Care About Grass-Fed Beef? Befriend Your Freezer



July is the best time to kill a grass-fed beef cow, if you ask me. The animal has been fattened on months of neon-green spring forage. Such a cow won't be as big in July as it would have been in October, but spring grass-finished meat has a cleaner, sweeter taste, and is dripping with yummy fat.

March, on the other hand, is probably the worst time to slaughter a grass-fed beef cow. At the end of a long winter spent chewing nothing but hay, the animal's fat content, body weight, and spirits are down. The meat is no longer what it was last July, or what it will be again next July.

This seasonal variation makes life hard for ranchers attempting to make a living off grass-fed beef, because most Americans are stuck in the habit of buying fresh meat rather than frozen. To supply that fresh meat year-round, animals must be slaughtered year-round. In winter, this gives feedlot operations a serious advantage over grass-fed operations, because the feedlots can keep the animals big and fat by controlling diet. The grass-fed cattle, meanwhile, start to waste away in winter. It sounds unpleasant, but it's natural, and this lifestyle is responsible for grass-fed beef's superior nutritional profile.

Consumers want to eat grass-fed beef, and ranchers want to raise it. But until American shopping habits change and consumers are ready to accept frozen meat,
grass-fed beef will probably remain a niche market.

If buying frozen meat were more widely accepted, ranchers could run their operations more efficiently and more comfortably. Rather than trying to squeeze a steer through a second winter in order to slaughter it for the fresh market in March, the rancher could have slaughtered and frozen that same animal the previous July. That would have resulted in tastier, healthier flesh from an animal that required eight fewer months of tending. This is an example of a better product that's cheaper and easier to produce.

Keeping meat fresh is more labor- and energy-intensive, and presents more opportunities for errors that could compromise food safety or quality. Nonetheless, consumers readily pay more for fresh meat against their own best interest.

Grass-fed beef is an entirely different animal than grain-fed, in terms of nutritional value, environmental footprint, and the animal's quality of life. Consumers want to eat grass-fed beef, and ranchers want to raise it. But until American shopping habits change and consumers are ready to accept frozen meat, grass-fed beef will probably remain a niche market.

A change in American shopping habits would have to parallel changes at home. Most families don't have big chest freezers, and aren't used to transferring hunks of frozen meat to the fridge, earmarked for tomorrow's supper.

But frozen meat is usually cheaper, and buying in bulk can drop the price even more. Paying hundreds in a single purchase takes a little getting used to, but in the long run getting into the bulk, frozen meat rhythm is a smart financial decision that will pay dividends for years after the freezer is paid for. If you play your cards right you can end up eating amazing meat for a reasonable price.

Researching a bulk purchase can be fun, be it at your local farmers' market, at a store with connections to local ranchers, or online. Buy samples of meat from various vendors, decide which you like, compare prices, and negotiate a bulk order for the meat you like best. Make sure the price includes cutting and wrapping, and make sure it's done right. Many horror stories of poorly wrapped, freezer-burned meat have been told, and such examples might be partly responsible for American skepticism toward frozen meat. But if meat is packaged correctly there will be no loss of quality.

Most American butchers will grind about half the animal into burger unless you request otherwise. I prefer to grind very little, because I'm a fan of the tough chunks as they are, with gristle, cartilage, and other connective tissues embedded in the meat. These pieces have the most flavor, if you know how to cook them.

Mark Schatzker: Is Aged Beef Overrated?
Nathan Deuel: The American Way of Beef
Helene York: The Myth of Green Beef

I like to put a two-pound hunk of shank, flank, neck, or some other tough piece in a cast-iron pan under the broiler, turning it often until it develops a nice brown crust. I often do this with a packet of frozen-solid meat, run under hot water just long enough to unstick it from the bag.

After browning the meat all around, I fill the space around it with a 50/50 mix of water and red wine, five to 10 bay leaves, a few whole peeled garlic cloves, and some salt and pepper. I braise it, with a lid on, for about four hours at 300 F, adding water and wine as necessary to keep the meat half-covered.

Four hours sounds like an awfully long time to wait, certainly longer than for a hamburger, but the prep time is probably less. Most of those four hours roll by effortlessly, interrupted only by the occasional fluid replenishment and sample taking.

The soft, moist, creamy meat that emerges from the oven is a mere starting point for many other dishes, but it can also be a finished product. Once it's fully soft I like to cook it with green chile and garlic. Osso buco is made in similar fashion. You can go the traditional stew route with the above recipe by, in the final hour of the braise, adding veggies like carrots, onions, and celery.

Anyone can thaw and cook a steak. But only when you can cook a foreshank until the connective tissue melts into non-fat butter will you be ready to make the switch from fresh to frozen. At that point you'll be able to handle anything your freezer has to offer. And as you eat well, you can feel happy that you've helped improve the quality of life of some good rancher near you.