Battle of the Dishes: Grass-Fed, Local Steak Versus Supermarket Steak
As retail experiences go, they were as different as it gets: I walked into Key Foods and found a bone-in rib steak in the refrigerated section, packaged in a Styrofoam container and covered in plastic. The label provided no information other than the cut, the weight (.80 pound), and the price ($7.90 at $9.99 per pound). Then I headed to Williamsburg and asked the bearded butcher behind the counter at Marlow and Daughters for a rib steak. How big did I want it? About a pound. He hauled out half of a cow's rib cage, blackened on the ends from dry-aging, and proceeded to spend at least 15 minutes breaking out my (precisely) one-pound steak, winnowing it down carefully, first with a band saw, and then with a knife. "So do you know where this cow came from?" I asked. Oh, did he. It came from Kinderhook Farm in Valatie, New York, he said--and then proceeded to tell me more than I ever thought I'd want to know about cattle breeds and the ins and outs of grass-feeding them. The one-pound steak cost $26.
Left: Kinderhook Farm rib steak from Marlow and Daughters; Right: Key Foods rib steak
Buying grass-fed, locally and humanely raised meat is better for animals, the environment, and our health. Those advantages are well-documented, and certainly won't be challenged here. But we were interested in something simpler--does grass-fed, local beef taste better? We've often said so ourselves, but we've never actually sat down and tasted industrial and artisanal meats side-by-side, in a controlled test.
Even when raw, differences in the two meats were obvious. The supermarket steak had a mushier, wetter texture, and the meat was pulling away from the bone and fat in places. It had a grayish cast, while the steak from Marlow and Daughters was a rich brownish red, with a firm texture and cream-colored fat.
After cooking. Left: Marlow and Daughters; Right: Key Foods
Each steak was sprinkled with exactly half a teaspoon of kosher salt, and set out to rest at room temperature for half an hour. A dry cast-iron skillet was pre-heated over high heat, and both steaks were cooked in the same pan, over the same heat, to medium-rare. While cooking, we noticed that the supermarket steak was slower to brown, gave off a ton of liquid, and was difficult to cook evenly--because of the way the fat had been cut, the meat curled up over itself. Because it was thinner, it was slightly past medium-rare by the time it had acquired the slightest sear. The Marlow and Daughters steak practically cooked itself, developing a gorgeous brown sear and sizzling noisily in the pan.
In cross-section: Left: Marlow and Daughters; Right: Key Foods
Each steak rested for 10 minutes before being cut into. We took the first bite from the middle of both steaks. The upshot is this: The two steaks taste so different, it is as though they came from unrelated species.
That's not to say the industrial beef tastes disgusting--rather, it's so mild as to be almost flavorless. It is vaguely, greasily bovine. The texture is slightly mushy (tender if you want to be kind), and the meat fibers pull away from each other distinctly, as you can see in the photo. But the grass-fed steak? It's as strongly flavored as lamb or goat chops, although it doesn't taste like either of those two animals. It's like fermented butter--slightly tangy and rich, with the long, mineral aftertaste of really good salami. The meat is firm, chewy, and mouth-filling. This is probably how beef used to taste, before we all got used to flaccid, fatty, vaguely-tasty-but-characterless industrial meat.
So the grass-fed, local steak wins this battle, as you probably guessed it would. If it's almost three times the price, we can all eat it one-third as often, but enjoy it three times as much.
Marlow and Daughters
95 Broadway, Brooklyn