Not until Carrie Oliver made me do it, did I put so much effort into thinking about beef. Before that encounter, beef was simply a protein option for my dinner. Now, thanks to Carrie, I’ll never look at it, let alone taste beef the same way again. It all started when Mr. Oyster and I attended a beef tasting led Oliver Ranch, specifically Carrier Oliver, a woman with many monikers: Beef Whisperer, Beef Lady, Meat Lady, Beef Sommelier and a few others that I’ve forgotten. Carrie Oliver is a force to be reckoned with, she is passionate about her subject, and approaches it with zeal. My kind of person.
Before that fateful night, mostly as a result of moving away from the Midwest, I’ve consumed less meat, and while I still enjoy a good steak, its not something that frequently appears on my plate. I also found that when I did consume a steak, just as often as not, I was disappointed in the experience; sometimes the taste was not what anticipated, or the mouthfeel was not what I expected – too buttery or chewy. I confess that beyond that feeling of disappointment, I did not give it much thought until I encountered Carrie Oliver via Twitter (@CarrieOliver). She’s changed my life, well certainly my view of beef. I really enjoyed this experience because it combined my two favorite activities: enjoying food tasting coupled with an educational opportunity.
A Meaty Topic
Beef is not one of the world’s leading proteins, lagging behind among others goat and poultry, but from my vantage point here in the US, you would never know. The following list identifies the world’s leading importers, no real surprises. China, per person does not eat much beef, but if you factor in their population, that little per person does not take long to add up.
Top Beef and Cattle Importers (2001)
M. East and N. Africa
CEECs (Central and Eastern European Countries)
(Source: Canada Broadcasting Assoc.)
In the United States, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) operates a voluntary beef grading program. The meat processor pays for a AMS meat grader to make his or her determination in compliance with Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) grade labeling procedures. There are eight beef quality grades. The grades are based on two main criteria:
- the degree of marbling (intramuscular fat) in the beef
- the maturity (estimated age of the animal at slaughter)
Some meat scientists object to the USDA grading method as it is not based on direct measurement of tenderness, although marbling and maturity are indicators of tenderness. Most beef offered for sale in supermarkets is graded US Choice or Select. US Prime beef is sold to hotels and upscale restaurants. Beef rated as US Standard or less is almost never offered for grading (at some point the grade starts working against you). Many other countries follow the US model.
U.S. Prime – Highest in quality and intramuscular fat, limited supply. Currently, about 3% of meat is graded as Prime.
U.S. Choice – High quality, and widely available. Choice grade accounts for ~ 54% of the feed cattle total. The difference between Choice and Prime is largely due to the fat content in the beef. Prime typically has a higher fat content than Choice, and is more evenly distributed (also known as “marbling”).
U.S. Select (formerly Good) – lowest grade commonly sold at retail, acceptable quality but less juicy and tender due to leanness.
U.S. Standard – Lower quality yet economical, lacking marbling.
U.S. Commercial – Low quality, lacking tenderness, produced from older animals.
Also rated but rarely seen (I hope) are U.S. Utility, U.S. Cutter, U.S. Canner, and Utility, Cutter, and Canner grade – rarely used in foodservice operations and primarily used by processors and canners.
Traditionally, beef sold in steakhouses and supermarkets is advertised by its USDA grade; however, many restaurants and retailers now advertise beef on the strength of brand names (Neiman Ranch for example) and the reputation of a specific breed of cattle, such as black Angus, although this is misleading as all it takes is for the cow to have more than 51% black hair to receive that designation.
Special beef designations
Certified Angus Beef (CAB) is a branded-beef program was established in 1978 by Angus cattle producers due to the increasing demand for their product. They promote the impression that Angus cattle have consistent, high-quality beef with superior taste. The brand is owned by the American Angus Association and its 35k+ rancher members. The terms Angus Beef or Black Angus Beef are loosely and frequently misused and/or confused with CAB, mostly in the foodservice industry. The brand or name Certified Angus Beef cannot be legally used by an establishment that is not licensed to do so. However, Black Simmental beef may also be included in the certified Angus Beef program.
Other designations include:
Certified Hereford Beef is certified to have come from Hereford cattle.
Grass fed beef was raised primarily on forage rather than in a feedlot.
Kobe beef: Wagyu breed cattle raised and fattened in the hills above Kobe, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan. During the fattening period, the cattle are hand-fed (using high-energy feed, including beer and beer mash) and hand-massaged for tenderness and high fat content.
Halal beef is certified to have been processed in accordance with Muslim dietary laws.
Kosher beef is certified to have been processed in accordance with Jewish dietary laws.
Organic beef is produced without added hormones, pesticides, or other chemicals, though requirements for labeling something organic vary widely.
The European Union (EU) recognises the following Protected Designation of Origin beef brands
Spain – Carne de Ávila, Carne de Cantabria, Carne de la Sierra de Guadarrama, Carne de Morucha de Salamanca, Carne de Vacuno del País o Euskal Okela
France – Taureau de Camargue, Boeuf charolais du Bourbonnais, Boeuf de Chalosse, Boeuf du Maine
Portugal – Carne Alentejana, Carne Arouquesa, Carne Barrosã, Carne Cachena da Peneda, Carne da Charneca, Carne de Bovino Cruzado dos Lameiros do Barroso, Carne dos Açores, Carne Marinhoa, Carne Maronesa, Carne Mertolenga, Carne Mirandesa
United Kingdom – Orkney Beef, Scotch Beef, Welsh Beef
Aging and tenderization
To improve tenderness of beef, it often is aged (i.e., stored refrigerated) to allow enzymes to weaken structural and myofibrillar proteins. This is accomplished by either wet or dry aging.
Wet aging uses vacuum packaging to reduce spoilage and yield loss.
Dry aging involves hanging primals (usually ribs or loins) in humidity-controlled coolers. The outer surfaces dry out and can support growth of molds (and spoilage bacteria, if too humid), resulting in the need to trim and evaporative losses (blood and juices drain from the meat). Evaporation concentrates the remaining proteins, increasing the flavor intensity, and the molds can contribute a nut-like flavor. The majority of the tenderizing effect occurs in the first ten days, although two to three days produces significant effects.
Boxed beef is distributed in vacuum packaging, and so effectively is wet aged during distribution and storage. Premium steakhouses dry age for 21 to 28 days, or wet age up to 45 days for maximum effect on flavor and tenderness. Meat from less tender cuts or older cattle can be mechanically tenderized – punctured with hundreds of blades. Also, exogenous proteolytic enzyme solutions can be injected to supplement the existing enzymes. Likewise, solutions of salt and sodium phosphates can be injected to improves juiciness and tenderness. The salts can improve the flavor, but phosphate may add a soapy flavor.
Digging In – Meat Camp
How it Started:
Carrie, a marketing expert extraordinaire, was struck, when she attended an industry event where the experts she talked to regarding beef could not answer, what she thought were some pretty fundamental questions, because they had never looked at beef through her lens as a marketer. She looked at the beef industry and had what sounds like an epiphany – ah ha, it mirrors the wine industry in its toddler years – there were a lot of gaps that could be filled in. She was also frustrated that when she purchased her premium cut steak from her grocer that the experience could be vastly different each time. One meal it was fantastic, and the second, well – blah! However, unlike me, she decided to do something about it.
She mapped the similarities she found between the beef and wine industry and realized there was no way to compare different beef – in the wine industry, taste testing abounds. Inspired, she purchased an assortment of different beef samples and have her neighbors over for a taste testing. They discovered, for themselves, the differences and nuances, but Carrie recognized that there was no common vocabulary to describe the the various components. She worked with some culinary experts to standardize the meanings so when people described the taste or texture they had a solid and consistent method to compare opinions. We used three scales she developed:
- Texture: tough → mushy
- Personality and Character: reserved → adventurous
- Impression: brief → long lasting
For each scale she had a list of adjectives to help us identify where we thought the meat we tasted fit in that scale. Additionally, she had a wide list of descriptions to help us pick out the flavors we tasted in the beef.
How It Works:
Each presentation can vary depending on the venue available, and who helps host. Canvas Underground helped host this event and they were outstanding. I’d long wanted to attend one of their events and was not disappointed. They are part of the Ghetto Gourmet and their mission is ” Cooking is for people first. We do this to bring people together over a great meal, confident that eating together creates friendships, and friendships change the world.” The venue was at the home of Rebecca Alon of Slow Food Berkley and her housemates, and upon our arrival, we found Peter Jackson of Miss Pearl’s Jam House, preparing the steaks and other dishes for our dining pleasure.
However before we dug into the tasty tidbits, Carrie had an educational session for us. We were treated to a rancher’s perspective, Seth Nischke of Open Space Meats on raising meat humanely and organically. Seth pointed out that contrary to conventional wisdom, the less he did for his cows the better off they were. He found that by letting them feed on what they desired, instead of forcing a particular food on them, and only disrupting them briefly when it was time to separate the herd to extract the cattle for the market, they were much healthier and better off.
Carrie also recruited an artisinal butcher (Tracy Smaciarz) of Heritage Meat, to speak to the group about how he selects his meat and prepares his meats. His drive and commitment to his work really came through.
Carrie, Seth and Tracy all rotated around the tables answering questions are the night went on, making it a very educational experience. One point they all raised, that I found interesting, was that the rancher might be doing the very best for the cattle, but if at the point of slaughter or beyond, the next person in the chain does not treat the animal well, then all is for naught.
The arrangement varies by venue, but we were instructed in our email to abstain from drinking wine until after the tasting as some varitels may overwhelm the flavor of the beef and defeat the purpose of the tasting. A folder containing a comment sheet and a tip sheet defining the tastes and scale is provided.
We had two tasting plates, each one with three slices of beef to a plate. A color coded piece of paper was placed next to each piece of beef so we knew which one to reference when making our comments.
Brittany Piehl took photos in addition to creating a wonderful desert. This link has several photos from the event and as you can see, Mr. Oyster and I are enthralled in the discussion.
Who Should Attend:
Consumers – People like me, curious about their food and interested in learning more. Because, really, how often are you going to purchase and prepare six different slices of beef and have a taste testing? I learned a lot more of what appealed to me in terms of taste and texture, in a way I never considered before. Beef was always, well, just beef.
Ranchers – What a great opportunity to understand how their meat matches up against other producers.
Food Industry Experts – People who want to understand what a real difference exists between all the meats
The Meat We Sampled
Wet-Aged, Grass Finished Angus Cross
Northern MO & West Central IL
Jim Wood, Jim Crum, Kenneth & Pat Suter
US Wellness Meats
Dry-Aged, Grain Finished Charolais
Front Range Region, CO
Ellicott & Ferris Families
Colorado’s Best Beef
NOTE: Can also be secured through Oliver Ranch
Dry-Aged, Grass-Finished Angus Cross
Sierra Nevada/Costal Hills, San Joaqui, Carson Valley, NV
Seth & Mica Nitschke
Open Space Meats
Wet-Aged, Grain Finished Wagyu-Angus
Under Direction of RJ Freeborn
Kobe Beef America
NOTE: Can also be secured through Oliver Ranch
Dry-Aged, Grass-Finished Registered Black Angus
Scott River Valley, Siskiyou County
Jeff & Erin Fowle
KK Bar Ranch
Dry-Aged, Grass-Finished, Black Angus-Cross
Scott River Valley, Siskiyou County
Gareth & Melinda Plank
Scott River Ranch
As you can see some meat was dry-aged, and some wet-aged. I did not discern a difference, although looking back over my notes, my two favorites that night were both dry-aged. I can say, I was amazed at how different all the meats were in terms of texture, personality, impression and tasting.
Carrie also pointed out that none of the meat we sampled would have secured the Prime classification or maybe even the Choice, but that was due to fat content, or lack of, in the case of these meats. They were all delicious and dispelled the notion that you need a lot of fat on your meat to convey taste.
After we completed our six samples, Chef Jackson awed us with a few small plates:
Sweet Potato Agnolotti with Meyer Lemon Sauce (recipe below)
Mushroom and Chicory Salad with Ancho Chili and Cypress Grove Goat Cheese with Pumpkin Seed Sauce
Here’s a recipe of the Meyer Lemon Sauce that was drizzled over Chef Jackson’s sweet potato agnolotti that melted in our mouths:
Meyer Lemon Sauce
Juice and grated zest of 1 large Meyer lemon
½ c honey
½ c water
1 lb butter
1 T lecithin powder
s + p to taste
Combine the lemon juice, zest honey and water in a medium sauce pan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low and reduce by half. Whisk in the lecithin powder, then the butter a little at a time. When all the butter is incorporated, remove from heat and whip until very frothy with a hand blender. Adjust to taste with honey, lemon, salt and pepper.
Topping off the evening we had a delicious orange cornbread cake by Brittany Piehl.
I learned that there is so much more to this meat business than I imagined. No longer is beef just a protein option for me. In addition to the wet versus dry aging process, I must consider the sustainability and organic issues, grass fed, and type of breed. True, the more I learn, the more complicated it gets, but also the more interesting. The situation reminds me of when I first started drinking wine – “Make mine a red”, and now look at me.