Dealing with a skinny steer


When we purchased a quarter of a grass-fed cow (my friend Julie says I should refer to it as a steer — that we don’t eat cows, we drink their milk. Thoughts to confirm from any ranchers out there?), we knew we’d be getting some fairly lean beef. In fact, we actually ordered a second quarter from another farm, to compare fat content (we are splitting all this meat with two other families, so no, we’re not planning to eat a whole side this winter). The first farm pastures their cattle on grass right up until they become freezer-filler; the second farm finishes their cattle on grain, to add a little extra fat into the meat.

We have discovered a few things. First, the ground beef from the fully-grassfed animal is quite lean — around 90% — so it’s much better suited for simmering dishes such as spaghetti sauce or beef chili. Do NOT attempt to make a burger with 90% lean ground beef. It will crumble on your bun, and leave you with a desire for more and more beer to wash down the dry-as-bone burger (wait — is that a bad thing?). By the same token, the ground beef from the grain-finished animal is almost too fatty for ground beef skillet dishes; I found myself pouring off several tablespoons of extra fat from the last batch I cooked.

We haven’t compared steaks yet, but I knew the beef roast would be another big test. I cooked one around New Years — it was a massive hunk of meat, about 5 1/2 pounds, from the grain-finished (i.e., fat) cow. I used a simple slow-roast method, searing the outside on the stove in my Le Creuset dutch oven, then transferring to a 250º oven for about two hours, until the internal temp reached 135º. It was a beautiful rare roast — melt-in-your-mouth tender with wonderfully rich beef flavor.

Last week, I pulled another beef roast out of the freezer. This time, it was from our truly-grassfed, skinny cow. I was a little concerned that we would end up with a roast that was tough and dry, so I tried something I’d read about in The Cook’s Bible: dry-aging. This process is based on letting enzymes present in the muscles of the live animal do further work on the meat after slaughter; the cells containing the enzymes start to break down and release them into the meat. They attack cell proteins and turn them into amino acids, which have more flavor. As a bonus, the tissue becomes softer as well, creating more tender cuts of beef.

You may have heard of dry-aging at restaurants — often times the process takes several weeks. But this is done under very controlled conditions; at home, you can safely age a roast for up to five days (this assumes you are starting with a bright red, odorless cut of meat — not gray or dark red). The Cook’s Bible tests found that 4 days was the optimum length of time for flavor and texture development.

So, I decided to try it. I unwrapped my thawed roast (this time, a more manageable 2 1/2 pounds), set it on a wire rack over a baking sheet, and let it sit uncovered in the refrigerator for four days. The photo above is what it looked like at the end of that time — pretty dried-out on the exterior, but still moist on the inside. I cut off some of the more hard/dry outer pieces, and proceeded with the slow-roasting recipe: tie it up, season, brown on stove, stick in the oven. My kind of main course.


The mouthful analysis was that it was worth it. Even a touch overcooked (darnit!), it was just as flavorful and tender as the roast from the fat cow. Considering that all of that flavor and texture was due to aging rather than fat content, I can only assume that dry aging a roast from the fat steer would send us into some sort of beef otherworld; we might implode from flavor and texture extremes. A beef hangover, if you will, even in the absence of the aforementioned beer wash-down.

The main drawback to this procedure is the required amount of forethought: I’m lucky most days if I remember to pull meat out of the freezer to thaw. But remember 5-6 days in advance? We’ll have to see how often that happens.

Speaking of remembering — how can one forget that Valentine’s Day approaches, especially when you have little ones in school? We are working on two batches of V-day cookies — regular sugar cookies with icing, and a dairy-free version of the same. We’ll also be experimenting with natural food colors for the first time; an update will surely follow. We might choose to ignore the holiday as a couple, but there’s no reason to ignore a perfectly valid excuse to make iced sugar cookies.

This post was part of Real Food Wednesday, hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop.

8 thoughts on “Dealing with a skinny steer

  1. Thanks for the informative experiment, Katy.

    We’re heading to a local brewery for our Valentine’s dinner Sunday evening, and the place boasts steaks with a choice: you can opt for either wet-aged or dry-aged beef – with a significant price jump; now I understand why. Guess which I’ll be going for?

  2. Rebecca, I don’t even know what wet-aged is — never heard of it (though I’d heard of dry-aged before this experiment). I’m curious. You should each get a different one, and compare!

    Ed — I think you’re right on the wild game comparison; though I have no experience with such (here’s hoping I get the opportunity sooner rather than later). The meat was processed by USDA-approved facilities chosen by the individual farm. Our 100% grass-fed quarter was from a farm called Skillington; the grain-finished beef was from Fischer Farms. Both are located somewhere outside Indianapolis.

  3. That grass-fed beef roast sounds pretty delicious. I’m curious whether either of the two beefs you bought were aged by the butcher in the first place. On average, I find that farms/ranches that sell their beef directly tend to have the butcher dry-age the beef for at least 7 days and often more. Either way, you’re right, aging (whether wet or dry) can definitely have a huge impact on tenderness and flavor.

    I’d be curious to hear how the steaks from the two farms compare (try tasting them blind). While lean burger meat can be less juicy, one thing that really surprised me a few years back (and ever since) was to discover how marbling/fat has a pretty small impact on tenderness and also flavor. On balance, I like nicely marbled beef (esp. nicely marbled grass-fed & finished beef) but I’ve many times preferred the flavor and texture of a leaner steak or burger in blind tastings.

  4. Carrie, those are great points.

    I did know that at least one of the processors aged the whole carcass before it was processed (interestingly — I know it was the processor of the fattier beef! — I’ll have to check on the other farm). What I didn’t know was whether that meant the meat was “aged” to a maximum. I also don’t know how one type of cut would compare to itself aged and not-aged, and it’s worth a future taste test. We have a limited number of roasts from each cow (since we’re splitting with other families) so it might take waiting for our next one.

    We do plan to do a blind test with steaks! We will probably grill them when the weather gets warmer, have the other cow-sharing families over, and do a full-on multiple-person blind test. Fun times — and I’ll surely post the results.

    The burgers — in our experience with leaner beef, we just didn’t like them (and you’re right — it has more to do with it being less juicy than with flavor or texture). Maybe we just like greasy burgers? That too is worth some testing when grilling weather returns.

  5. This intrigues me…hope to try it soon.

    So did you salt or brine it before you dried it? I’ve seen where Cook’s does a heavy kosher salting with the idea that juices get drawn up to the surface by the salt, dissolving the salt, and then taking salt and juice back down into the center of the meat. But they had the meat covered and only let it sit for 24 hours. Any thoughts as to how salting and/or seasoning on the front-end would affect this process for the better or worse?

  6. Scott, I did not. I’ve not read much about brining beef — just poultry and maybe a pork roast?

    I would think that salting it beforehand would negate they “dry” part of the aging process, since it would bring moisture to the surface. Perhaps you could age it, then brine? Although that might be doing the same thing. Worth checking into more — it seems like brining poultry and aging beef have similar results: tenderizing and adding flavor — but not sure why one process is chosen over another.

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