There are lots of good reasons to choose grass-fed beef over conventionally raised beef - environmental, nutritional, and concerns about the animals being treated well and eating what is natural to them. On all of these fronts, grass-fed beef beats feedlot beef hands down. However, over 95% of the beef sold in the U.S. is from feedlots (AKA "concentrated animal feeding operations" or "CAFOs"). This means that beef from cattle which are entirely raised on pasture is more expensive, and it also tastes a little different from the beef people in the U.S. are accustomed to. Additionally, the optimal cooking method, particularly for steaks, is a little different as well.
Note: I use the terms "grass-fed beef" and "grass-fed steaks", since these terms seem to be gaining in popularity, and because it's easier than constantly saying "steaks which come from cattle fed on pasture-only" or something similar. However, I'm bothered just a bit, as the steaks themselves were obviously not eating grass!
What Does Grass-Fed Beef Taste Like?To many, it tastes better, as this blind taste test from Mark Schatzker at Slate showed. To me, it is more flavorful - more intensely "beefy." "Regular" beef tastes blander to me now. If you've ever eaten a filet mignon, you know that it is very tender, but doesn't have a lot of flavor compared to other cuts of beef. Now I feel the same way about grass-fed vs grain-fed beef. However, I have read other information saying, basically, that people like what they are used to. After cooking and eating many (MANY!) of these steaks, I have to believe that cooking method is part of what makes the difference in people's perceptions.
Differences in CookingCuts of beef that are cooked with moisture or at relatively low temperatures (such as stews or pot roasts) are basically cooked in the same way whether the cattle were grass-fed or grain-fed. But steaks, which are usually cooked at high temperatures in order to get a sear on the outside, can be trickier. This is mainly because steaks which come from grass-fed cattle are often leaner than their grain-fed counterparts, but also because there is more variability in them. Animals that have been contained in feedlots and fed all on the same feed are going to give us meat with very similar characteristics, whereas grass-fed cattle are roaming around, using different muscles, eating different grasses and other plants, etc. This is partly why the idea that "all grass-fed beef is leaner" is incorrect. There's just much more variability.
Look Similar - Cook SimilarOne tip in figuring out how a steak will respond to cooking is in looking at it in the butcher's case. In my experience, grass-fed steaks with more visible marbled fat will cook more similarly to their grain-fed counterparts.
Tips For Great Grass-Fed SteaksI have found these to be the most helpful tips in cooking mouth-watering grass-fed steaks. The overall goal to keep in mind is that you want a nice sear on the outside, but you want to bring the inside rather gently up to temperature. This will prevent the steak from getting tough.
1. Pre-warm the steak - At the very least, take the steak out of the refrigerator half an hour before cooking. Even better, warm it in an oven set on its lowest temperature for about that long. If the steak starts cooking when it is refrigerator-cold, the middle will still be raw when the outside is seared. Generously salt and pepper the steaks when you first take them out of the refrigerator. (Note: This technique works for all steaks, but I consider it essential for grass-fed ones.)
2. Get the grill or pan very hot - To get a good, quick sear, allow plenty of time for the grill or pan to get hot. If you are using a charcoal grill, put the coals on one side only.
3. Oil the steak first - Since grass-fed steaks are leaner, they are more likely to stick to the grill or pan. I find it helpful to oil them before putting them on.
4. After the sear (1 to 3 minutes per side depending on heat), reduce the heat - I usually use a gas grill, and I find that if I've gotten the grill hot enough I don't need to keep the heat on under the steaks, and so I turn the burner under them off after searing. Then I close the cover. To sear the other side, I move them to a hotter part briefly. The idea, again, is to get the sear, but do the rest of the cooking on a lower heat. For charcoal, move the steaks to the side of the grill without the coals underneath. For a pan on the stove, just lower the heat.
5. Don't Overcook!!! - Grass-fed steaks are best rare or medium rare - barely medium at the very most. Even if you usually like your steaks cooked longer, do give less cooking a try - or cook them in a sauce at a lower temperature. Cooking at a high temperature for a long time will definitely produce a tough steak. I find the best way to tell when a steak is done is to use a good instant-read thermometer (insert from the side). About 125 degrees F. produces a rare steak; 130-135 degrees F. for medium-rare.
6. As with any steak, let it "rest" 5 to 10 minutes before eating.
These tips should produce delicious steaks you can feel good about eating!