October 8, 2005

Organic or Inorganic Beef?

About 1% of beef sold last year in the U.S. fell outside the conventional category, under labels like "organic," "natural" or "grass-fed," according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. But demand for organic beef is growing by about 20% a year, according to the trade group. Beef was the second-fastest growing category of organic products in 2003, behind poultry, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Cattle fed on grain tend to have marbled, or fatter meat, while grass-fed meat is leaner. Justin Spring, 30 years old, who works for the Trust for Public Land, a land conservation organization in Denver, says that he has preferred the flavor of natural beef since first trying it 10 years ago. "I was immediately struck by the outstanding taste and texture of the meat. It had a firmness that was very distinct from run-of-the-mill beef," Mr. Spring said.

Since then, he has almost always bought organic or natural beef. But he cites reasons in addition to texture and flavor. As a college student, Mr. Spring visited a natural beef ranch in Colorado. He appreciated that ranchers raised cattle without antibiotics or hormones. They had "a very good environmental ethic about the land," he says.

Tony Maws, chef at the Craigie Street Bistrot, in Cambridge, Mass., has natural beef dishes on the menu at his restaurant. He says that while he supports sustainable farming, his main motivation for choosing organic or natural beef is its flavor. "We're talking about flavor that knocks your socks off, but at a price that might knock your socks off too," Mr. Maws says.

In his restaurant, Mr. Maws uses organic beef to make dishes including a hangar steak with a three-chili rub, a cote du boeuf and braised beef cheeks. For a conventional hangar steak, he says he pays about $2 a pound wholesale, while the organic version costs $4.25. A conventional prime ribeye is about $8 a pound, while organic costs $14 to $15.


Steakhouse Confidential

This fall, with an explosion in the number of steakhouses selling $40 sirloin strips and $80 porterhouses, finding top-quality beef to sink your teeth into ought to be easier than ever.

But it's not.

Many of these same techniques can also help you pick out a better steak to cook at home -- with one important exception: Unless you're shopping at a high-end specialty food store, you're unlikely to find any USDA prime beef at the meat counter.

One reason finding a hunk of world-class beef is so complicated is the rapid growth of the steakhouse industry beyond its traditional base of business meals and corporate accounts. In 2004, sales across the category were up 10.7% from the previous year, according to restaurant-industry analyst Technomic. That has helped spur expansion. Longstanding chains like the Palm and Morton's of Chicago are adding units or, like Ruth's Chris, going public. (The stock, which closed at $20.70 on its first day of trading on Aug. 9, closed at $18 on Oct. 6.) Companies like Outback Steakhouse and LongHorn Steakhouse have spawned new higher-end chains. Even pedigreed French chefs are opening steak restaurants.

It can now cost a steakhouse more than $20 to buy the dry-aged 16-ounce USDA prime strip steak that is a menu cornerstone. Klaus Fritsch, a co-founder of Morton's, summed up the situation for the whole industry this way: "If you come into Morton's and just have a New York strip steak and nothing else, I probably don't make any money on you."

If marbling were all there is to a good steak, life would be a lot easier for steakhouses and their patrons. But the finest beef, like wine, needs to be aged to develop its fullest flavor. Aging gives enzymes in the muscle time to break down fibers, making the meat more tender and flavorful.

There are two ways of aging beef. The expensive route is dry-aging, which involves storing large pieces of meat in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room, typically for two to four weeks. It is generally considered the gold standard, because the meat evaporates liquid as it ages, creating more concentrated meat with intense beefy flavor. But evaporation causes both weight loss and a thick, hard crust that needs to be trimmed, often by a salaried in-house butcher. Restaurants that buy dry-aged steak pay about a $4-per-pound premium, according to David Burke, the former culinary director at Smith & Wollensky who is opening a steakhouse in Chicago this winter.

The high cost of dry-aging has led most steakhouses, including Fleming's, Ruth's Chris, Morton's and nearly all units of the Palm, to turn to wet-aging instead, according to company executives. Wet-aging involves vacuum-packing the meat in plastic bags for up to four weeks, which gives enzymes time to do their work. This process tenderizes the beef but because there is no evaporation, it doesn't cause weight loss -- a big plus for restaurateurs -- nor intensify the flavor. Wet-aged beef is milder, even slightly sweet, which some diners prefer.

Long article but highly recommended reading if you are a steak lover! The only problem is that I'm in bangalore and here finding good beef is like finding needle in a haystack.

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