Un­rav­el­ling beef

The back­story of bovine— to ap­pre­ci­ate your steak even more

Wine & Dine Cookbook - - FEATURE - WORDS SIM EE WAUN

It was af­ter the Nor­man in­va­sion of Eng­land in 1066 AD that French vo­cab­u­lary seeped into the English lan­guage. Amongst many words that were bor­rowed—many of them gas­tro­nomic in na­ture—was ‘beouf ’, which then be­came ‘beef ’ in English. If not for that, we may be ask­ing for a nice slab of ox at the steak­house to­day.

In Singapore, most food­ies love a nicely pre­pared piece of beef once in a while, whether it’s Bel­gian steak and frites, a British-style roast, a hearty Ital­ian bis­tecca or an el­e­gant tagli­ata. Com­pared to the misty, an­cient days of the Emer­ald Hill Steak­house—the only spe­cialised steak restau­rant in Singapore for those old enough to re­mem­ber—our now so­phis­ti­cated restau­rant scene and au­di­ence de­mand more op­tions in our beef. But therein lies a chal­lenge: the plethora of la­bels, cuts, breeds and treat­ments that cur­rently flood restau­rants can con­fuse.

Be­fore de­mys­ti­fy­ing beef, first up is to have an idea of how the an­i­mals are reared. Broadly speak­ing, calves are weaned from their mums be­tween six and 10 months old, when they are around 500lbs (226kg) in weight. They are let to pas­ture where they sup­pos­edly roam and frol­ick, and graze on grass and other veg­e­ta­tion for the next 12 to 16 months. Fi­nally, most ma­ture cat­tle are brought to feed­lots for the next four to six months to be ‘fin­ished’. This refers to the fi­nal stage where they are fed a spe­cific high-en­ergy, low-fi­bre diet con­tain­ing grain like corn, bar­ley, oats and soy to ac­cel­er­ate weight gain and to in­flu­ence the taste of the meat. When the cat­tle reaches about 18 to 22 months old or be­tween 1200 and 1400lbs (ap­prox 544 to 635kg), it would be time for slaugh­ter .... or as the in­dus­try puts it po­litely, ‘har­vested’. A smaller num­ber of farm­ers fin­ish their cat­tle on grass. Cat­tle that are ‘grass-fin­ished’ con­tinue to spend their fi­nal months graz­ing in pas­ture be­fore ‘har­vest time’.

GRASS-FED, GRASS-FIN­ISHED OR GRAIN-FED?

Grain-fed cat­tle are fin­ished in feed­lots on a diet high in grain, which is de­signed to ef­fect ef­fi­cient and in­ex­pen­sive weight gain. Their diet is also be­lieved to af­fect the flavour and tex­ture of their meat, and can be a com­bi­na­tion of grain and corn, wheat and bar­ley, even soy. Most US beef are grain-fed.

Taste wise, grain-fed beef is known to be more mar­bled, which makes it tastier, more ten­der and melt-in-the-mouth. Matthias Orth, the mas­ter butcher at Swiss Butch­ery of­fers a can­did guide­line for those par­tic­u­lar about their steak’s fi­nal meals: “Bar­ley makes flavour­ful beef; corn is good for firm­ness, but has a bad rep­u­ta­tion in terms of beef ’s flavour, and wheat can make beef tough, ac­cord­ing to some farm­ers.”

On the other hand, grass-fed beef afi­ciona­dos swear by the tra­di­tion­ally beefy taste of their pas­ture-raised steaks, even if they re­quire a bit more chew­ing and care­ful cook­ing due to their leaner pro­files. Stud­ies have in­di­cated that grass-fed beef have higher lev­els of omega-3 fats, vi­ta­mins A and E, an­tiox­i­dants and beta-carotene, and lower calo­ries. But the term ‘grass-fed beef ’ can be mis­lead­ing. It could mean cat­tle fed on grass be­fore be­ing fin­ished in a feed­lot, or one that had been slaugh­tered while still im­ma­ture and still in the grow­ing stage. A more pre­cise term to look for is ‘grass-fin­ished’ beef, which is not sub­jected to a feed­lot and grain diet, but comes from cat­tle which con­tinue feed­ing on grass un­til they reach full size. This would take 24 to 36 months, sig­nif­i­cantly longer than the 18 to 22 months of feed­lot cat­tle. As they take a longer time and more re­sources to reach slaugh­ter weight, grass-fin­ished beef are more ex­pen­sive. Most beef from Ar­gentina is grass-fed.

MEAT GRADES

Coun­tries dif­fer in their grad­ing sys­tems, but most are based on mar­bling. The more mar­bling, the tastier and more ten­der the beef is.

In the US, the high­est grade con­tain­ing the most mar­bling is called Prime. Only the top three per cent of US meat qual­ify as Prime, and are mostly sold to high-end restau­rants. They are all from steers, heifers and young bulls. Then come Choice with less mar­bling, fol­lowed by Se­lect, which may also lack some juici­ness. The US grad­ing sys­tem is un­der­pinned by the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA).

In Aus­tralia, beef is graded by the Meat Stan­dards Aus­tralia (MSA) based on three grades of eat­ing qual­ity: MSA three- (MSA Graded), four- (Pre­mium qual­ity) and five-star (Supreme qual­ity). There is also the AUS-MEAT Mar­bling sys­tem, which in­di­cates the level of mar­bling on a scale of zero to nine. They also mea­sure mar­bling by the num­ber of days the cat­tle are grain-fed, which can range from 70 to 300 days. The more days, the more mar­bling.

Wagyu is in a class of its own and rated on its own sys­tem—A1 to A5, with the lat­ter be­ing the most mar­bled. Other fac­tors like colour and mus­cle shape are also con­sid­ered. In Ja­pan, the big three wagyu cat­tle are Mat­susaka, Kobe, and Omi or Yonezawa. Aus­tralia and the US also pro­duce wagyu.

Top Qual­ity con­trol at a butch­ery

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