Grain-fed beef tends to have a milder flavor with a more tender and buttery texture.
There’s an ever-changing landscape of beef available at Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse, where head chef Danny McCallum prints the menu daily. "I like to have the menu read like a wine list,” he says. “Do you prefer California Cab or Bordeaux? Angus from Kansas or from Scotland? It's all about the terroir in these cases."
Guests at the high-end Toronto restaurant can also choose from a variety of grass-fed steaks, including domestic beef sourced from local farms in Canada as well as imported beef sourced from different regions around the world. McCallum notes he’s seen a significant uptick in demand for those grass-fed cuts, driven in large part by their health and sustainability halos.
Gibsons Restaurant Group has seen consistent growth in consumers craving grass-fed beef, too. Corporate executive chef Daniel Huebschmann cites The Boathouse as one example. Located in Orlando's Disney World resort, the upscale steak and seafood concept stands as one of the nation's highest-grossing restaurants. It was moving a fair amount of 12-ounce grass-fed ribeye steaks when it launched the product in the months leading up to COVID-19, and Huebschmann says the item has seen “exponential growth” coming out of the pandemic.
“If I had to compare January 2020 to January 2022, I’d say we were up around 40 percent,” he says. “This spring we saw our second-best month on that item, and it’s been available for about four years.”
Grass-fed beef also resonates at Gibsons Italia, the company’s modern Italian steakhouse in Chicago, where the menu is designed to promote exploration. Guests are encouraged to share steaks with their table and compare the flavors and textures associated with different types of beef.
Gibsons Restaurant Group first got into the grass-fed beef game when Gibsons Italia was in the R&D stage. Huebschmann wanted to offer a more diverse selection of steaks beyond the grain-fed domestic prime the company was known for.
“We vetted out domestic cuts, and we vetted out Australian cuts. There really was no competition,” he says. “It would’ve been great to stay domestic on this, but when you’re talking about finding 100 percent grass-fed beef with all of the things people are looking for—free range, no added hormones, no antibiotics—there’s no competing with Australia.”
It can be a challenge for chefs in the U.S. to source true grass-fed beef. Carrie Carter Balkcom, executive director of the American Grass-Fed Association, says some domestic beef products labeled as grass-fed may come from animals that were fed a combination of grass and grain or had limited access to pasture.
“The problem is that the labeling laws are so lax that we’re not really sure if people are serving grass-fed or if they’re serving something they’re being told is grass-fed,” she says. “The USDA allows meat that is brought in from offshore–which you have no clue how it was produced–to be labeled as grass-fed. It’s allowed to be labeled as a product of the U.S.A. if it’s repackaged here in any way. That means chefs really have to stand up and say, ‘I want to know where this comes from and I want to know exactly how it was raised.’”
Meat Standards Australia (MSA), the country’s USDA-equivalent grading system, takes into account specific attributes associated with pasture-raised cattle to provide a reliable framework for verifying and predicting the quality of grass-fed beef. MSA also serves as a tool for producers to optimize their practices, which Huebschmann says has resulted in an overall better-tasting product.
“We found the Australian product tasted cleaner, and it didn’t leave that metallic aftertaste you get sometimes with grass-fed beef,” he says. “That has to do with the environment and the quality of the grass that the animals consume.”
McCallum shares a similar sentiment, describing the Australian grass-fed beef as “mind bogglingly delicious for being 100 percent grass-fed.”
Jacobs & Co. also sources grass-fed beef from Argentina and from local farmers in Toronto. The full-spectrum approach creates opportunities to engage with guests and explain the differences between the various grass-fed options, as well as the differences between grain-fed and grass-fed beef.
Grain-fed beef tends to have a milder flavor with a more tender and buttery texture. Grass-fed typically is leaner and chewier with a more grassy, earthy, and gamier taste. McCallum says it often is the least expensive option, which means people frequently order it by default, even if they’re unfamiliar with what it means in terms of flavor and texture.
“There's a lot of explaining to guests that it isn’t necessarily your typical tender and juicy steak,” he says. “That’s something you lose when you’re going with a product that’s more natural. On the other hand, it has more of a bite to it. It has a very unique flavor profile. When you start getting really specific about where it comes from and what it ate, then you start getting closer to a true representation of what grass-fed can be, which is equal if not sometimes better than grain-fed. A lot of people really enjoy it, so there’s certainly a lot of value in having it around.”