In this 101: Six questions for the grassfed guru Shannon Hayes; plus, recipes, tips on where to buy, and more.
If you want an introduction to grassfed and pasture-raised meat, you can’t do better than Shannon Hayes: upstate New York family farmer; author of books including The Grassfed Gourmet, The Farmer and the Grill, and Radical Homemakers; Ph.D. in Sustainable Agriculture and Community Development from Cornell; and, it’s worth noting, an active HOMEGROWN member—and a downright nice person, to boot.
Shannon’s new book, Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies, and Living Deliciously, hits shelves in early September 2012; look for it in bookstores and on shannonhayes.info. But before we start enjoying our meat to the utmost, we wanted to learn a little more about what goes into raising it. We called Shannon for the basics.
HOMEGROWN: Let’s start simple. What is grassfed meat?
SHANNON HAYES: There are actually two different things: grassfed meat and pasture-raised meat. Grassfed meat comes from animals who have lived on carefully managed pastures all of their lives. When they’re indoors, during the winter, for example, they’re fed hay or an equivalent to hay—but no grain whatsoever. Pastured animals are omnivorous animals, like pigs and chickens, who cannot exist exclusively on a diet of grass. They’re kept on fresh, clean pasture, and their diet is supplemented with some kind of grain. So, beef and lamb are grassfed; pigs and chickens are pastured.
How does grassfed and pasture-raised meat differ from that raised using other methods?
For one thing, it uses a lot less fossil fuels to produce. Animals walk to their feed; it doesn’t have to be produced in a monoculture setting and shipped to the farm [as can be the case with corn, which often constitutes the bulk of a grain-fed cow’s diet]. It’s better for the environment because proper grazing management decreases runoff, making the pastures more drought resistant and also spongier—able to take up more water in a flood situation. It increases biodiversity in the surrounding fields. And it’s shown to be practically carbon neutral. The pastures sequester carbon out of the atmosphere and fix it into the soil, which is what properly managed grass should do. And it protects the watershed because it doesn’t pollute. It’s not concentrating excrement.
In addition to environmental benefits, does it do anything for the meat?
Grassfed animals—and they have to be grassfed for the entire course of their lives—are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids and CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids), and they’re higher in vitamins. If you’re cooking with simply seasoned meat, you’re definitely going to taste the difference, particularly with beef. There are going to be variations in flavor around the country and from farm to farm because of the differences in breeds and the diversity of grasses they’re fed. And there’s going to be some variation in fat content. That’s natural and good. But, overall, there’s a sweet herbaceousness you’ll detect in grassfed beef that you won’t get from factory farms—a mineral-rich flavor.
What’s the difference between terms like “grassfed” and “pasture-raised” and “free range” and “all natural”? Are they interchangeable?
Some grassfed producers use the term “free range.” All grassfed and pasture-raised meat is free range, but free range does not necessarily mean the meat was grassfed and pasture raised. Free range means not caged. It does not mean the animal was raised on a steady of diet of grass and was getting moved around to fresh, clean pastures. “Grassfed” and “pasture raised” are the most important terms to look for—and not “grassfed, grain finished.” Grassfed means for an animal’s entire life. Some people use that term casually, not mentioning that, for the last few weeks of its life, an animal was fattened on grain, which totally changes the whole fatty profile of the meat. It makes a huge difference, those last few weeks. So sometimes we say “grassfed and grass finished.” [For more definitions, see HOMEGROWN's Food Labeling 101.]
Do you have a couple of universal grilling tips that everyone should follow?
With all cuts of meat, you’re only going to light half of the grill. Sear your steaks and chops directly over the heat, about two minutes per side. Then finish over indirect heat with the lid down, about five to seven minutes per pound.
Where can folks find grassfed and pasture-raised meat producers in their area?
Eatwild.com. Hands down, it’s the most reputable site out there. Come to me to learn how to cook it; go to them to learn where to find it. Any grassfed producers reading this better get themselves on that site.
SHANNON'S RECIPE: SIRLOIN TIP, JUICY STEAK FOR LEAN TIMES
For fail-safe grilling on a budget, Sharon recommends this recipe, a method that elevates the modest sirloin tip into a thing of simple beauty, from her new book, Long Way on a Little. “We are all facing the need to stretch our dollars as far as possible,” she writes on her website grassfedcooking.com. “That doesn’t mean we all need to stop eating steak dinners and subsist on a diet of pig knuckles and chicken feet. A boneless cut with lots of lean muscle and very little waste, a sirloin tip steak will feed a lot of dinner companions for a great price . . . and your guests are likely to think you splurged on some top-of-the-line sirloin.”
DAD'S TAMARI BALSAMIC MARINADE
Works with beef, pork, lamb, or poultry; makes about 1 1/2 cups; total carbohydrates: 62.31 g
1/2 cup olive oil
¼ cup tamari
½ cup balsamic vinegar
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons honey
Add steak to marinade, cover, and refrigerate overnight, turning occasionally. Remove from the marinade and pat dry. Allow the meat to sit out on your counter to come to room temperature while you prepare your grill.
Start the grill and warm it until it is hot. If you are using a gas grill, turn off all but one of the burners once it has come up to temperature. If you are using charcoal, be sure all the coals have been raked to one side. Use the hand test: The grate will be hot enough when you can hold your palm 3 to 4 inches above the metal grate for no more than three or four seconds.
Sear the steaks for 2 minutes on each side over direct heat. Move the steaks off direct heat, close the lid, and allow the steaks to cook over indirect heat, without turning, until they reach 120 to 135 degrees, about 5 to 7 minutes per pound.
Once they are cooked, remove the steaks to a platter and allow them to rest 5 minutes before serving. Serve sirloin tip steaks by slicing it into thin strips, being sure to cut across the grain of the muscle.
MORE FROM HOMEGROWN.ORG
You don't have to raise your own grassfed meat like Shannon and fellow HOMEGROWN member Violet to have useful tips to share.
• Andrew posts about why he decided to seek out grassfed and pasture-raised meat—and where he found it.
• Cornelia shares a mouth-watering recipe for spice-rubbed flank steak.
• And a reminder that every decision can help change at least one life—your own: Elizabeth blogs about four seemingly small acts, including asking her butcher where the shop's meat comes from.
• For further reading on what different terms mean, check out the Food Labeling 101.
Got a grassfed opinion? A recipe to share? Post it below and keep the conversation rolling. Bonus: Shannon will weigh in from time to time to comment and answer questions. For more on Shannon, visit shannonhayes.info, grassfedcooking.com, and sapbush.com. Looking for more ways to get involved? You might consider joining the Recipe Sharing group for additional grilling ideas, the Backyard Livestock and Backyard Chickens groups for further feed discussions, and the Radical Homemakers group for an ongoing chat inspired by Shannon’s seminal book. And you can always find more things to cook, preserve, plant, grow, make, craft, and sear in the HOMEGROWN 101 archive.
PHOTOS, FROM TOP: (PASTURE) SOUTHERN FOODWAYS ALLIANCE, COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS ON FLICKR; (SHANNON) COURTESY OF SHANNONHAYES.INFO; (CHICKEN) NOURISHING OUR CHILDREN PHOTOS, COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS ON FLICKR; (ON THE GRILL) BLIGH GILLIES/THE FARM AT SUNRISE RANCH, COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS ON FLICKR; (BOOK) COURTESY OF SHANNONHAYES.INFO; (STEAK STACK) BLIGH GILLIES/THE FARM AT SUNRISE RANCH, COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS ON FLICKR