Many of you know the health benefits of eating beef from a pastured, grass fed cow instead of beef from a conventionally raised, grain fed cow, but how do they compare in flavor? Is the high cost of a high grade steak really worth it in flavor, or are you paying over 200% more for a steak from a grass fed cow than you would a low-grade supermarket steak and only gaining minimal improvement? On a recent trip to visit a close family friend in South Carolina, my husband and our friend asked me if we could test this with a blind tasting. Ignoring how thinly veiled their plot to have me feed them inordinate amounts of steak was, I heartily complied, interested in how our vastly different palates would discern differences in the steaks and in how predictable the results would be.
Before continuing, let me state that this was a very relaxed blind taste test. To accompany our steak, we enjoyed a bottle of red wine (The Prisoner, for those who are interested) and beer battered onion rings. We didn’t purchase a steak to cover every possible combination of grain fed/corn fed/dry aged/wet aged/pastured beef, but instead chose three New York strip steaks that fit the low end, middle, and high end on the spectrum of possibilities. The first steak, purchased for $7.09/lb from a local grocery store , Reid’s, was from a conventionally raised cow (grain fed, feedlot, every PETA members’ nightmare). Ringing in at $16.99/lb, steak number two came from Whole Foods, whose website states that their level 1 beef, which is what we purchased, is from cows who spend at least 2/3 of their lives roaming pastures before being finished on grain before slaughter. Steak number three, from Mibek Farms in Barnwell, SC, was dry aged, cut from an assumedly happily pastured cow that tasted nary a grain of corn in its lifetime, and, at $16.59/lb, was a hair less expensive than #2.
All participants (my husband, our friend, and I) took notes of each steak before and after cooking and made predictions about which steak would win. After lining the steaks up and arming all tasters with a pen and paper, we made our preliminary observations of the raw steaks. The first steak, our conventionally raised selection, had less than rave reviews, and nobody predicted it as our winner: “Doesn’t look fresh, but not rotten.” “Second-freshest in color.” “Soft.” “Blood in the package looks like blood-flavored water.” “Very little marbling.” “Fat cap only about 2 inches long.”
Nobody called this one out as their prediction to win the taste test.
Our middle-of-the-road selection from Whole Foods fared better in the preliminaries. “Freshest looking,” “Most evenly and most consistently marbled,” and “Rich color” were the general consensus, and this steak garnered 1 1/2 votes for predicted winner (one person said it would win best all-around, and another said it would have the best texture but not the best flavor).
Until this point, we were all in general agreement in our comments about the steaks, but that fell apart on our dry aged pastured steak from Mibek Farms. Comments ranged from “Looks old” and “No” to “Obviously dry aged (apparent by color of both meat and blood, and by touch). Looks tasty” and “Most marbled, but also most unevenly marbled. Some areas of very thick veins of fat, others moderate, and others almost non-existent.” One person gave this their vote for best flavor, and another gave this as their vote for best all-around.
To eliminate most variables, I cooked all of the steaks very simply by seasoning them with only salt (so we could focus on the beef flavor and not have distractions from any spices or sauce), searing them in a cast iron pan, and then letting them rest for ten minutes. After the steaks rested to a medium doneness, I served two slices of each steak, cut across the grain, to each participant without them knowing which steak they were eating, and had them take notes on each steak; then, we turned the tables and had one participant do the same to me. Each participant ranked the steaks from favorite to least favorite, and I assigned points to each ranking in order to determine the winner.
The results were not far off of expectations. Comments for the conventional steak were, at best, unflattering: “Toughest texture. Lightest on flavor. Didn’t like.” “This cow died in vain.” “Flavor is ok. Texture more firm. No gristle/fat noticed. Slight aftertaste-not entirely pleasant.” and “Tougher than the others. Less beef flavor.” Our friend picked this as his favorite, noting that to his palate, texture trumps flavor and he prefers a steak without veins of fat throughout. This being the leanest steak, he liked it best. My husband and I picked this as our least favorite for the same reason as our friend liked it- we found it too lean and tough, lacking in both flavor and texture.
The middle of the road steak from Whole Foods garnered middle of the road results: “Better texture than #1. Light beef flavor.” “Good flavor. Nice aftertaste. Some fat noticed.” We all picked this as our second favorite. To my palate, this tasted like what I am used to eating, but nothing stood out as spectacular.
Mirroring the disagreement in our initial observations, the dry aged steak was the most polarizing of the three: “Love the flavor and texture. Winner for me.” “Quite a bit of noticeable fat. Didn’t like the texture. Flavor better than #1, but not #2.” “Most tender. Beefiest flavor.” Our friend chose this as his least favorite due to the texture of his pieces (which came from the heavily marbled section of the unevenly marbled steak) and my husband and I (who ate from the more evenly marbled section) picked it as our favorite for its deep, almost funky beef flavor.
Overall, the steaks placed exactly the way I thought they would with the dry-aged choice placing first with 7 points, the grain-finished steak claiming second place with 6 points, and the conventional choice placing last with 5 points. Deciding whether steaks #2 and #3 were worth the higher cost was easy all around- our friend gave it a staunch “no,” and my husband and I agreed that it is totally worth it. Did we answer the original questions? Not at all. Palates different wildly, and what works for one person may not work for another. Did my husband and our friend’s plot to eat steak to their hearts’ content? Absolutely.