One Woman’s Quest to Cook a Quarter Cow
By Abigail Chipley
Photo by David Jensen
In a church parking lot in southeast Portland, my husband and I surveyed the contents of the cooler in front of us: 147 pounds of vacuum-packed frozen cow parts — a quarter-cow to be exact. There were long tubes of ground meat, sinewy-looking hunks of chuck, flat flank steaks, thick-cut rib eyes, large roasts with unfamiliar names like “arm roast,” and piles of meaty soup bones.
Along with a handful of other Portlanders, we had just picked up our share of grass-fed beef, delivered direct from a Wallowa, Oregon ranch in a small U-Haul trailer. At home, we loaded the chest freezer in the basement, exchanging dubious glances. How could our family — two light meat eaters and one 26-pound toddler — consume such a bounty? I got out my calculator and did some quick figuring. I kept dividing the numbers until they became less frighteningly large. Finally, I came up with the answer: We would need to eat a mere 2.82 pounds of beef per week to get to the bottom of it within a year.
I’d ordered the meat because I was convinced of the nutritional and environmental value of eating grass-fed beef. But the bargain hunter in me also liked the price. At less than $3 per pound, the beef — fattened on nothing but green grass and hay from the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon — was cheaper than supermarket ground beef. Cheaper, by far, than the premium steaks I inevitably succumbed to at expensive butchers and high-class grocery stores.
I was ready to accept the challenge. I would cook all 147 pounds of this animal, if I had to make vats of Bolognese sauce and invite the whole neighborhood to dinner.
This culinary adventure began last August, when my husband and I discovered a small stand at the Portland Farmer’s Market—it was Carman Ranch, selling Wallowa Valley Grassfed beef. There was no product on hand, merely a young woman with a sign-up sheet. In an uncharacteristically spontaneous move, I agreed to buy a share. I dashed off a deposit for $100, and we left the market. To taste our first grass-fed meat, we would have to wait until fall.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one who’d made a gamble. Portlanders are ready for grass-fed beef, if the crowd of 55 families in the church parking lot two months later was any indication. Says Cory Carman, who, along with her husband David Flynn, operates the grass-fed program at Carman Ranch, “The amount of knowledge that my Portland customers have is just amazing.” In fact, she expects her Portland customer base to triple in size this year.
My amount of knowledge, on the other hand, was paltry. In recent years, I’d sampled some expensive steaks from gourmet butchers and grocery stores labeled “pasture-raised,” and “grass-finished,” but as I’ve since found out, these aren’t the real McCoy. These cows might spend more time on pastureland than the average cow, but they are nevertheless shipped off to feedlots to fatten on grain for a minimum of 90 days before slaughter.
As usual, the federal government has stepped in to try to clarify the issue for consumers. Last fall, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a new rule about meat that can be labeled “grass-fed,” requiring that these animals eat nothing but grass and stored grasses and have access to pasture during the growing season. However, according to the American Grassfed Association, which represents many raisers of grass-fed animals, the definition of “growing season” means that animals could be confined for long periods, and kept off of pasture even when there is grass growing. They could even end up in feedlots, as long as they were consuming hay instead of corn. The new rules also do not restrict the use of antibiotics and hormones in the animals.
Carman betrays a certain amount of skepticism when I ask her about the new rule. She says that she will probably eventually jump through the hoops to get an official label, but it isn’t a high priority. Like many small farmers, Carman isn’t eager to pay the USDA’s costly certification fees for the privilege of a label.
Carman and her husband are committed to doing things their way. Start to finish, raising a grass-fed cow takes about 18 months. At Carman Ranch, mother cows give birth to about 150 calves each March. Until the snow melts in the spring, the calves — a mix of Herefords and Angus — eat stored hay. Then they spend the rest of the year grazing on a rich diversity of green plants, or what we lay people would call “grass.” After another season to fatten on hay and grass, the cows reach their “finished” weight, usually about 1,500 pounds, and the slaughterhouse comes to them. That is, a local guy comes to the ranch to process the cattle.
Anybody who has been to a slaughterhouse, or watched the now infamous video taken by a Humane Society investigator at a California slaughterhouse that caused the largest beef recall in U.S. history (story with link to video here), will appreciate the significance of this. These bovines don’t experience the stress of being corralled and loaded onto trucks or being driven down the slaughterhouse line. And according to Carman, this stress-free life is reflected in the flavor of the meat.
The slaughtering process is something I learned about only after signing up for my share. My main reason for seeking out grass-fed beef had more to do with nutrition. I’d read about the benefits of animals raised on grass: The meat is lower in saturated fat and calories, and higher in beneficial fats such as omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, which has recently been much touted for its cancer-fighting properties. A couple of years back, Carman decided to find out for sure how much better her beef was than conventional beef, so she sent it to a lab to analyze the fatty acid profile. Conventional beef has a 30 (or even 50) to 1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Based on a rib-eye steak, Carman was pleased to find out that her beef had a ratio of 1 to 1, a much healthier ratio according to today’s research.
This is not to discount the environmental reasons for eating grass-fed beef. Raising cattle on grass encourages plant biodiversity, improves soil fertility, and eliminates the considerable waste-management problems associated with confinement feeding operations. And in many instances, the ranchers who have made the commitment to raise grass-fed animals are also committed to improving the health of their land. For example, every year Carman works to eliminate invasive species by letting the cattle overgraze them. On the portions of their ranch made up of sensitive native rangelands, they are careful not to let their cattle overgraze. Though it’s slow going, Carman believes that they are making a difference.
Strangely, the angle I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to was the flavor of grass-fed beef. I’d heard and read that this type of meat was harder to cook than the “conventional” corn-fed variety. Since grass-fed meats are lower in fat, they cook differently. Fat helps to insulate the meat, so the leaner the meat, the faster it cooks. Just a few extra minutes can turn your beautiful, pink steak into a gray, tough hockey puck.
Even if I managed to cook my steaks to medium-rare perfection, how would they taste? “There are a lot of myths out there; first of all, the idea that fat equals flavor, and second that fat equals tenderness. These things just aren’t true,” says Carman. I’m ashamed to admit that I had fallen prey to both those ideas. I assumed that my steak, even if pink, wouldn’t be as tender as a conventional marbled piece of meat, and that the lack of fat would also mean lack of flavor.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The first steak my husband and I cooked up was a rib eye, which, admittedly, wasn’t as much of a gamble as other cuts. It’s traditionally one of the more marbled of steaks, and though the grass-fed steak looked much leaner, I was pleased to see streaks of white fat in it. To avoid covering the flavor of the meat, I simply rubbed the steak with freshly ground pepper and kosher salt and slapped it on the grill. When it seemed done (I use the finger-prod method), I took it off and let it rest a few minutes to seal in the juices.
My husband and I cut into our steaks — cooked to a perfect medium-rare — and looked at each other across the table with delight: We had just bitten into some of the best steak we’d ever had, right off our own grill. It was juicy, had a robustly beefy flavor, and was so tender that we had no problem cutting it with our cheap serrated butter knives. If I had to compare the flavor to corn-fed beef, I would simply call it “beefier.” My two-year-old scarfed it up as fast as I could cut it.
Since last fall, I’ve managed to cook my way through most of the cuts in the freezer, including beef short ribs, flank steak, sirloin steak, chuck roasts, rump roast, and tons of ground beef. These are the basics: Use a meat thermometer instead of relying on the timing given in conventional recipes, and cook steaks and burgers medium-rare (130 degrees). It’s also important, as with any type of meat, to know which cooking method works best for which cut. In general, dry heat and quick-cooking techniques, such as pan-frying, broiling, grilling, and stir-frying, work best for more tender cuts of meat. Moist heat and long-cooking methods, including braising, stewing, and crock-pot cooking, are better for the tougher cuts like chuck roast and short ribs.
So far, I haven’t had the neighborhood Bolognese party. In fact, I’ve been rather stingy, giving away only a few steaks to close friends and inviting small groups over for dinner. Now I’m worried that my supply of beef won’t last until next fall’s shipment. I’ve nervously pawed through the contents of the freezer, trying to determine how many meals are left. There are a few more steaks to grill this summer, and then all that’s left is tackling the soup bones and the intimidating-looking arm roast.
[Like Carman Ranch, Abundant Life Farm near Dallas, Oregon raises grass-fed animals. Thanks to Edible Portland’s partnership with the local film company Cooking Up A Story, you can watch the story of Abundant Life Farm come to life here: Raised On Grass: Pasture Fed Animals.]
Abigail Chipley is a Portland-based freelance writer and recipe developer.
Resources for Purchasing and Cooking Grass-fed Products
WEBSITES AND CERTIFICATIONS
Your source for safe, healthy, natural and nutritious grass-fed beef, lamb, goats, bison, poultry, pork, dairy and other wild edibles. Visit the Directory of Farms for farms listed by state. For retail locations that sell grass-fed meat and dairy products in Oregon, go to Beyond the Farm.
American Grassfed Association
Protects and promotes true grass-fed producers and products through national communication, education, research and marketing efforts. Website features a grass-fed FAQ, a list of certified AGA producers by state, and recipes.
Certified Humane Raised & Handled
An inspection, certification and labeling program for meat, poultry, egg and dairy products from animals raised to humane care standards. The program is a voluntary, user-fee based service available to producers, processors and transporters of animals raised for food. Website lists certified producers and retail locations that carry Certified Humane Raised & Handled products by state.
BOOKS AND COOKBOOKS
Pasture Perfect by Jo Robinson
Robinson explores why tens of thousands of people are saying “no” to factory farming, and buying their meats, eggs and dairy products from pasture-based ranchers. Learn why grass-fed meat and dairy products are safer, healthier, and more beneficial for you, the farmers, the animals, and the environment.
Compassionate Carnivore: Or, How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald’s Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat by Catherine Friend
Friend takes us on a wild ride through her small farm (with several brief detours into life on factory farms), while raising questions such as: What are the differences between factory, conventional, sustainable, and organic farms? What do all those labels — from organic to local to grass-fed and pasture-raised — really mean? If you’re buying products from a small farmer, what are the key questions to ask?
The Farmer and The Grill: A Guide to Grilling, Barbecuing, and Spit-Roasting Grass-Fed Meat, and For Saving the Planet, One Bite at a Time by Shannon Hayes
Hayes runs a sustainable farm in upstate New York that raises and sells only grass-fed meats. In this cookbook, she offers simple, straightforward recipes and useful tips on grilling, barbecuing, and spit-roasting all cuts of pasture-raised meats.