All beef is not created equal, and we’ve learned lately that it’s generated some confusion and sometimes – and we’re a little concerned about this aspect – some negative impressions of local meats. This past Wednesday we held a tasting to explore the differences in some of the beef available from local farmers.
Chef Nikos Mantis (Pinetree Catering/Local Motion food truck) prepared and presented three different roasts of beef. Two, provided by our friends at Thunder Bay Meat Processing, our local abattoir, were “ungradable” roasts; the third, an ungraded roast from a prime young animal. Nikos served a thin slice of beef, a savoury dab of dijon mayo and a little micro-green garnish from Veg-e-Tate Market Garden on little crostini, and visitors were invited to start with the sample we knew would be the least desirable and finish with the prime sample.
All three roasts were similar cuts and were cooked in a way to show them at their best. Here’s what we learned:
Sample 1: A hip roast from an ungradeable animal over 30 months old. That means the cow that this roast came from was fully mature, most likely a cull from a dairy herd. Its diet was probably pasture and hay, so it was a lean animal, and dairy cows are bred for different characteristics than beef cattle to start with – resulting in higher milk production, less desirable meat. Our visitors found this sample tough but usually also commented that the flavour was really good. This kind of beef makes great burgers, but isn’t the greatest for roasts.
Sample 2: A hip roast from an ungradeable animal under 30 months old. The animal this sample came from was likely also a dairy cow, but younger than the first sample, and visitors noticed the difference right away. Many samplers commented that they’d be happy to eat this beef. We agree: cooked the right way – low and slow – ungradeable beef can be delicious!
What does ungradeable mean? Ungradeable doesn’t mean inedible; just that it’s not the nicely-marbled stuff you’ll find at the butcher counter. Most of Canada’s mature beef – whether it’s dairy stock or meat stock – is sold as ungraded product. It’s used often in institutional settings, where it is cooked in just the right way by professionals to make it tender and delicious. Ungraded beef is usually less expensive, making it a cost-effective way to feed people.
Sample 3: An eye of round from a prime Sandy Acres animal that was probably about 18 months old when it was processed. This animal was bred, born and raised to be delicious. Beef cattle are different from dairy breeds – bred to develop big muscles and the fat marbling we value so highly. Finished on local grain, beef from farms like Sandy Acres, Tarrymore and Cornell is designed to be cooked by anyone and be delicious on the barbecue or in the crock-pot. No surprise – our samplers found this one the tastiest and most tender.
Why does marbling matter? Marbling – the veins of fat you’ll see running through prime cuts of beef – helps make steaks and roasts delicious; as it warms and melts it adds its richness to the muscle meats around it, making them tastier and more tender. Mature animals and animals not bred and raised to be meat don’t tend to develop this marbling; they’ll be leaner, and generally tougher as a result.
So how do you get the good stuff?
With the exception of MyPride Farms, where they sell [dairy] veal, the beef vendors at the Market are all beef farmers. That makes it pretty easy to buy single cuts, but if you’re buying a side or a whole animal from a farm, you’ll want to take steps to make sure you’re getting the beef you want.
Remember: quality and price are tied pretty closely. You’re already one step closer if you know that there are variations in both in our area. If you’re being offered a too-good-to-be-true deal on local beef, you’ll need to ask questions about the animal before you commit. Always communicate with your farmer! Are you buying from a beef farmer or a dairy farmer? Is this a dairy cow you’re being offered? Is it a mature animal or a prime young animal? Your farmer will be able to answer you easily.
Remember: there’s nothing wrong with ungradeable beef. Cooked properly it’s a really cost-effective way to feed people, but it is more difficult to cook properly and generally requires more time.
We’d like to thank our friends who helped make this tasting possible:
– Thunder Bay Meat Processing for providing our ungradeable – but still pretty tasty! – beef
– Sandy Acres Farms for providing the prime young beef
– Chef Nikos and the staff at Pinetree Catering and Local Motion for staging everything for us