How to make sure your grass fed beef is tender - process it right.
All beef is not the same.
I was doing my usual stint at Internet research recently and found an interesting article about beef tenderness. It showed that the “mystery beef” you buy in supermarkets could be more or less tender from package to package, even within the same freezer section of your supermarket. There are several reasons for this. But if you don’t know your farmer, if you don’t know your processor, then don’t worry if the steak you want to impress your guests with never turns out the way you want.
Here’s the article: Meat Tenderness, by Richard J. Epley of University of Minnesota Extension.
While I earlier had found an article from the University of Missouri, where studies of grass-fed and corn-fed beef (Martz) showed no real differences of when processed using methods to increase tenderness on both types of beef. Simply put, corn fed beef will result in more fat on a carcass which will allow it to be processed and prepared faster. The loss is in the taste. Corn fed (IMHO) has little to no taste compared with grass-fed.
Now the disclaimer I have to make right off is that there are differences from farm to farm and from season to season. Different farms have different pasture combinations, different genetics, and different weather – even right next to each other. The key idea is that you find a variety of beef which you are happy with and then stick with that producer and processor. As you know your farmer, you'll know your food. (Of course I suggest you buy beef from Worstell Farms – but I’m prejudiced…)
To explain this, let's use the Minnesota article as a base to develop a checklist:
Per University of Minnesota (UMN), 45% of the tenderness is in the genes. While they talk about purchasing "Mystery" beef cuts at a supermarket (because you don't know where they came from or how they were raised) - you'll get varying tenderness because of the wide variety of genetics out there. When Continental cattle breeds are crossed with African breeds, toughness becomes an issue in their offspring (see linked study). On the other hand, Highland grass-fed beef is known as exceptionally tender – the only drawback is that it takes 3 years to come of age.
While we have started with some "mutt" Angus crosses, Worstell Farms has worked to improve this by directly crossing Galloway into this mix. So we have the larger size of the Angus along with the inherently higher-quality Galloway genes. The result is a medium-framed animal which matures quickly on just grass and a mixed pasture forage program. The Galloway breed is known for producing a particular genetic variant which enables them to more quickly tenderize under refrigerated aging conditions.
While some of our cows have more Hereford in their background, several also have some Brahmin traits, as noted by their physique. And as we sample most of the beef leaving this farm, we've found no real difference to date, nor has our customers.
Species and Age
Basically, younger is better. This is why veal is so noted. However, the production demands of a farm say to raise a beef until it's fully grown in order to make the most beef. Corn fed beef is sold by weight. When they get enough fat on them, they are shipped. We used to raise cattle this way and it only took about 16 months to get to marketable weight. Grass fed beef will get to full size in 20-22 months, that's steers anyway. Heifers (females) will get to full size in about 3 years. The older the animal, the tougher they get. This is due to the connective tissue (gristle). And is why older cows are usually processed as hamburger in order to bypass that problem. (Think of it as mechanical tenderizing, much as Swiss steaks are prepared.)
As this article points out, what they are fed doesn't make that much difference. Grass fed beef has higher CLA's, which is gotten from the oils on the grass they are eating. Higher CLA's or Omega 3/6 ratio makes the beef better for your heart (per some studies), but this doesn't affect tenderness. (And cattle fed GMO corn gives you more a mystery of what's in that beef and what it will do to/for you.)
Muscle to Muscle
The more a cow uses that muscle, the tougher it gets. So muscles off their legs or related muscle groups will be inherently tougher than muscles around the spine, which are used for support, "...the tenderloin provides a support function in the animal and therefore has less connective tissue." So what cut you buy will determine it's tenderness considerably.
Suspension of Carcass
Cattle are hung by their hind legs, generally. So this puts more tension on certain muscle groups and they tenderize less in the aging process. Again, this doesn't affect the tenderloin, which is why it's called that. Some plants use pelvic suspension, but this is rare, due to necessary changes in plant layout and cutting procedures.
The carcass is chilled immediately after slaughter to prevent spoilage. If the carcass is chilled too rapidly, the result is "cold shortening" and subsequent toughness. Cold shortening occurs when the muscle is chilled to less than 60°F before the completion of rigor mortis. If the carcass is frozen before completion of rigor mortis, the result is "thaw rigor" and subsequently extremely tough meat.
The article goes on to say that beef well-covered in fat resists this cooling problem. This is a point to watch out for with grass-fed beef, as it has less of a fat covering. While we've had no problems with any beef we've processed due to this, it opened our eyes as well to what can possibly happen in some of these mass-production facilities. We use only local processors and so verify this on every plant we use.
This is the most controversial areas. It is subject to opinion. And as such, we disagree with this article at that point. The longer it is hung, the more it ages. The muscle tissues break down. However, this also increases the chance and amount of spoilage which can/will occur. While most depends on the cleanliness of the room itself, the beef can absorb odors from surrounding material and can also be affected by mold which grows at 35-degrees. While any affected areas can be cut off, this loss also doesn't guarantee that it didn't absorb some odor (which affects taste) from that situation.
Most of the lockers we use agree on 7-10 days to age beef. Some people prefer 3 weeks aging. One processor told us that in order to prevent mold, they spray the older carcasses with a ph-lowering enzyme spray, but this then simply slows down the natural process of aging.
So tenderness is more how it is raised than how long it hangs - unless you don't mind a wider variance in taste.
In the late 70's the USDA changed grading to align with the majority of the beef being corn-finished. So they added characteristics of intramuscular fat into their grading process.
Marbling, the visible specks of fat in the lean, also is a factor used in determining the USDA quality grade. However, information in the last decade indicates that marbling exerts only a small influence on tenderness of meat, primarily by acting as a lubricant during chewing.
The fat enables faster cooking and higher temperatures - so you can have a medium-rare with a crispy exterior if you want it. Grass fed beef is cooked at lower temperatures and (as is common with most beef) is better prepared by marinating for hours beforehand or overnight. Some prefer to cook their beef in crock-pots to preserve the nutrients (as you'll find on many recipes for this site.)
As mentioned above, when you grind beef, you are eliminating the connective tissue problem. Steak is often cubed, which is pulverizing it with small blades. Swiss steak is run through a tenderizer, which in your home is a small hammer with a pointed surface. Same result.
As well, when you cut your beef into small pieces and cook them, this also then satisfies this scene. More heat (and any surrounding juices) can enter the beef to soften the connective tissue. As well, the beef flavor enters the stew to enhance the other vegetables, etc.
Salt is a chemical that at certain concentrations increases the tenderness of meat. The presence of salt is one of the reasons that cured meats such as ham are more tender than uncured meats. Salt apparently exerts its influence on tenderness by softening the connective tissue protein, collagen, into a more tender form.
There are a number of vegetable enzymes such as papain (papaya), bromelin (pineapple), and ficin (fig) used to tenderize meat both commercially and in the home. These tenderizers can be applied either in liquid form or in powder form. Their primary effect is to dissolve or degrade the connective tissues collagen and elastin. The limitation of vegetable enzymes is that their action is sometimes restricted to the surface of meat. Also, on occasion, they can impart a characteristic "tenderized" flavor to meat.
So that steak you eat in a fancy restaurant may only "taste" tenderized. The last one I ate certainly wasn't inherently tender - and the taste didn't last past the thin layer of spices on the surface...
Marinating is a way consumers can improve tenderness and add taste variety to the meat component of meals. The basic ingredients of a marinade include salt (or soy sauce), acid (vinegar, lemon, Italian salad dressing, or soy sauce), and enzymes (papain, bromelin, ficin, or fresh gingerroot). Some marinade recipes call for addition of an alcohol source (wine or brandy) for flavor. The addition of several tablespoonfuls of olive oil will seal the surfaces from the air and thus result in the meat staying fresher and brighter in color for a longer period of time. The tenderizing action of marinades occurs through the softening of collagen by the salt, the increased water uptake, and the hydrolysis and breakage of the cross links of the connective tissue by the acids and alcohols.
You'll also note that prime barbecue recipes call for marinating the beef, as well as constantly basting them with a sauce that usually has salt, lemon, vinegar, and alcohol in it. This article recommends marinating for 4-8 hours in a refrigerated earthenware dish before cooking.
Freezing rate plays a small role in tenderness. When meat is frozen very quickly, small ice crystals form; when meat is frozen slowly, large ice crystals are formed. While the formation of large crystals may serve to disrupt components of the muscle fibers in meat and thereby increase tenderness very slightly, the large ice crystals result in an increased loss of juices upon thawing. This increase in loss of juices results in meat that is less juicy upon cooking and therefore usually is perceived as being less tender.
Thawing meat slowly in the refrigerator generally results in greater tenderness compared with cooking from the frozen state. Slow thawing minimizes the toughening effect from cold shortening (when present) and reduces the amount of moisture loss. Thawing in a microwave is accomplished by using a lower power setting or by manually alternating cooking and standing times. During the standing time, some of the heat from the thawed areas moves toward the frozen area.
The summation here is to cook according to where that cut came from. Don't expect a rump roast to cook like a tenderloin.
As cooking progresses, the contractile proteins in meat become less tender, and the major connective tissue protein (collagen) becomes more tender. Thus, for cuts that are low in connective tissue—such as steaks and chops from the rib and loin—the recommended method of cooking is dry heat, including pan frying, broiling, roasting, or barbecuing...
For cuts with a high amount of connective tissue—such as those from the fore shank, heel of round, and chuck—the recommended method of cooking is long and slow at low temperatures using moist heat such as braising. The application of moist heat for a long time at low temperatures (275-325°F) results in conversion of tough collagen into tender gelatin and makes this type of cut more tender compared with dry heat cooking of one of the less tender cuts of meat.
Degree of doneness significantly affects tenderness. As the lean is heated, the contractile proteins toughen and moisture is lost. Both decrease tenderness. Tender cuts of meat cooked to a rare degree of doneness (140°F) are more tender than when cooked to medium (155°F), and medium in turn is more tender than well-done (170°F).
Now, as covered on this site in various places, you don't cook lean beef (grass-fed) like fatty beef (corn-fed). It will dry out and won't become tender. I included the above remarks to explain how cooking can additionally make the beef more tender.
Get your crock-pot going for those less tender cuts and cook shorter and cooler in general. This doesn't mean you get below temperatures the USDA recommends to kill any unwanted bacteria. But read up on cooking grass fed beef. Use the recipes on this site to start with. Develop and expand your culinary skills to include the wide varieties of cuts and finishes which grass-fed beef enables.
Finally, this even surprised me. When you cut cross wise to the connective tissue, you are mechanically tenderizing your beef even further as you serve it. Ever wonder why roast beef is cut so thin?
When cuts are made from carcasses and wholesale cuts, the normal procedure is to cut at right angles to the length of the muscle. This procedure severs the maximum amount of connective tissue and distributes the bone more evenly among all cuts in that area. Likewise, consumers should carve cooked meat at right angles to the length of the muscle fibers or "against the grain" to achieve maximum tenderness.
And now, there you have it. A fairly complete layout of what it really takes to serve up tasty and tender beef for your family or guests. This has been quite an education for me, and I hope to share this more broadly with others.
Feel free to do your own research. Check out the original UMN article for yourself. Study up on the various cuts, cooking procedures, and carving methods. Ask your farmer where your beef is processed and then call them to find the methods they use.
Again: know your farmer, know your processor, and you'll know your food.