We get a lot of questions about the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef. What we have found is that people want to buy the highest quality beef that is also ethically raised and free of growth hormones, antibiotics, and other nasty things. We have also learned there is a ton of confusion about whether grass-fed beef is a better buy than grain-fed beef.
Today, we are going to discuss the real differences that matter to buyers. We're going to share some tips for making good purchase decisions at your local butcher or grocery store, and then we want to share another favorite recipe with you.
Is Grass Fed or Grain Fed Better?
This is the question we are asked the most, and it's not an easy one to answer. Both have pros and cons that can sway an opinion. Before we get into explaining the differences, let's explain what grass fed and grain fed mean for cattle production.
Grass Fed Cows
Beef that comes from grass-fed cows is exactly that. These animals were raised eating grass in pastures. One of the first considerations when buying grass-fed beef is what kinds of grass it was eating. Ranchers raising grass-fed cattle have to grow specific types of grass to produce a good-quality beef. When you eat beef from grass fed cattle, you will get more flavor but those flavors are a result of the types of grass the cattle ate.
Grain Fed Cows
Grain-fed beef comes from cattle that are fed a mixture of prepared grains and pasture grass. The grains used typically include barley, wheat, corn, and soy. Grain-fed cattle are usually finished on grain to increase the size of the animal. Cows finished on grains will have a higher fat content and are typically much larger.
Does Grass Fed or Grain Fed Beef Taste Better?
Of course, this is the most important question. Everyone knows that grass fed beef costs more, but does it taste better? There are differences in the texture and flavor of each type, but the biggest determiner to flavor is the quality of the beef and the type of cut.
On our YouTube channel, we have a video showing how we break down two similar beef carcasses, one which was grass-fed and the other was grain-fed. Both cattle were raised nearby, and we have a great amount of knowledge about the environment these cattle grew up in. For instance, we know they are free of growth hormones, antibiotics, and they have been raised on a high-quality diet.
It's important to point out that neither animal was rated by the USDA, which is a voluntary grading system for US cattle that establishes high-quality. Even though ours aren't graded, that doesn't mean they are inferior. Many conventionally raised animals are fed grain diets that include growth hormones. In most cases, if it doesn't have a label saying it's free of these additives, assume they are there.
The Difference in Color
The first thing you notice about grass fed vs. grain fed beef is the color. Grass fed beef is darker red and has significantly less fat. The fat on a grass fed beef also has a more yellowish tint than grain fed beef. The grain fed carcass is more pink and shows much more fat both on the outside and throughout the meat. The color difference is caused by the diet each animal eats. Higher fat production through grain feeding results in a lighter cut of meat.
The Difference in Size
Grass fed cows simply don't get as large as cattle finished on corn and soy. The obvious result is that a cut of beef from a grain fed cow will be larger, meatier, and have more fat. In our video, the difference was apparent immediately. The starting weight was different and each cut was simply larger from the grain fed cow.
The Difference in Flavor
It's too bad you can't smell what we're cooking through our videos, because we smoked some grass fed and grain fed beef on our Traeger for the video, and man did it smell great. In our side-by-side comparison of the two types of beef, the beefy flavor is more pronounced with grass-fed beef and the fat has a grassy flavor. If you have a low quality grass fed steak, it may have some off flavors that are unappealing.
The grain-fed beef had a less pronounced beef flavor. The best way to describe the difference between grain-fed and grass-fed flavor is to compare the fat: the grain fed one is more like a butter flavor, while the grass fed takes on a olive oil flavor.
Is Grass Fed Beef Tougher than Grain Fed?
If you buy equally high-quality steaks, you might notice only a slight difference in tenderness between grain fed and grass fed. The lower fat content of the pasture raised animal, and the fact that these animals tend to get more exercise means there is a chance the meat will be tough.
When you select a cut of beef, feel it. It should be tender. Hard, uniform-colored beef is going to be tough. Also look for gristle, it looks like a grayish bit of fat. When you buy beef, it should be evenly marbled with fat and tender to the touch.
The way the beef is cooked can have a big impact on the tenderness. Grass-fed beef is easier to overcook, while grain-fed beef will have more fat drippings. A good meat thermometer and an instant read thermometer are valuable tools in preventing overcooked beef.
Is Grass Fed Really Healthier?
Beef from grass fed cows has been shown in studies to contain higher levels of important nutrients, like vitamin a, vitamin e, and antioxidants that benefit health. Beta carotene, a vitamin consumed when cows feed on pasture grass, is both beneficial and the reason for the yellowish tinted fat.
Grass fed beef is lower in saturated fat due to the difference in its diet and the amount of exercise the animals get. This makes grass-fed beef a better choice for heart health focused diets. Grass-fed beef contains about twice the amount of heart healthy ALA Omega 3 fatty acid as conventionally raised cattle. So if you're looking to be health conscience, it might be beneficial to give grass fed beef a shot.
The Environmental Difference
When cows are raised on a properly managed pasture, grass-fed beef has a lower environmental impact than feedlots. There is less manure build up, less pollution, and the cows tend to be healthier overall. We think it's important to try and learn as much about where your beef comes from, how it's raised, and whether it was treated with hormones and antibiotics.
Picanha Beef Skewers Recipe
We are going to share a fun recipe with you today using a cut of beef that's gaining popularity in the United States. The cut is called Picanha (pronounced Pee-Can-Ya) and it is the top of the rump roast. It gets its name from a Portuguese word Picana, a type of cane used in Portugal and Spain to herd cattle. In Brazil, the Picanha is the most popular cut of meat, and today we will share our take on how to prepare Picanha.
The cut of beef comes from the top of the sirloin. Most US butchers cut this part into sections called rump, loin, and round. In the Brazilian style, the cut is kept intact and the fat is left on.
Preparation is easy – just slice, season, skewer.
In Brazil, the Picanha is grilled over an open flame. Our twist to this style is to smoke the horseshoe-shaped cuts, then give them a nice sear on a cast iron griddle.
- Picanha beef roast – try requesting this cut from your local butcher if it isn't available on the shelf. In the US, it's often called the sirloin cap.
- Wooden Skewers
- Bearded Butcher Blend Seasoning Black
- Slice the Picanha roast into 1"-1 1/2" cuts against the grain.
- Sprinkle the Black seasoning liberally, making sure the meat is completely covered.
- Preheat the smoker to 180 degrees. Place a grill-safe cast iron griddle on the top rack.
- Curl the beef cuts fat-side out, then skewer through the center to hold together.
- Place the skewers on the bottom rack of the smoker and cook until an internal temperature of 110 degrees is reached.
- Remove the skewers from the smoker and increase the temperature to 500 degrees. Wait several minutes for the cast iron griddle to sufficiently heat.
- Sear the skewers for about two minutes per side or until an instant read thermometer registers about 125 degrees (rare to medium rare) or 135 degrees (medium rare).
- Remove the skewers and slice the Picanha in thin sections. Then serve!
While there are lots of differences between grass fed and grain fed cattle, the biggest factor is quality. When you are shopping the meat counter, pay close attention to the labels. Beef can be labeled grass fed, but without the AGW Certified Grassfed logo, you don't know for sure that the animal was raised on pasture grass. Other labels, such as Prime, are certifications of protein-to-fat and quality labels.
The best way to pick a good piece of meat is by feel and by sight. Grass fed beef will have less marbling, but should be a nice, dark red color. Grain fed beef will be lighter in color and have more fat. Either type should be tender to the touch and should be without thick, heavy gristle.
The Bearded Butchers are dedicated to providing as much information as we possibly can to help you understand how to best process and prepare meats of all kinds. To help you, we maintain a blog and YouTube channel with lots of free, high-quality information. The Bearded Butchers and Beardedbutchers.com are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This means that The Bearded Butchers may receive a commission if you click on a link above and make a purchase on Amazon.com.