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Getting the Best Out of Grass Fed Meats

Well, I lied. Or, I think I did. I think I said, or at least intimated that I’d delved into farmers markets and wouldn’t darken that door again.

Well, Aunt Toby realized that she missed out on an entire section of stuff that gets sold at farmers markets (and increasingly gets sold, I might add), which is meat.

Honest to gosh, shrink wrapped (though usually not on a slab of Styrofoam, in my experience), frozen, labeled with weights on ‘em, meat. And many times, they are labeled with words such as ‘free range’, ‘pasture raised’, ‘grass fed’ and so on. This is to differentiate them from what’s in your butcher or supermarché, which generally is ‘conventionally raised meat’ which means “grain raised”.

And when you see ‘grain raised’, the little voice of reason in your head should be saying, “and that means, ‘corn fed’.”

Not that ranchers and feedlot operators do not feed animals other grains to ‘finish’ off the animals that they are raising for slaughter (and when they say ‘finish’ what they are talking about is NOT ‘finishing the process of growing’ although that is what is happening; they mean ‘putting a finish on and into the meat’ and by that, they mean – fattening the animal up). Most feed rations out there have a combination of grains in them: wheat, corn, rapeseed, alfalfa, etc. Feed Ingredients

But the king of feed grains, due to its price and due to what it does to animals that eat it, is corn. Corn is King.

When the DH and I were raising chickens, lambs and goats for market, we especially used corn in the ration we fed in the winter time because of what was referred to as ‘heat’ – if it was especially cold, a little corn in the ration would keep the animals warmer. Why? Because corn has fat in it that animals can use to keep themselves warm in really cold weather. But in conventionally raised animals, corn feeding causes the muscles (the meat) to contain a relatively higher ratio of one sort of fatty acid than of others. That fatty acid is: Omega 6.

Now, Aunt Toby is not going to get into a discussion about ‘good fat’ and ‘bad fat’ or this Omega vs. that Omega. The human body requires a little bit of all of them; it is the balance that causes all the mischief.
Omega-3 Fatty Acid
Omega-6 Fatty Acid

What I AM going to talk about (because Aunt Toby is all about the pragmatic aspects) is some basic facts about ‘grass-fed’ vs conventionally-raised meats and should you choose to buy them, what you can do to get the best out of the meat.

Because if you try to cook pasture raised meats the same way you cook conventionally-raised meats, your garbage can is going to be very very happy and you will be going back to your farmer and saying, “I want my money back; this tasted like my shoes”.

First things first: Nutritionally, what are the differences between grass raised/pasture raised meats and conventionally raised meats?
1) No matter how you measure it, pasture raised meats have much less overall fat than conventionally raised (grain fed) meat.
2) No matter how you measure it, pasture raised meats have a much smaller % of Omega 6 fatty acids in them than grain fed meat.
3) Grass fed meats have vitamins that conventionally raised meats lack or have much less of. Health Benefits of Grass-Raised meats

From a cooking and “putting on the plate” aspect, what do the first two items mean for consumers?

In meat (whether beef, pork, chicken, turkeys, lamb, etc.), it is fat that carries the flavor of the meat. Let’s not fool ourselves in this – for all the push by the health community toward low fat meats, we’ve ended up with some meats and some cuts of meats that frankly taste like paper towels because they have so little fat in them. At the same time, the lower the percentage of fat in the meat, the more time and care must be taken by consumers to cook it so that it will taste good, feel good in your mouth, cut well and so on. And unfortunately, consumers still think that they can throw a piece of meat or a quarter of a chicken on a grill or into an oven with a high temperature and get something memorable.

Well, it’s memorable all right but it’s not a memory that they want.

Secondly, by any measure, the higher the Omega 6 fatty acids in meat, the higher the temperature can be in the oven or on the grill. I am not an organic chemist, but the difference in cooking conventionally raised chicken and pasture raised could not be more dramatic. With conventional, I can put a piece of chicken in my oven set anywhere between 375 degrees F and 400 degrees F. The fat starts to liquefy very quickly – I can move that piece of chicken from a raw state to the plate in 30-45 min. (depending on whether or not this is boneless chicken or bone-in). Because there is so much fat in the bird, both inside the muscle and on top of the muscle and under the skin, I not only can quickly cook this bird (and get that crispy skin that will cause us all to end up with cancer, right?), but I’m internally basting the muscles with the liquefied fat that is being drawn off the bird by the high heat. The chicken itself does not have a whole lot of flavor to it – a large part of that is the breed (Cornish-Rock crosses which are bred to be the ‘beanstalk’ chickens of the battery world – these go from chick to Styrofoam in 6-8 weeks. They literally have not had time for the muscles to mature enough to gain any flavor) – but the other part of it is that the high heat is moving the flavor-carrying item, the fat, off the muscles much too quickly. At the same time, however, consumers will end up with meat that is cooked and relatively moist.

With pasture raised chicken and turkey, I have to be much more careful. I have to use my meat thermometer a lot because I am looking for a very specific temperature. I have to give myself several hours to cook the bird because I’m starting it at 325 and moving it to 350. No more. It seems to take a very long time, relatively speaking, for the fat to start coming out (and dressed pasture raised birds do not have nearly the same amount of visible fat – unlike conventionally raised birds, I am definitely not taking out great handfuls of fat from the internal cavities and so on). Pasture raised meats cannot be cooked under high heat conditions – because of the low percentage of fat and because of the ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids in the meat, if I try to cook them the same way I can cook conventionally raised meats, I will end up with something resembling shoes. Anyone who has cooked game or wild meats will have the same experience. LOW and SLOW. Pasture raised meats are not something you can leave out on the counter when you leave for work, throw into a hot oven when you get home, and hope to have an edible meal on the table in 45 min. That is a given.

So, if you as a consumer would like to move your family to pasture raised meats (and there are all sorts of good, honest, health and local economic reasons for doing so), my advice to you is this:

1) Get big honkin’ cuts of pasture raised meats: roasts, a turkey, a big roasting chicken.
2) Use your weekends to slowly and tenderly cook this item so that you can have a lovely weekend dinner (hoo-wee – remember those?).
3) Then either slice it up and package for the freezer to be used later on or use it over the week for sandwiches, sliced with gravy for dinners, etc. etc. You will have lovely, flavorful, cooked meat which you as a time-stressed consumer can use as you need it. You won’t have to fire up the oven or grill under stressed conditions.

At the same time, I know there are some readers who are saying to themselves, “But Aunt Toby – pasture raised meats are soooo much more expensive than conventionally raised.”

Yep – Aunt Toby is not going to lie to you – the price per pound is going to be more. But the question comes down to this (and Aunt Toby has discussed this before in terms of price per pound of protein): when you buy meat, what are you buying? What should you be buying?

You buy meat for – protein. That’s what you want to get out of this relationship – not fat and certainly not the type of fat that appears to cause cardio vascular disease and inflammatory syndromes. I’m not saying the pasture raised meats are not expensive – they cost a lot more per pound than conventional ones do – but I am fairly sure that considering what consumers get out of eating them in terms of health benefits, in terms of not paying for fat that gets cooked off, in terms of greater flavor, that they just might be worth it. This is of course totally ignoring the locally grown aspects and the facts that you can, nose to nose, ask the producer exactly what has been given to the animals, how they were treated, and so on. That is ‘feel good’ stuff and is very difficult to quantify – but worth considering in any case.

So, remember, low and slow. We learned this at a wonderful ‘grass fed grilling’ workshop that was arranged by our county Cooperative Extension in support of local grass fed meat producers. If you want one, call and ask your Cooperative Extension or suggest it to the manager of your local farmers market. It will really open your eyes to how meat should taste and feel.

For more information on grass fed meats and how to cook them:

Grass Fed Cooking
Texas Grass Fed Beef
Grass Fed Cooking Tips

(Grass fed roast chicken at the top, courtesy of my son, who followed the directions and produced a really delicious bird, along with roasted carrots, potatoes, and onions. If he can do it, so can you)

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  1. Ian Welsh says:

    Interesting. I buy grass fed occasionally, and wasn’t that impressed. Probably wasn’t cooking it right, so I’ll try slower and cooler next time.


  2. karent says:

    I buy farmer’s market “grass finished” meats all the time. I actually just wrote a post about it last weekend. Another way to tenderize, particularly poultry, is brining. It breaks some of the protein bonds and makes the meat considerably more tender. Cookbooks tell you how to brine your T’giving turkey, but you can do the same to your weekend chicken. K

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