With all the talk about grain-fed vs. grass-fed beef, steak eaters might be curious to know separates one from the other when these steaks hit the plate.
Both sides have their advocates. Grain-fed steak lovers point out that grain-fed steaks tend to have a much higher level of marbling and juiciness, and are typically more richly flavored. Grass-fed proponents – some of whom prefer the “gamier” taste of grass-fed meat – often mention the health benefits that come with forage-fed cattle. These include far leaner cuts of meat, and a higher percentage of healthy acids.
We’ve broken down grain-fed and grass-fed steaks by taste, texture, and health benefits, to help give steak lovers insight into what sets these cuts apart from one another.
One of the most debated issues surrounding grain-fed and grass-fed cattle is the way that each tastes. The foods that cattle eat have a major impact on the way they eventually taste and the composition of their meat.
In America, grain-fed beef is usually given a combination of corn, soy, corn-by-products (husks and cobs, for instance), and other supplements for the 3-6 months prior to slaughter. This mix has been fine-tuned over the last 75 or so years to promote faster growth in beef cattle. Corn feed leads to higher-levels of marbling and imbues beef with a slightly sweeter taste.
Grass-fed beef cattle, on the other hand, feed on grass (no kidding) and a mixture of other forage (plants that grow on the ground, such as bushes and thistles). This is more natural for cows, but produces less marbling. Grass-fed steaks also have a much more mineral-heavy taste that is often described as “meatier” or “gamier,” which is also a common description of grass-fed texture.
While there are outliers, the majority of Americans seem to prefer the sweeter, richer taste that comes with corn-fed beef. This is a big part of the reason why major steak-brands and restaurants continue to draw attention to the fact they serve corn-fed steaks.
Because of their higher levels of marbling, grain-fed steaks tend to be richer in both taste and texture. Marbling – generally considered the most prized feature of a high-quality steak, and the most important factor in USDA steak grading – is much less prominent in pasture-fed cattle.
As a result, grass-fed steaks tend to be drier and chewier than similar grain-fed cuts, and are far more finicky to cook. One solution for a better tasting and juicier grass fed steak is to add a generous pat of butter after cooking your steak, then allowing the steak to absorb the butter’s flavor and oils. This, however, reduces or negates grass-fed steak’s main health benefit.
While there are some studies that say otherwise, the general consensus is that grass-fed beef is healthier. The three-main reasons for this are fewer calories per-pound, higher levels of omega-3 acids, and greater amounts of conjugated linoleic acid or CLA.
Skeptics have pointed out, however, that the reason for the lower per-pound calorie count is reduced marbling. As with most health foods, swapping out the thing that gives steak flavor does make it healthier, but it also reduces the luxuriant richness that most steak-lovers are looking for.
As for the healthy acids, it is true that grass-fed steak fat has a much higher percentage of Omega-3 fatty acids and CLA. But grass-fed steaks, as we’ve covered, also have a much lower percentage of fat. As a result, the levels of Omega-3 acids and CLA in comparable grass- and grain-fed steaks are much closer than most people think.
When it comes to taste, if you’re like most Americans, your palate will be better suited to grain-fed steak, particularly those from corn-fed cattle. But taste isn’t the only thing keeping the grain-fed and grass-fed camps apart. If you’re looking for super-lean steaks, then grass-fed steaks might be right for you.
At Steak U, we’re taste-first kind of people, which is why we stick with corn-fed, USDA rated steaks.