If you search the word "flavor" on the internet, you will find some of the following definitions: "The distinctive taste of a food or drink" or, "The sensory impression of food or other substance, determined primarily by the chemical senses of taste and smell" and, my personal favorite, "An indication of the essential charactor of something." When it comes to a beef steak, there are over 300 separate flavor compounds that work together and interact when a steak is cooked. And the method of cooking, especially the level of heat, will significantly impact the development and complexity of beef flavor as the amino acids, the sugars, the fats, etc. in the steak all contribute to the development of unique flavor compounds.
In addition, the post-harvest handling process of the meat will also play a role in the final flavor (and tenderness) of your steak. For example, as a beef carcass, or primal cut is “aged”, allowed to rest from days to weeks at a controlled temperature and humidity level, before it is cut into steaks, the meat will experience a greater development of flavor and overall tenderness.
Unfortunately, because of storage space needs, production schedules and cost, very little U.S. beef is aged, at least dry-aged, as a matter of general production and processing anymore. Most higher-end restaurants, like the better steakhouses, have their own in-house aging process that can provide prolonged dry-aging time on the primal cuts of beef they offer to their customers. This process helps insure a 5-star eating experience but also comes with a cost which is always passed on to the customer. You know what I’m talking about, right?
Now, I suspect that most folks who bite into a well-prepared steak can get a reasonable impression of the flavor of that steak within the first few bites. But sometimes the flavor characteristics of the meat can become masked as the meal continues and the tongue gets coated with the fat present in the meat. This can be especially pronounced when eating the fattier cuts of meat.
Ever wonder why a good glass of red wine, sipped throughout a meal can enhance the flavor of your meal? It is because the acidic nature of most wines will dissolve away the thin layer of fat that coats your tongue as you proceed with your meal. That’s just chemistry!
But, let’s chew a little deeper on all of this. The fat in your meat does play a role in “mouth feel” and even the perceived juiciness (sometimes referred to as “richness”) of each bite. It may also improve perceived tenderness. But, fat does not carry much flavor. The true “beefy flavor” that so many of our customers comment on is found in the muscle tissue (the protein tissue).
In the general U.S. beef trade where beef is priced largely based on the USDA Quality Grade, which is mostly driven by the degree of fatness (primarily marbling) in the meat, it is almost always in the farmer’s best interest to achieve (or at least shoot for) the grade of “USDA Choice.” To do this, a farmer generally needs to visibly fatten cattle so that there will be a transfer of fat into the muscle of the animal creating a degree of marbling (the small white flecks of fat found distributed throughout the steak) sufficient to achieve USDA Choice. In most cases, this “fattening” of the cattle will require a relatively high level of daily calories (just like you and me) and for the majority of cattle feeders, this means a high level of starch in the diet. That starch generally comes from grains – corn, wheat or barley - or even some grain byproducts. That is just how the biological system of cattle works in terms of body growth and fattening. I offer this explanation because, understandably, the way a steak ends up tasting, the “flavor” you perceive, also has much to do with what the beef animal eats.
This is as simply as I can explain the cattle feeding and carcass grading process but I should also mention that there are other significant factors at play such as breed, genetic selection and the age of an animal at harvest.
So, now let me focus on Hedgeapple Farm, where we raise our cattle on a 100% forage diet (grass, alfalfa and clover) all of the time. The cattle that are harvested and sold in our on-farm market are grown and finished without the use of grains or grain byproducts, growth-promoting hormones, or antibiotics. They are grass-fed and grass-finished and they are harvested at an average age of 20-22 months which is significantly greater than the industry average of cattle coming out of feedlots in the U.S. (14-16 months of age).
Overall, our forage-based feeding program and grazing management plan, along with our genetic selection and cattle breeding program is designed to allow our Black Angus cattle to grow and gain sufficient, but not excessive fatness, to achieve a USDA quality grade of between Select Plus and Choice Minus. We have found that this quality grade target, along with the older age-at-harvest, will result in the right mix of fat and protein in the finished animal to reap both the benefits of the fat as I described earlier and the robust beefy flavor in the muscle tissue. And, post-harvest, the carcasses are allowed to dry-age for 12-14 days before the whole carcass is turned into retail cuts which are then quickly vacuum-packed and flash frozen to seal in the freshness, nutrition and flavor.
So, how would I describe the “essential character” of Hedgeapple Farm beef? How about all-natural, adequately tender and juicy, grass-fed and finished Angus beef that excels in rich beef flavor and is packed with protein, iron, zinc, and other nutrients essential to a healthy human diet.
Now it’s your turn. How would you describe the “essential character” of Hedgeapple beef? Let me know please! You can post your thoughts to our Facebook page or to Google or Localharvest.com. We value and appreciate your feedback!