze on bluestem these days. By some estimates, more than 97% of American beef is grain-fed, though the virtues of grass-fed beef are well established: It’s healthier, safer and better for the environment than grain-fed beef, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group. At Bluestem Brasserie, Executive Chef Francis Hogan understands that because grass-fed beef is still a niche product, it requires special attention to customer perceptions. “If someone is accustomed to a traditional grain-fed rib-eye, laden with abundant marbling and a heavy fat coating, they will not get what they are expecting by ordering a grass-fed rib-eye,” Hogan says. It doesn’t help that grass-fed beef currently costs about three times as much as conventional beef offerings.
Issues of ethics, sustainability, convenience and flavor swirl around all eaters, but restaurateurs, ever conscious of the bottom line, face perhaps the most complicated trade-offs at the butcher shop. How much do customers really want to know about the source of their dinner? What is an acceptable price point for more nutritious meat?
And what about taste? Intra-muscular fat, or “marbling,” is the basis of our beef rankings, from Prime (“abundant” marbling) all the way down to Standard (“practically devoid”), and grain is more fattening for cattle than grass. Furthermore, grain-fed cattle are typically confined to small spaces that radically limit movement, leading to underdeveloped musculature and ultimately, more tender meat.
Still, expectations may be changing for the next generation of beef eaters. Grass-fed beef has a growing fan base in chefs and customers willing to re-discover cow meat. According to The American Grassfed Association, membership is growing and there has been a positive feedback loop between professional and home cooks. As Marilyn Noble, Communications Director for the AGA remarks, “Chefs have been able to show their guests that grassfed is flavorful and tender, and that may take the fear away from some consumers who have been reluctant to spend the money to cook it at home. After all, you don’t want to ruin a forty dollar steak.” And customer demand also plays a role: “If customers weren’t asking for grass-fed, they wouldn’t be putting it on their menus.”
One way to open up customers’ palates is for restaurants to compare and contrast beef-raising techniques in a side-by-side presentation – not unlike a flight of wines. For $60, Urban Farmer Steakhouse in Portland, Oregon, offers a “New York Steak Tasting,” which serves up a selection of six-ounce steaks, each raised in a different way: Oregon grass-fed, California corn-fed, and Oregon grain-finished – that is, grass-fed until a final period of fattening – and for those seeking a truly thorough taste test, a fourth steak, of Wagyu beef, is available for a $30 supplement.
According to Matt Christianson, Executive Chef of Urban Farmer, the steak tasting offers customers an opportunity to learn about beef varieties through personal experience. “To describe the difference between the qualities of each type of beef always falls short on words,” Christianson says. “Within a steak tasting, you get the fullness of the description within your mouth on only one visit. Then when you return you are empowered to make the best choice for yourself and assist your dining partners with their choice.” Many customers find they prefer grass-fed beef in terms of flavor and texture, and not just on environmental or ethical grounds.
Urban Farmer is also the only restaurant that serves Laney Classic beef, raised on grass before it is finished with brewer’s mash from Oregon’s Rogue Brewery. The restaurant, which bills itself as “Portland’s Steakhouse,” does all its own butchering – and the chef notes, “We render our own tallow and burn it in our candles at the table, we wash our hands with soap made from our leftover fats.” (One is reminded of the first episode of “Portlandia,” when a customer asks a waitress if “Colin,” the chicken he is about to eat, was raised on local hazelnuts and had chicken friends he could put his “little wing around.”)
Ultimately, the most effective way for restaurants to promote grass-fed beef is likely to be through cooking, as chefs learn to bring out the best in the meat. “I treat grass-fed beef much like I would game meats,” says Hogan, which means taking the time to tenderize the flesh, because pastured cattle have firmer muscles, and holding back on marinades that might compete with the flavors imparted from the cattle’s own diet. After an initial hot sear, lower temperatures can help prevent the lean meat from drying out, and Christianson finds that for grass-fed beef, “dry-aging is crucial, as it allows the enzymes in the meat to break down the structure and make the meat more tender.”
Meat, especially beef, is a hot topic now. Earlier this month, scientists at the University of Maastricht made news by taste-testing the world’s first in vitro hamburger, grown entirely from cells instead of cattle. The New York Timesreported that the burger “was dry and a bit lacking in flavor,” which must have been disappointing, since it cost $325,000 to develop.
By comparison, grass-fed beef looks like a real bargain, and folks may be starting to catch on. Slowly. Chef Hogan reflects, “People are really starting to understand and appreciate what grass-fed beef has to offer and how beneficial it is, both in personal health and to the ecosystem.” And someday, we may even be willing to pay a premium for it.
Photo above courtesy of Laney Family Farm. Matt Christianson, chef at Urban Farmer, carries a leg of grass-fed beef.