Australian beef. Where do we start?
By Gourmet Traveller
Australian beef is big. Big overseas, where it graces the menus of leading restaurants in the US, UK, China and Japan, and big at home, where we're buying more of it than ever for our own kitchens and paying top-dollar for it when we dine out.
Despite its familiarity in most quarters, there's more to the king of the red meats than meets the eye. Where supermarkets once carried beef and beef alone, many now stock organic meat, or offer varying thicknesses of the same cut. Butchers provide greater diversity and flexibility still, with many better independent butchers sourcing grass-fed or grain-fed meat as their customers prefer, flagging the choice of specific bloodlines such as wagyu, and ageing meat on the premises. Glance at a menu at a specialist steakhouse and you may be amazed by the amount of information on offer. Forget rare, medium or well done - do you want the grass-fed Black Angus from Tasmania that's been dry-aged for 30 days, or the 500-day grain-fed full-blood wagyu from Victoria?
The genetics of the animal and its age, diet and location all have an impact on the qualities of its meat, and the manner and length of time that meat is aged has a further impact still. Grain feeding is common not least because the grain (in the US it's predominantly corn, but here the mix is more varied, typically including grain or silage from wheat, barley, sorghum and canola as well as corn) adds richness and marbling to the meat.
Marbling is the term for the fine veins of fat spread throughout the meat itself. It's also termed intramuscular fat (as opposed to the bands of extramuscular fat outside the muscles), and is regarded as a positive quality because that fat keeps the meat juicy as it's cooked and eaten. Chris Whitehead, chef at Sydney's Mad Cow steakhouse and a big grain-fed buyer, says, "Customers expect the meat to chew more tenderly in the mouth," even if that perception of tenderness has as much to do with fat as it does with cow, cut and cooking choice. Beef sold as grain-fed, according to law, "must have been fed in a feedlot for not less than 100 days, and not for less than 80 days of that, on a nutritionally balanced high-energy feed of which grain is the highest single component".
Grain-feeding is considered a more efficient way of raising beef and offers much more control over the finished meat for the grower than pasture-fed beef. It's worth noting here that feedlotting, the practice of penning animals to fatten them on grain, raises ethical flags with some diners. Many feedlots are spacious and well-shaded - if for no reason other than that a happy animal makes for better meat - but they can also be crowded or otherwise uncomfortable places for cattle to be.
It's important to note, too, that most 'grass-fed' or 'pasture-fed' beef is finished on grain, but it really depends on where you're buying it. Most big-supermarket beef around the country will be grass-fed meat finished on grain, but if you're buying it in southern Victoria or Tasmania, where grass is more likely to be in abundance, there's every chance it could be reared entirely on grass or silage. The advantage for grass, say its adherents, is the distinct flavour. Others argue that grain isn't a natural food for cattle and that you can taste the grain in the meat. Being lower in saturated fat, grass-fed meat might well be better for your health, too.
Beef isn't necessarily at its eating best immediately after slaughter. Dry-ageing, in which whole or parts of carcasses were hung or set on racks in temperature- and humidity-controlled cold rooms for days or weeks, was the traditional answer to this issue. Over time, natural enzymes break down the fibres of the meat, making it tender. It also loses moisture through evaporation, and gains intensity of flavour. (That lost moisture weight, and the weight lost to cutting off pieces of the outside of the meat which have succumbed to freezer burn or bacteria, also means the finished product costs more than beef that hasn't been dry-aged.)
In recent decades, though, wet-ageing, where cuts of beef are vacuum-sealed and refrigerated, is the norm. It takes up less space and doesn't sacrifice anything like the volume, making it a far cheaper practice. The meat you buy in the supermarket will typically have been slaughtered at 16-20 months and wet-aged for three to six weeks after that. Most beef connoisseurs, though, prefer the texture and flavour of dry-aged meat, citing its depth, richness and complexity. The term dry-aged is now seen on better menus, sometimes with details of how long the meat has been hung. Melbourne's Rockpool Bar & Grill, for one, ages its beef in-house, and lists steaks dry-aged between 17 and 45 days.
Part of the Australian edge with beef production is quality control. Serious investment in research and development and an emphasis on professionalism from paddock to abattoir and onwards have paid dividends. The eating quality of Australian beef is graded according to characteristics including the colour of the meat and fat, the amount of marbling, eye-muscle area, the rib fat and the maturity of the carcass. (Carcass maturity is determined by the degree of ossification of the dorsal spinous processes of the vertebrae, the fusing of the vertebrae and the shape and colour of the rib bones. Chronological age is less useful in judging meat quality: an animal that has spent its life deep in Tasmanian pasture is going to be in considerably different shape to a beast of the same age raised in drought-ravaged quarters.)
With an ever-greater emphasis on consistency of product, some Australian beef producers are becoming known by name for their particular style. David Blackmore, whose full-blood wagyu beef is crossed from the strains Tajima and Fujiyoshi for adaptation to the Australian climate and environment. Sher Wagyu, also from Victoria, also fetches top-dollar for its well-marbled meat both at home and abroad. John Dee, producing Black Angus, Murray Grey and cross-Hereford breeds, is a choice of many top chefs. Certified Australian Black Angus, the quintessential Australian product from a controlled brand, produces quality beef with excellent marbling.
Beef is produced all year round; veal is seasonal (best eaten May-September) and comes in two categories, lightweight (up to 70kg) and heavyweight (up to 150kg). If you want the best beef, visit the best butcher you can find. Talk to your butcher about what you want - if you prefer grass- or grain-fed meat to what you see in their shop window, let them know. In nine cases out of 10 they'll be more than happy to help you, and your interest and patronage will likely be rewarded with better and better meat. Knowing our meat at the household buying level can only be good for standards and the industry as a whole.
WORDS LISA FEATHERBY AND PAT NOURSE