There are many reasons that one would choose to eat grass-fed beef over grain-fed. Nicer to the cows? Certainly. Farms that are prettier to look at? Definitely. Better for the environment? Well, probably.
But the real question, and the question we're going to hopefully answer today: How does it taste?
Proponents of grass-fed claim that it has a more robust, gamier, "beefier" flavor, while those who favor grain-fed tout the greater amount of intramuscular fat (known as marbling), which melts as the beef cooks, basting it, keeping it moist, and providing richness. But which camp is correct? A double-blind tasting was clearly in order.
Contender #1: Grass-Fed
Organic grass-fed beef raised in Wyoming from Rocky Mountain Organic Meats. For a grass-fed beef, this stuff was surprisingly well marbled. One of the advantages of a burger as opposed to a steak or a roast is that the amount of fat in the finished product is easily modified. In this case, I added a bit of extra fat from the cap on the short rib in order to keep the fat content about level with that of the grain-fed beef.
Contender #2: Grain-Fed, High-Quality
Creekstone Farm's Premium Black Angus beef, butchered and distributed by Pat La Frieda. The same beef that goes into some of New York's best burgers, including those at Shake Shack, Minetta Tavern, Bill's Bar and Burger, and Burger Joint. The cuts themselves are deeply marbled, and produce burgers that are correspondingly fatty.
Contender #3: Grain-Fed, Low Quality
USDA select grade beef from my local NSA Supermarket. While the short ribs pictured here have a fair amount of fat, distributed in largish swaths, the meat itself, and particularly the sirloin and brisket, have almost no marbling (as is typical of Select grade meat —the third tier down on the USDA's quality scale). I tried to compensate as best I could by including some extra fat from the short rib, but even so, these patties ended up significantly leaner than the other two.
I assembled a rag-tag bunch of crack tasters and misfits (I won't tell you who belongs in which category) for the job: Slice editor Adam Kuban, A Hamburger Today editor Robyn Lee, the main man Ed Levine, AHT contributor Nick Solares, myself, and Burger Conquest bloggers Rev and Jackie.
The good folks at RUB BBQ, one of New York's finest producers of "smashed" burgers, kindly agreed to host our tasting by cooking their burgers with beef handed off to them in hush-hush tones and at a pre-determined location, delivered in packages marked simply with a number. They were instructed to destroy the bags after removing the beef, and to serve us one type of beef at a time. In the interest of eliminating all bias, they were served in random order, only revealing this order after all burgers had been tasted.
Every batch of beef was ground in the same meat grinder fitted with a 1/4-inch die, and made with the same ratios of meat (a modified version of our Blue Label Burger Blend, with short rib substituted for oxtail, as grass-fed oxtail was unavailable), delivered to the restaurant, and cooked within 2 hours of grinding. We tasted each burger in two different forms: as a naked hamburger (patty and bun only), and as a "RUB" burger, which includes cheese, pickles, and caramelized onions. No flash photography was allowed, and conversation was limited to predetermined topics including Ed's saxophone skills, the Coriolis effect, and Cleaving. All talk of beef, grass, and burgers was suppressed until after the last burger was tasted, considered, and commented on.
Tasters were given tasting sheets to fill out, which included sections for comments on flavor and texture, and then asked to rank the burgers in order of favorite to least favorite after all burgers had been tasted and accounted for.
The good news? We were quite easily able to pick out the low-quality burger meat from the other two—score-wise, it lost by a landslide, taking the bottom spot on all except two taster's score sheets. Comments ranged from "does not taste like a hamburger should," to "sawdusty," and "sandy and dry."
The reason? It has to do with this:
As you can easily see, the select-grade beef on the left has almost no fat, while the Pat La Frieda beef on the right has tons of marbling. At least we know one thing for certain: You can't make a good burger with bad beef.
The Pat La Frieda beef was praised for it's "straighforward burger flavor," and "juicy, slightly crunchy [crust]," by some tasters, though others felt that the texture was "pulpy" or "grainy," and that the burgers didn't hold together well enough. Admittedly, part of the quality and appeal of La Frieda's burgers probably comes from the way in which they grind it (with a Volkswagen Beetle-sized grinder in a in a refrigerated room), because none of the La Frieda burgers I've had at other restaurants have shown the pebbly, grainy quality which these patties had.
But the overall winner? The grass-fed. It sported some of the same pebbliness of the La Frieda beef (again, probably due to the grinding), but had a "definite funkiness," a "slight gaminess," with "mineral" flavors, and overall was the "beefiest" burger of the lot.
The Wild Card Contender: Pre-Ground Beef
In the interest of pure curiosity, I decided to also include a sample of 85/15 ground chuck that I bought from the Union Square Whole Foods. The butcher on duty swore that it was ground fresh within hours of when it was purchased (I trust him—I've never lied to him, so what reason does he have to lie to me?). I figured that any kind of store-ground product would be left in the dust, but the Whole Food's beef was a controversial contender, claiming the #1 spot of three different taster's sheets, being praised for it's juiciness and fine texture, while others panned it as being "too dense", with a "greasy, mild taste."
Admittedly, the results of this tasting are far from conclusive. This is but round one in a battle that is sure to continue until either the cows all die, the grass all disappears, or human beings go extinct (I'm hoping the third will occur first, because what's the point in living in a world where you can't feel the grass between your toes and the beef between your teeth?). Immediate questions come to mind: Could I make the ultimate burger by bringing the grass-fed beef to La Frieda's grinder? How would the Whole Food's ground chuck fare if it was ground on my machine at home? Will a decent butcher ever move into my neighborhood of Prospect Heights, or must I be content with the NSA Supermarket's lean offerings?
My mind simultaneously reels and rouses at the volume of burgers that must be consumed in the name of science...
About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives with his wife in New York, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and co-writes the blog GoodEater.org about sustainable food enjoyment.