Meat lovers get bullish on old dairy cows’ beef

Its concentration and complexity are the starting point and the fat takes on a buttery depth of flavour


STEAK from “old” cows is something of a national obsession in Spain. What Spaniards know is that even more than time spent in the dry-ageing locker, great steaks come from time spent on the hoof. The country’s Rubia Gallega cattle can live for more than a decade munching grass, packing on muscle and developing layers of buttery golden fat before they’re considered plate-worthy.

Finding such beef in US restaurants has traditionally been a challenge. When chef José Andrés was looking for American beef that he could serve in Las Vegas as vaca vieja (old cow) at Bazaar Meat by José Andrés, he tried some 500 different cuts of steak in his search. He eventually discovered Mindful Meats of Point Reyes Station, California, where he sources steaks from former dairy cows that are from eight to 10 years old.

While it was hard for restaurants to reliably find that sort of beef, it’s been nearly impossible for home cooks.

Virtually, all the beef sold in the US comes from cattle from 18 to 30 months old. After all, the faster a head of cattle can get to market weight, the higher the profit margins on that animal. There are pragmatic reasons, too: the Department of Agriculture requires any beef carcasses from cattle more than 30 months old to have the spine removed as a precaution against BSE, or Mad Cow Disease.

A few meat producers are pushing back against the focus on young cattle. And they’re marketing their beef with the kind of descriptions that connoisseurs of aged bourbons and vintage wines might find familiar, teasing flavour and texture that’s foreign to American palates that prize mildness and tenderness above all.

The Butter Meat Co, for example, invites “fellow food explorers” to order beef from former grass-fed dairy cows — usually four to eight years old — that would otherwise end up in the commodity beef market. Begun in February by Jill Gould, a former supply chain manager for Blue Apron, the company sources from farms around its base of operations in the tiny western New York town of Perry.

Gould says Wyoming County, where Perry is located, has more cows than people. “My customers, locally, are a little bit older,” she says. “They’re, like, ‘This makes complete sense. We used to eat this beef, and I missed beef that tastes like this.’”

The “this” they missed is an intense beefiness that makes traditional steak taste anaemic in comparison. Its concentration and complexity are the starting point, and the fat takes on a buttery depth of flavour.

Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York, has been a long- time advocate of beef from former “expired” dairy cows, for both environmental and culinary reasons. The restaurant periodically offers beef from dairy cows in its take- home ingredient boxes, available through its resourceED programme.

“I’m reluctant to talk too much about the ecological benefit when I can just talk about the taste,” he says. Citing the tallow he rendered from a nine- year-old dairy cow — which was the colour of lemon curd, rather than creamy white — he added: “You almost need to wear sunglasses to look at the fat.”

I assumed some degree of hyperbole. But the day after we spoke, I opened a pack of cross-cut beef shanks I got in the US$130 (RM559) Outlaw Box from Butter Meat Co, and I saw what he was talking about. The meat itself was coloured a deep burgundy — a few shades darker than typical butcher shop fare — but the marrow in the bone at the centre was the colour of an egg yolk.

I trimmed the meat from the bone and braised it into a stew. I roasted the bones and rendered the fat, which elevated roast potatoes into something mind-bendingly great. It will also be the medium in which I’ll sear burgers made of Butter Meat’s already rich ground beef.

A cooked steak from the author’s Outlaw Box, by The Butter Meat (source Butter Meat Co)

The packing materials also included a guide to thinking and talking about the flavour and texture of meat the way one would at a whiskey or wine tasting. It contained descriptors for aroma (buttery, nutty), flavour (grassy, malty, mineral), and other explanations of why a steak might have the taste and texture that it does. It also informed me that the cross-cut shank and ground beef came from a four-year-old Jersey cow, my chuck steak came from a six-year-old Holstein, and a Flintstone-sized rib steak was from a four-year-old Holstein.

I’m thinking of going even older, with a US$150 steak box from Old World Farms in Central Michigan. Its beef comes from seven-

to eight-year-old grass-fed dairy cows. Owner Eric Shevchenko embraced an old- meat sensibility once he moved back to his native Michigan after spending years in California, where he raised rabbits that were featured on menus at such restaurants as the French Laundry.

Most of the prized beef in Spain, however, is not from cows that have outlasted their milk-giving years. It is from cattle that have spent years fattening for just this purpose. If finding well-aged dairy cows in this country was difficult, finding well-aged beef cattle was impossible. But that, too, has changed.

Inspired by the Rubia Gallega beef of Spain, the Vintage Beef Co of Australia has been letting cattle — often breeding stock — age to a minimum of five years. It started coming into this country quietly, showing up mostly in Las Vegas and California on the menus of high-end steakhouses under the name Vintage Beef. With restaurant closures due to Covid-19, the importer has begun making sales directly to consumers.

Meanwhile, Carter Country Meats, a fourth-generation ranch in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, has been letting Angus cattle spend as much as 14 years grazing the 320 sq miles (828.8 sq km) of wild land for which the ranch has a permit, as well as on its own 500- acre (200.34ha) plot.

“We’ve had animals that look like an A5 Wagyu, and they’re 100% grass-fed, grass-finished,” says owner RC Carter. “That’s crazy. It’s the rarest steak in the world.” To signify not just the years spent on the hoof but the additional 45-day dry-ageing process, the ranch calls it “double aged”. — Bloomberg