Thursday, November 02, 2006

The best cut is the cheapest.

Slate has a piece by Mark Schatzker on the searing question for us carnivores: what makes for a good steak?

There are several variables considered: breed of cattle, hormones or not, wet vs. dry aging of meat, and, perhaps most important, what the cattle are fed. Schatzker and others (he writes, "We sampled ...", and notes that, except for him, because "Someone had to keep track of things", the tasting was blind) tried five rib eye steaks from four producers (two were a wet and a dry aged cut from the same producer, who "finishes" cattle in a feedlot; these were rated fifth and fourth, respectively, in the taste test) and ranked them.

And the winner was ... grass-fed (i.e. "free range"), hormone-free, mixed-breed (mostly Red Angus), presumably (Schatzker doesn't say) dry-aged beef from the Alderspring Ranch in Idaho. Surprisingly, this was the least expensive of the five, at $21.50 per pound. By contrast, the feedlot finished dry aged beef that placed fourth costs $35 per pound.

Placing second is the second least expensive beef, at $26.70 per pound: "humanely" feedlot finished by Niman Ranch. Unlike "industrial" feedlots, Niman's are less crowded and have shade and showers. The cattle are fed a mixture of grains, instead of the pure corn (maize for readers who use the Queen's English) diet that prevails in the big lots. Moreover, the cattle are given an extra year to enjoy their comfy surroundings, as Bill Niman thinks more aging on the hoof improves the meat.

My surmise is that the relative cheapness of the grass-fed and humane feedlot beef is a temporary anomaly, reflecting consumer ignorance and reliance on USDA grades, which are based solely on the fat content, or "marbling", of the meat. The grass-fed steaks rated highest in Schlatzky's test had the least marbling. The Niman steaks rated second had the most, but Bill Niman won't put a USDA grade on his beef because he "doesn't believe in the direct correlation between marbling and eating quality." (The outcome of Schlatzky's test supports this hypothesis.)

In the long run, however, if consumers discover the superiority of grass-fed beef, its price will go up. This will be not only because of increased demand, but also because of the resulting pressure on the supply of pasture land. This will also affect the price of beef finished on larger, more humane feedlots. Perhaps the best hope for us carnivores who worry about such things is the prospect of meat grown in vitro. I suspect it will be many a year before this can approach the quality of beef raised on the hoof.