The backstory of bovine— to appreciate your steak even more
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.
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.
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