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Friday, September 28, 2012

Beef Trends

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm just back from West Virginia where I attended the Certified Angus Beef conference. It was a great opportunity to meet with chefs, talk to butchers and learn more about beef--the trends, the choices and what's on the horizon. When it comes to beef, just like chocolate or wine or coffee, the more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn. 

First a few common misconceptions, when it comes to beef:

Only some beef is grass fed. Actually all beef is grass fed. It's just a question of how it's "finished" Certified Angus Beef is finished on a feed lot and eats grain to bulk up in size and improve marbling of the meat. If you want to buy grass fed, pay attention to how it's finished. Some beef being sold as grass fed is not the same as "grass finished." 

Grass fed beef is healthier. I used to think so, but it turns out the evidence is mixed. While grass fed beef does have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, it's not a great source of them. And as an article in the New York Times concluded, " it’s not clear whether the nutritional differences in the two types of meat (grass fed versus conventional) have any meaningful impact on human health." Meanwhile other research challenges the benefits of grass fed over grain finished. I think the jury is out on this one.

Fresh beef is better than frozen. Not really. Freezing actually improves the tenderness of beef, since ice crystals penetrate muscle and research shows there is no real moisture loss difference between fresh and frozen meat. Beef, like chicken and pork are expected to go up in price in the coming year and since meat prices vary throughout the year, take advantage of the cost savings and consider buying frozen beef. You won't be sacrificing quality. 

And the trends….

Bone in steaks! I saw this when I dined at Sidecut at the Four Seasons Whistler where a 52 ounce porterhouse, a 36 ounce rib eye and a 36 ounce strip steak are all served bone in and carved table side. This is a fun way to dine! I haven't done a side by side taste test of steak cooked on the bone versus off the bone, but generally speaking, meat on the bone tastes better. 

Signature grinds are a trend that is due to the popularity of gourmet burgers. It's not just the coarseness of the grind, but the very mix or meats such as short rib, prime rib, brisket or strip steak. What makes some burgers taste better than others? One secret is oleic acid. Oleic acid is the primary mono- unsaturated fatty acid in beef and accounts for about 33% of the fatty acid in beef (it's also found in olive oil) research shows that monounsaturated oleic acid does not raise cholesterol. It's this fat that is partly responsible for making meat taste so good and is found in higher percentages in very marbled beef. There is some very interesting research on this topic. Other ways burgers become "gourmet" include seasonings, fillings and toppings. My favorite to date has to be the marrow burger which is off the menu at Luella. But burgers with bacon, cheese and caramelized onions (and ground bacon in the grind), like the one at Marlowe are pretty spectacular too. 

Smaller portions. Hallelujah!  When I go to a steak house I typically order the smallest steak, or hope someone will share a large one with me (bone in perhaps?). Frankly I get tired of eating beef after about three to four bites. And I really get tired of having filet mignon be my only option for something more petite. As demand grows for smaller steaks, different cuts are showing up such as the culotte or top sirloin cap, filet of rib, cap of rib, sirloin end, chuck eye and they are very flavorful unlike the less flavorful yet tender filet mignon. For me good quality beef is a treat and a little goes a long way.

New cuts. The way beef is butchered or fabricated, is constantly evolving. Some cuts you may not have seen yet include the braison and merlot, also known as "heel" of the beef round. Both will be less expensive cuts, the braison is best for braising and the merlot can be grilled or cooked whole. 

It strikes me that there is something for everyone whether you want a big hunk of meat on the bone a gourmet burger or just a smaller portion. Which trends are you most excited about?

Disclosure: I learned about the trends at the Certified Angus Beef conference where I was a guest and my travel expenses were covered. I was not paid to write this or any other post. Special thanks to Kyle Miller and Michael Ollier for their terrific educational session and meat cutting demonstration.