By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
About five or six years ago, I was having a conversation with my food and beverage director who, much in the way Vinny’s fiancé was an automobile expert in the movie “My Cousin Vinny,” is an expert in all things food.
We spent many evenings sitting at his kitchen table enjoying a glass of wine, delving deeply into what, on the surface, might seem to be mundane topics. This night was no exception. We were discussing grass-finished versus corn-finished beef and which one tastes better. All cows are raised on grass in some fashion, but what they eat the last six months is referred to as finishing.
It was his strong opinion that corn-finished beef tasted better than cattle finished on grass. As a chef, I know I was supposed to say that grass-finished beef tastes better. But I agreed with him—I too believe corn-finished beef tastes better.
Taste is subjective. When we refer to “taste,” we are usually merging flavor with mouthfeel in our minds. To be precise—grass-fed beef sometimes tastes better, but corn-fed beef almost always has a better mouthfeel.
A while back, a couple of us from Buck’s visited a place called Ranchland in Butte. Ranchland is one the four federally inspected processing plants in Montana. Touring a processing plant is generally not very exciting to most people unless it directly effects your line of work.
We made our way to the aging room where there were approximately 60 beef carcasses hanging, all at various stages of the drying process. It’s amazing to see the subtle differences between breeds, as well as the effects of diet, nutrition and exercise.
But one thing stood out to us immediately.
Some carcasses had an almost paper-thin layer of fat on the exterior of the muscles and you could still see a substantial portion of muscle. Others were covered in an off-white, almost creamy, layer of fat about half an inch thick. And you could not see any muscle because the fat covered it completely.
The first carcass was an animal that had been finished on grass. The second carcass had been finished on corn. Give or take the specifics of a given feed lot, “finished” refers to how the cow is fed the last six months. If that isn’t an obvious example of the effects of corn as opposed to grass, I don’t know what is.
The ones finished on corn have a distinct difference in fat-marbling. And fat-marbling equals mouthfeel which, for most people, translates to better flavor.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1964 the average live weight of beef cattle was 1,043 pounds. In 2014, it was 1,330 pounds. That’s about a 21 percent increase in weight. Just imagine if humans increased their weight by 21 percent in 50 years. Wait, scratch that.
What does this tell us? That we are raising cows to be larger than ever. And among the many factors, some of which I will explore in the future, we achieve this additional weight by finishing a cow on corn.
Corn is not natural to cattle. It’s not natural to humans either, but that’s another article.
In 1965, Americans consumed 63.3 pounds of beef per person per year. By 2016, that number dropped to 56.6 pounds. In this same period, the total number of cattle being raised and slaughtered has gone down, yet the total gross weight of slaughtered beef has increased.
There are a few reasons for this. But one of the primary reasons is corn.
The relationship between beef and the human appetite is vast and complex to say the least, and I will be returning to this topic from time to time.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky