You may have heard that Thundering Hooves Ranch closed in March 2011. Over the last few years, Thundering Hooves Ranch, located in Walla Walla, has become one the the premier producers of sustainably raised, all grass fed natural beef and a name found on the menus in Seattle. The reasons for the closure are many (a March 16 2011 article in Seattle Times affiliate The Walla Walla Union Bulletin gives a good account if you are interested in details). But the bottom line is that the closure of Thundering Hooves has put a real hole in the availability of natural grass fed beef in the Northwest. Two of the best known local names in natural beef, Country Natural Beef and Painted Hills finish their beef on grain. So what options are there for grass fed beef?
Well, one answer is a new company called Northwest Grass Fed Beef. I have recently had the opportunity to try beef from Northwest Grass Fed and, at the risk of sounding like a cheerleader, their beef is good. Very good. Good enough that we are switching to Northwest Grass Fed Beef at both Le Pichet and Cafe Presse as soon as they can dependably supply us. I tasted their hanger steaks and found that they deliver all the rich, beefy, greasy (I mean that in a good way!) flavor that I hope for from this modest cut. In addition, I found their hanger to be tender when compared to other natural hanger steaks I have tried, which is a bit of a surprise in a cut of meat that is much more prized for its flavor than its texture.
Northwest Grass Fed Beef is a cooperative of sorts recently organized by Corfini Gourmet, a northwest-based distributor specializing in local, natural and sustainable meats. Sean So of Corfini Gourmet says that when Thundering Hooves closed its doors, he and his colleagues recognized that the result would be a shortage in natural, grass feed beef to supply restaurants in Seattle and Portland. According to Sean, there was no one ranch that could come anywhere close to filling the void left by Thundering Hooves. So Corfini began making contacts with a number of small, independent ranchers in Washington and Idaho who, in Sean’s words were “still raising cattle like it was the 1800’s. When I asked them if they used any hormones or anti-biotics, they didn’t understand why they would even want to do that.” Natural, grass raising of cattle is the only way they know to do it. This group became Northwest Grass Fed Beef.
At any given moment, beef from Northwest Grass Fed may be coming from any of about 8 ranches that make up the group. As of this writing, we were getting beef from Boyer Ranch and Heckman Ranch both in Lewiston Idaho.
One side note: The term “natural” beef is generally understood to mean beef raised without antibiotics, growth hormones and with 100% vegetarian feed. Because of the high cost of getting an “Organic” certification, many small, high quality ranchers choose to forgo the formal certification even though they are basically using organic practices. These ranches often use the term “natural” even though it has no legal status as far as I know.
A short discussion might be in order as to why I prefer grass fed beef. I formed most of my opinions about what makes a good steak during the time that I lived in France, where grass feeding is much more common than in the US. Grass feeding yields beef that has less intramuscular fat than grain feeding. The French believe that grass feeding produces beef that has a richer, more concentrated, “beefier” flavor, even if the lower fat level does tend to cause the beef to have a firmer mouth feel and texture. “Firmer mouth feel and texture”, by the way, is the nice way of saying grass fed beef can be less tender than grain finished. I personally think that the higher fat level in grain fed beef can give it a flabby, mushy texture, while on the palette the extra fat can hide the flavor of the meat (contrary to widely held belief, fat does not add flavor to food. It masks flavor by coating the tongue and preventing the transfer of flavors). But if you are looking for a fork tender steak, by all means, get grain fed.
It should also be noted that beef characteristics like flavor, texture and fat content vary strongly with the breed of cow as well, as well as with many other factors. Just as choosing unpasteurized cheese doesn’t guarantee getting good cheese, grain feeding is likewise not a guarantee of quality.
In America (and Japan, as well), where the well-marbled steak is king, the trend in the second half of the 20th century has been toward ever higher levels of grain feeding, culminating with the intensely grain fattened beef varieties like the Japanese Wagyu that seem to have more intramuscular fat than actual muscle. I personally believe that grain feeding of beef in the U.S. began with the rise of industrial agriculture after World War II, when the massive use of petroleum-based fertilizers in American agriculture resulted in a glut of grain and the need to find new uses for it. The result was things like the ubiquity of Coca Cola, processed breakfast cereal and grain feed beef. However, this is my own personal mythology and I am not expert enough to know if this is absolutely true or not. It makes a good story at least. If you are a food historian who can set me straight, please do.
From what I have read, there is very little remaining doubt among nutritionists that grass fed beef is healthier for the consumer than grain fed. Grass fed beef contains much lower levels of saturated fat ( I read that a 6oz steak from a grass fed cow has 100 calories less than the same size and cut of steak from a grain fed cow…p.s. I read this on the website of American Grass Fed Beef Association, so a bit of skepticism is perhaps warranted). Generally speaking, the levels of fat in grass-fed beef is similar to that in pork, which is a big improvement over the fat content in grain finished beef. Grass fed beef is also higher than grain fed in omega-3 fatty acids, also known as “good fat”, although all beef is a pretty poor source for this. If you are really hoping to load up on Omega-3’s, eating fish is a much better way to go. A reasonably good overview of the health benefits of grass fed beef, as well as issues of price, flavor and cooking techniques, appeared in Cooking Light Magazine last March.
The bottom line for me is I like the way grass fed beef tastes. If it is healthier, if it is better for the environment, if it is better for the animal and if it comes from smaller farms, all the better.