Grass fed Flavor — What Makes the Difference?
by Marilyn Noble, AGA Communications Director
Every once in a while, I hear a comment about the flavor of grassfed meat being off-putting or gamey. That’s usually followed by an “ick” and “I won’t be eating THAT again.” I always feel sad when I hear that, because there’s a person who’s going to miss the enjoyment and health benefits that come from eating grassfed meat. I’ve tasted lots of grassfed, and with the exception of one bison burger about 15 years ago, I’ve never encountered an off or gamey flavor. Minerally? Sometimes. Grassy? Occasionally. Meaty? Always.
Bob Perry of the University of Kentucky’s Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Working Group compares the variations in the flavor of grassfed meats to those found in wine, and he’s absolutely right. In the wine world, terroir is the influence of place on the characteristics of the wine — the geography, soil, and climate where the grapes are grown all impart a complexity to the flavor and body of the wine. The same is true for meat. While grainfed, feedlot beef is uniformly bland because it’s all raised on pretty much the same feed, grassfed flavor varies from region to region and even from farm to farm. Tasting products from different producers can be an eye-opening, palate-changing experience.
Just as the variety of grape plays a major role in the eventual characteristics of the wine, so does the breed of animal influence the flavor and texture of the meat. In addition, the rancher must be able to recognize when the animals are at their peak for harvest — too young and small and the business loses money, too long past their prime and the meat isn’t as tender and delicious. Other factors — animal stress, time of year, processing methods, dry or wet aging — can also have an impact on the flavor.
Most legitimate grassfed producers care about the quality of their products and are constantly looking for ways to improve the eating experience for their customers. If you’re a consumer, shop around until you find the meat that most appeals to your taste buds. Ask questions of the producer and, if something doesn’t taste right to you, let the farmer know. Keep the lines of communication open. No one wants an unhappy customer spreading the word about a bad experience.
If you’re a producer, figure out a way for potential customers to sample your products — set up a grill at the market and offer bites of burgers or steaks. If it’s feasible, instead of selling only halves or quarters, add a smaller sampler pack to your product line so customers can try your products without laying out a substantial amount of money.
The other day I made a meatloaf for one of my private cooking clients, a woman in her 80s who likes her food a bit on the traditional side. She called me the next day and wanted to know what I had done to make the meatloaf so good. She said it reminded her of one her own mother used to make. I told her it was no secret — it was the grassfed beef. She said she had forgotten how meat was supposed to taste. We can all talk about the health benefits and the animal welfare aspects of grassfed production, but when it comes right down to it, the flavor is what will win people over.
So get out there and taste, educate your palate, and support your local farmers by buying their grass-fed products. Most of all, enjoy!