Can you tell how good a steak is going to taste by looking at it? The government thinks you can. That's why, when a USDA meat grader assesses the quality of a beef carcass, he or she makes an incision between the 12th and 13th rib, takes a good look at how much marbling there is, and assigns the meat a grade, from the highest, Prime, to Choice and Select and all the way down to Canner. That's why a well-marbled steak, one that is abundantly flecked with little specks and streaks of white fat, costs a lot more than a steak that's all red muscle.
But is marbling all there is to a good steak? Doesn't, say, a cow's diet have something to do with the way a steak tastes? And can someone please explain why that gargantuan USDA Prime strip loin I ate in Las Vegas last year had about as much flavor as a cup of tap water? I decided to find out for myself. My mission: to taste steaks from cattle raised in very different ways and see how they stack up.
To understand good steak, it helps to know a thing or two about how it gets on your plate. These days, most calves are born on ranches, suckled by their mothers, and then sent out to pasture. When they reach 6 months, they're sent to a feedlot where they're "finished" on grain, usually corn. Grain isn't a cow's natural diet, but it's the feed of choice for two reasons: It makes cattle gain weight quickly, and it results in well-marbled beef.
But according to the ranchers and food scientists I spoke to, there's a lot more to a good rib-eye than intramuscular fat. A few other factors to consider:
Breed. Angus is currently the most popular among North American ranchers. This is partly due to economics—Angus cattle mature quickly and put on weight well—but also because Angus beef is reliably marbled and tender. Not all well-marbled steaks come from Angus cows, however. Grain-feeding techniques have become so effective that even dairy cattle (such as Holsteins) can achieve a grade of Prime. (According to Cattle-Fax, a cattle-marketing information service, 17 percent of American beef comes from dairy cattle.) Does a Prime steak from a dairy cow taste as good as a Prime steak from an Angus cow? Every rancher, meat packer, and butcher I spoke to told me an Angus steak would taste better. But good luck telling the two apart at the supermarket.
Feed. Just as soil affects the quality of wine, a cow's diet can change the quality of its flesh. Some North American cattle are finished on wheat or barley rather than corn. Is there a difference? One rancher told me that barley makes for flavorful beef and warned that wheat can make beef tough. Another rancher said, "Corn is the worst. It results in the greatest lack of flavor in beef." And what about grass-fed beef? Raising a cow on grass alone is ecologically friendly. But does it taste any good?
Hormones. Almost all feedlot cows are injected with growth hormones to help them gain muscle mass; critics charge that doing so merely causes cows to retain water and produces bland meat.
Aging. Steak from a freshly slaughtered cow is stringy and tough. For this reason, beef is aged, a process that tenderizes it and enriches the flavor. Traditionally, beef was hung in a cold room, where natural enzymes would break down the muscle fibers. Dry aging, as it's known, isn't cheap. The beef loses weight to evaporation, and the moldy crust that develops on the exterior has to be lopped off, which makes the remaining beef more expensive. In the 1970s, industrial meat processors opted for wet aging—sealing entire cuts of beef in cellophane—because it's cheaper. But most beef connoisseurs agree that dry-aged beef tastes better.
Before you walk into your neighborhood butcher and say, "Three rib-eye Angus steaks, please, pastured in the Rocky Mountain foothills, finished on barley, but with a hint of oats, and dry-aged for 28—no, make that 29—days," keep in mind that as a consumer, such choice does not exist. That said, if you scour specialty butcher shops or Google "steak," you'll discover other options, including naturally raised, grain-fed, and grass-fed beef. Which leaves carnivores with the question: Which steak tastes the best?
We sampled rib-eye steaks from the best suppliers I could find. The meat was judged on flavor, juiciness, and tenderness and then assigned an overall preference. The tasting was blind, except for me. (Someone had to keep track of things.) Cooking method: Each steak was sprinkled with kosher salt, then sent to a very hot gas-fired grill, flipped once, and, when just verging on medium-rare, was removed and rested under foil for five minutes.
From worst (which, in all fairness, was still a decent steak) to first:
USDA Prime Beef, Wet Aged
Price: $32.50 per pound
Purveyor: Allen Brothers (www.allenbrothers.com)
What it is: The best beef the industrial system has to offer. Only 2 percent of steak receives the lofty grade of Prime.
The knock against it:Feedlots are often nasty places, infamous for their cramped conditions, unnatural diets, contaminated groundwater, and clouds of fecal dust. These steaks may have come from one of the more humane operations. Unfortunately, it's simply not possible to know.
Breed:Impossible to say, though Allen Brothers' suppliers guarantee that their steaks are from high-quality beef breeds, the majority of which are Angus.
Raw impressions: Of all the competitors, these USDA Prime steaks looked the best raw. They had a pleasing shape, no unappetizing thick veins of fat, and abundant marbling. One taster's note: "Now those look like the kind of steaks I'd spend money on."
Tasting notes: This steak was juicy and so tender you could have practically cut it with a Q-tip. The only problem? Flavor—there wasn't much. Comment: "Not something that would have impressed me had I bought it at the supermarket."
USDA Prime Beef, Dry Aged
Price:$35 per pound
Purveyor:Allen Brothers (www.allenbrothers.com)
Raw impressions: Visually, it was impossible to distinguish the dry-aged from the wet-aged rib-eyes.
Tasting notes: This steak had more flavor than its wet-aged sibling. Tasters described it as "woody" and "smoky," although the texture reminded one taster of liver. Despite all the time it spent hanging in a cold room losing moisture, it seemed juicier than the wet-aged steak.
Price: $40 per pound
Purveyor: Strube Ranch Gourmet Meats (Wagyu beef from a different supplier can be purchased online here: www.morganranchinc.com/store/index.shtml)
What it is:The Japanese have a thing for incredibly marbled beef, which is known as Kobe beef. According to legend, they feed cows a secret ancient recipe that includes beer and keep their muscles tender by massaging them with sake. This beef was raised on American soil, so it can't technically be called Kobe. But the breed—called Wagyu—is the one that the Japanese use, and the method of raising them is comparably particular. At about 9 months of age, Wagyu cattle are sent to a small, Kobe-style feedlot, where they spend more than a year eating a diet that includes some corn, but a lot of roughage as well. After that, they're sent to a finishing lot where they eat an all-natural but top-secret diet.
The knock against it: The price. Also, there are Wagyu-beef enthusiasts who say cooking it like a regular steak will lead to disappointment and an acute sense of having been ripped off. As the "foie gras" of beef, they maintain, it's better suited to searing or being served raw in, say, a miso-ginger-sesame-sake dressing.
Raw impressions: On looks alone, this steak faired the worst. The fat appeared pallid, and the meat possessed a gamey smell that had some tasters wondering if it had gone off.
Tasting notes: When cooked, though, what started out as a peculiar aroma mellowed into a distinctive taste that everyone enjoyed, although to varying degrees. (One person said: "I like it in the same way I like blue cheese.") The consensus: "Gamey, strong flavor. I like it."
Naturally Raised Grain-Fed Beef
Price: $26.70 per pound
Purveyor: Niman Ranch (www.nimanranch.com)
What it is: As with industrial beef, these cattle are finished on grain at a feedlot, which makes for well-marbled steak that is consistently tender. But Niman Ranch claims to raise cattle "with dignity." Feed is sourced locally. The feedlot is less crowded and features shaded areas and sprinklers where cattle can cool off. Niman Ranch cattle are finished on a blend of grain—including barley, corn, soy beans, and distiller's dry grain—along with plenty of roughage, which makes the grain easier on bovine stomachs. Also, Niman Ranch waits an extra year before sending cattle to the feedlot on the theory that steaks from an older cow, though slightly less tender, will taste better.
The knock against it: It's pricey.
Breeds:Angus, Hereford, and Short Horn
Raw impressions: Niman Ranch doesn't sell its beef based on a USDA grade because Bill Niman doesn't believe in the direct correlation between marbling and eating quality. That said, these steaks were the most marbled of the bunch.
Tasting notes: Gustatory joy. Everyone loved this steak, declaring it juicy, tender, and, most importantly, bursting with flavor. Comments were roundly flattering, proclaiming it to be "full bodied" with "a good steaky taste," "mouth-filling and rich—holy cow!"
And the winner is…
Price:$21.50 per pound
Purveyor: Alderspring Ranch (www.alderspring.com)
What it is: Beef from cows that have never ingested anything other than mother's milk and pasture, which is just as Mother Nature intended. Like great wine and cheese, grass-fed beef possesses different qualities depending on where it's grown and what time of year it's harvested. The grass-fed steaks for this experiment came from a ranch in Idaho where cattle graze on orchard grass, alfalfa, clover, and smooth brome (a type of grass) in the summer and chopped hay in the winter. Also: Some studies have shown that grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and higher in omega-3 fatty acids, making it healthier than regular beef.
The knock against it: Consistency, or lack thereof. One grass-fed rancher I spoke to refused to send me any steak for this article because, he said, it sometimes tastes like salmon. Restaurants and supermarkets don't like grass-fed beef because like all slow food, grass-fed beef producers can't guarantee consistency—it won't look and taste exactly the same every time you buy it. Grass-fed beef also has a reputation for being tough.
Breeds: Alderspring cattle are 90 percent Black and Red Angus, with some Hereford and Short Horn, Salers, and Simmental bred in. ("Red Angus cattle finish particularly well on grass," according to Glenn Elzinga, who runs Alderspring Ranch.)
Raw impressions: Not good. It had the least marbling, and what little fat it had possessed a yellowy tinge.
Tasting notes: Never have I witnessed a piece of meat so move grown men (and women). Every taster but one instantly proclaimed the grass-fed steak the winner, commending it for its "beautiful," "fabu," and "extra juicy" flavor that "bursts out on every bite." The lone holdout, who preferred the Niman Ranch steak, agreed that this steak tasted the best, but found it a tad chewy. That said, another taster wrote, "I'm willing to give up some tenderness for this kind of flavor."
Marbling, schmarbling. The steak with the least intramuscular fat tasted the best—and was also the cheapest. That said, the steak with the most marbling came in a not–too-distant second. Do the two share anything in common? Interestingly, neither was finished on straight corn or treated with hormones. Both steaks also hail from ranches that pride themselves on their humane treatment of bovines. That made for an unexpected warm and fuzzy feeling as we loosened our belts, sat back, and embarked on several hours of wine-aided digestion.