We talk to two expert chefs about why they choose grain-fed beef over grass-fed.
Grass against the grain: which steak has the best flavour?
If, like many people, you normally just pick your meat out of a supermarket chiller cabinet in a post-work daze, the question of whether grass-fed or grain-fed beef tastes better may seem pretty arcane.
There are many die-hard beef lovers, however, for whom the question is one of major importance, with each type of meat having gathered its own committed fan club. While some swear by the lower fat content and firmer texture of grass-fed meat, others insist these qualities are nothing compared with the succulent, fat marbling of grain-fed steaks.
Abu Dhabi's beef lovers are as divided on the subject as anyone else - it's rare that you find a serious steak-house in the city that doesn't make sure it offers something to both camps. As Jason Oakley, the chef de cuisine at the St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort's Grill, 55th and 5th, says: "Asking chefs whether grass-fed or grain-fed beef is better is like asking how to make a curry in India - you're going to get 500 different answers."
The difference between the two types of meat, however, isn't as clear-cut as you might think. Darren Andow, the executive chef in charge of the restaurants at Yas Island Rotana and Centro Yas Island, including the Blue Grill steakhouse, says: "All the grain-fed beef we serve is actually grass-fed, too, for the first part of its existence - the cattle are only put on a grain diet for the last 100 to 120 days of their lives."
Those final days still make a major difference, nonetheless. While the fat from grass-fed cattle tends to surround the muscle, the flesh of grain-fed cattle has more fat marbled through it, creating a natural baste for the meat as it melts during cooking. This can also boost the meat's flavour intensity, though the naturally herby flavour created by a pure grass diet also has its fans.
Concern for the environment is often behind many people's preference for grass-fed meat. Beef fattened up on barley, wheat or maize requires more energy and resources from farmers than any other type of husbandry, while the cattle's final fattening often (but not always) takes place in confined conditions.
Exclusively pasture-fed cattle, by contrast, have a lighter carbon footprint, while bringing them to slaughter requires less penning of the animals and produces meat with a marginally higher level of essential fatty acids. While grass feeding is the norm in some countries such as Argentina, in the US - where it is less common - it generally costs a bit more per pound. But does the extra cash pay off when it comes to taste?
Pushed to choose his favourite, Andow comes out on the side of grain: "We do serve grass-fed beef from Argentina at Blue Grill, which has a slightly more gamey flavour but, personally, I still feel the grain-fed [beef] has a slightly better taste - its marbling makes the meat more fatty but also more juicy."
While Oakley also serves grass-fed beef, he broadly feels the same way: "In blind tasting, there are always people who will go with the softer, more mellow taste of grass-fed meat, but if I had to choose one meat it would be [grain-fed] Blackmore Farm wagyu from Australia," he says. "It has no steroids or what have you in it and blends old and new farming methods brilliantly. The fat starts to melt at around 7 degrees in your hand and the end texture is a little like firm butter, with a slightly nutty taste and a wonderful, almost floral perfume."
With both these experts in the field erring on the side of grain, you might think the issue was sewn up - except that the writer of this piece personally prefers grass-fed meat.
Sure, the lesser fat marbling means it needs to be cooked carefully and I personally find it difficult to make a well-done grass-fed steak taste great. But while it doesn't have that marbled succulence, I still feel it has a meatier, firmer and - perversely - grainier texture that makes it more interesting. That choice might raise the hackles of lovers of unctuous, buttery grain-fed meat but, thankfully, Abu Dhabi provides ample choice for both of us.