Meat from grassfed and pastured animals can get tough and dry if cooked like conventional meat. In this article I’ll explain why there’s a difference and how you can keep your grassfed and pastured meat from being tough and dry.
Thinking of the sleepy peeping of chicks from the back seat makes me smile even now. I hadconvinced AJ that it was time again to raise another batch of Cornish cross meat chickens. We made our way home with our talkative box on one of those cloudy Pacific Northwest days where you couldn’t say what time of day or even what time of the year it was. We spent the next two and a half months obsessing over their care, moving their pen to fresh pasture daily and awaiting the day they would fill our freezer.
Make no mistake, raising animals is hard work. The value we assign to our home grown meat is based on more than just the expense of producing it, and we don’t part with it lightly. You can understand my horror and confusion when AJ’s parents thought their first taste of our home grown chicken was a “little tough.” That chicken that we had so lovingly cared for since it was a day old chick. That chicken that we had carefully and compassionately butchered; taking pains to process in a way that would be the most humane and use as much of the animal as possible. That chicken, was tough.
I couldn’t understand it; I had already cooked one and it was delicious and tender. My brain raced to find a solution, and then I remembered: AJ’s parents are used to eating store bought conventional, or as we call it “concentration camp” chicken. Our chickens don’t cook the same as store bought chicken.
It was one of those moments that makes clear how far we’ve come on our real food journey, and because of that, how differently we eat from the average American. I realized that people cooking pastured and grass-fed meat for the first time may face the same disappointment as my in-laws. How terrible would it be if they wrote off such an awesome food because it cooks differently than the meat they usually eat!? That, my friends, would be a tragedy.
I’m here to give you a science lesson so you better understand why grass-fed and pastured meat cooks differently. I’ll also give you some ideas to deal with it. Buckle up, it’s about to get nerdy around here.
Why is my Grass-fed and Pastured meat tough?
What does Grass-fed, pastured and CAFO mean?
The typical animal in the American food system in raised in a Confined (or Concentrated) Animal Feeding Operation commonly referred to by the abbreviation CAFO. Think feedlot beef, caged layers and pigs in gestation crates. Animals raised this way get minimal exercise and are fed a diet specially formulated with the cheapest ingredients so they gain the most fat and muscle or lay the most eggs as quickly as possible.
Animals that could be grass-fed but that are in CAFOs are commonly fed animal protein or grain to increase their production. Animals that should be eating vegetation can only handle so much animal protein and grain in their diet. When they get too much they start to get sick. High grain diets change the pH of the cow’s rumen making the cow sick and allowing E.coli to grow; potentially exposing anyone who consumes products from that animal to the bacteria. Strains of E.coli that regularly put people in the hospital develop in the rumen of cows that eat excessive amounts of grain. Just a short time back on hay or pasture allows the rumen to regulate its pH and eliminate the E.coli.
These systems don’t consider the animals’ natural behaviors or long term health. The conditions are cramped, filthy, and sometimes dark. The days are an endless monotony of frustration and fear. When you eat CAFO chicken, beef and pork you’re eating misery. Chew on that.
Grass-fed and pastured animals live and eat very differently.
Grass-fed animals are ruminants and hind-gut fermenters. This means they are biologically intended to be herbivores that eat mainly vegetation. Grass-fed animals can theoretically survive on nothing but pasture but since most of our soil has become deficient in key minerals a source of supplemental minerals and vitamins are frequently fed.
Cows, sheep, rabbits, goats and geese, are all examples of animals that could theoretically be grass-fed.
“Pastured” is a term as unregulated in the food industry as the term “natural”. In my opinion it should refer to omnivorous animals that live on pasture or with daylight access to pasture but that need additional feed. These animals can theoretically forage for all their nutritional needs by eating things like nuts, roots, small animals and bugs but in reality they rarely have access to a large enough area to provide sufficient forage.
This includes chickens, ducks and pigs.
When a farmer raises grass-fed and pastured animals with sincere intentions of providing them with a biologically appropriate life they live very differently than they would in a CAFO. The animals have space to express their natural instincts to root, graze and scratch; things they wouldn’t be able to do in a CAFO. Unfortunately, some farmers don’t raise grass-fed and pastured animals with sincere intentions.
The regulated USDA definitions leave a lot of room for interpretation and the USDA doesn’t even have a regulated definition for “pastured.” No matter what the label says it’s important to ask the farmer or butcher exactly how the animal was fed and raised
Free-range: This label indicates that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This label is regulated by the USDA.
Free range or free roaming: producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.
Grass-fed: Grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain. Also USDA regulated, the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. Meat products may be labeled as grass-fed organic. *** The USDA as of January 2016 has retired thier grass-fed label. There are other independent labels for grass-fed though, read this for more information***
Pasture-raised: Due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems, the USDA has not developed a federal definition for pasture-raised products.
If that list of definitions doesn’t have you scratching your head you should probably read it again. Please ask your farmer and butchers exactly how the animals were raised and fed; don’t depend on a label.
Let’s walk through those definitions briefly.
For the Free-range definition it says “access to the outdoors during their production cycle.” For the months before the birds start laying producers are not required to let them out of the building. Our birds are outside during the day starting as soon as they can be without a heat lamp.
Chickens are creatures of habit, not allowing them access when they are young means they are going to spend less time overall outside foraging. I visited a commercial egg farm with a college program here in Washington. This particular farm has a major organic and free range project. They drove us down by their free range houses in their tour buses. There were no birds outside. They never let us close enough to the house to smell if there was ammonia, a sign that manure needs cleaned up, or to see what condition the birds were in. We were never closer than a mile from their caged layer facilities. We only got to see those as distant, white windowless buildings.
On the beef side of things, read the grass-fed definition again. Did you notice that organic grass-fed beef can be supplemented with grain? What the heck is that about? There also aren’t any specifications about how they are living. They could be in a feedlot just like any other CAFO beef cow.
Moral of the story?
If you want to know how they are really being fed and cared for you need to talk to your butcher or farmer.
How does this affect the meat?
For starters animals grass-fed and pastured in the true sense of the word are moving around a whole lot more. Used muscle is tougher than unused muscle, that’s why veal (confined baby cow) is more tender than an old milk cow. Muscle that’s used more is also darker because mitochondria, the energy producing organelle in a cell, multiply in harder working muscle.
CAFO animals are fed diets high in carbohydrates that put fat on the animal more quickly. A cow eating grass takes much longer to put on fat.
All of us animals put fat on in a specific order. It’s first laid down around the organs. Fat around the organs is a good thing, up to a point of course. It acts as padding and insulation. Next, it’s laid down under the skin and last, in the muscle.
That marbling that makes meat tender is from fat in and around the muscle. Since grass-fed and pastured animals aren’t getting the calorie loaded diets they don’t always have as much marbling and it takes them longer to have any marbling.
There are other factors that can make your meat tough that have nothing to do with if the animal is eating grass or not.
Animals that are stressed before and during slaughter don’t age well so the meat doesn’t become tender. This happens when animals are not slaughtered in a humane and quick fashion. No matter how it was slaughtered, improperly aged and overcooked meat will not be as tender as it should be.
How to deal with it?
Before you buy it:
Talk to your butcher or farmer about how the animals were raised, slaughtered and processed. If you’ve had a bad experience with meat you’ve bought there before, be honest. They should care and offer advice. If they don’t, you may want to consider buying your meat elsewhere.
You might want to ask:
If and how the meat was aged
What the animals were fed
How the animals were housed
How old the animals were went butchered
What cut they recommend for the meal you’d like to cook
When you get it home:
Let it rest
Instead of cooking the meat that night let it set in the fridge a couple days covered on a plate. During that time it will continue to go through the aging process and become more tender. Before you cook meat allow it to warm on the counter. Cooking meat when it’s straight from the fridge makes it loose more moisture and stops a good browning from happening.
Brine, marinate, rub or cure
The acid, salt and sugar help breakdown muscle fibers in the same way that aging meat does. For meat you know is going to be tough; such as old hens or old cows, this is the best way to go.
Cook it low and slow
Lowering the cooking temperature and lengthening the cooking time can prevent the meat from drying out so it stays moist and tender. You can accomplish this by covering meat for the first part of the cooking time in the oven, by cooking in crock pots and by just dropping the cooking temperature.
Cook it rare or cook it precise
For red meats the easiest way to retain the good texture is to cook it rare. This is probably why you don’t hear a lot of people complaining about tough grass-fed beef.
For either red or white meats keeping close tabs on the temperature can make a huge difference. Meat continues to raise as much as ten degrees from the temperature you read in the oven or pan. So take your cuts out ten degrees before your ideal temperature. Meat thermometers are easy to use and there are endless temperature guides online so don’t let this intimidate you. This is also why it’s so important to let meat rest before you cut it up. That little bit of time lets the juices redistribute throughout the meat.
For further reading on cooking grass fed and pastured meat check out this book, The Grassfed Gourmet