Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Best Burger Contest

I love a good burger, but I don't eat them all that often. I'd say I go out for a burger two or three times a year and when I do I'm very particular. All the fixings have to be perfect. I want the meat freshly ground and chargrilled, and the lettuce crispy, the tomato ripe, the onion sweet and the bun slightly toasted and impeccably fresh, the accompanying fries, extra crispy, otherwise, why bother?

So when I got an offer to try some grass-fed beef I decided to conduct a burger taste test. With all the fuss over designations like natural, organic, humane, terroir, and dry-aged, I figured I'd compare a few and see for myself. After all, the fixings are easy to handle at home, it's the freshly ground, great tasting beef that's the challenge.

Many people have sworn off beef. First it was due to high cholesterol and then mad cow disease. But if like me, you're going to eat beef, it's important to note that grass fed beef is considerably healthier than grain-fed beef. Grass-fed cows never eat animal by-products, which is the main cause of transmission of BSE (mad cow disease). It's lower in fat and calories than grain-fed beef. And some research indicates that the mixture of fats in grass-fed beef which compared to grain-fed beef is higher in Omega-3 oils, has more conjugated linoleic acid and has a higher concentration of unsaturated fats versus saturated fats may actually lower cholesterol.

So how did they stack up?
For the purpose of the test I tried only 85% lean grass-fed beef burgers.

Each of the previously frozen six ounce patties were allowed to come to room temperature for 30 minutes. They were salted 15 minutes before cooking. They were cooked in very hot cast iron pans for 4 minutes on one side and for 2 minutes on the second side, then allowed to rest for five minutes.

The contenders:

Prather Ranch Meat Company
Back Angus, Hereford, and Black Baldie cows from California
Finished with rice bran and barley
Certified organic
Certified humane
Dry-aged two - three weeks

Western Grasslands
Black Angus and Hereford cows from California
Finished with rice bran and almond hulls (I think)
Organic-pending certification
Dry-aged? (my attempts to contact the company went unanswered)

La Cense Beef
Black Angus cows from Montana
Grass finished
Pesticide-free, not organic
Dry-aged 19 days

Prather Ranch
$5.99/lb direct from Prather Ranch Meat Company at the Ferry Plaza Market

Western Grasslands
$6.99/lb at Whole Foods

La Cense
$7.06/lb available online

Prather Ranch
Light red when raw, light to medium brown when cooked

Western Grasslands
Medium red when raw, medium brown when cooked

La Cense
Very dark red when raw, darker brown when cooked

Prather Ranch
Juiciest, intense flavor, delicate texture, fattiest, Amy's favorite

Western Grasslands
Tender, yet with a little chewiness, mildly beefy, lean

La Cense
Driest, milder flavor, very lean, firmer patty, more traditional flavor, Lee's favorite

All three were very tasty and well worth seeking out if you want to make a high quality burger at home. Even though I couldn't chargrill mine and I had to suffer a serious lack of fries. But taste differences were noticeable and there was no one clear winner. Many things can account for differences in taste, including the time of year and the quality of the grass the animal eats. Try and see what you like.

The differences in cost were not great, check and see what options there are near you. Being able able to purchase a product that is certified organic and humane is something that may also influence your decision. To find certified humane raised and handled products at a store near you, visit the Certified Humane website and be sure to check the product list.