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Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef

By Cook's Illustrated Published November 2009

Does the cow's diet make any difference when it comes to selecting a cut of steak?

Picking out a steak is no longer as simple as choosing the cut, the grade, and whether or not the beef has been aged. Another consideration: the cow’s diet. While most American beef is grain-fed, many supermarkets are starting to carry grass-fed options as well.

Grain-fed beef has long been promoted as richer and fattier, while grass-fed beef has gotten a bad rap as lean and chewy with an overly gamey taste. To judge for ourselves, we went to the supermarket and bought 16 grass-fed and 16 grain-fed rib-eye and strip steaks. Because the grass-fed steaks were dry-aged 21 days, we bought the same in the grain-fed meat. When we seared the steaks to medium-rare and tasted them side by side, the results surprised us: With strip steaks, our tasters could not distinguish between grass-fed and grain-fed meat. Tasters did, however, notice a difference in the fattier rib-eyes, but their preferences were split: Some preferred the “mild” flavor of grain-fed beef; others favored the stronger, more complex, “nutty” undertones of grass-fed steaks. None of the tasters noticed problems with texture in either cut.

What accounts for the apparent turnaround in meat that’s often maligned? The answer may lie in new measures introduced in recent years that have made grass-fed beef taste more appealing, including “finishing” the beef on forage like clover that imparts a sweeter profile. Perhaps even more significant is that an increasing number of producers have decided to dry-age. This process concentrates beefy flavor and dramatically increases tenderness.

Our conclusion: For non-dry-aged grass-fed beef, the jury is still out over whether it tastes any better (or worse) than grain-fed. But if your grass-fed beef is dry-aged—and if you’re okay with fattier cuts like rib-eye that taste a little gamey—you’ll likely find the meat as buttery and richly flavored as regular grain-fed dry-aged beef.