Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sirloin tips

I read an on-line article today about buying meat straight from a farmer. It's a good article, and gives good information for newbies. I was a newbie several years ago. Completely clueless. Didn't know thing one about farm raised meat or how to order it. But like most things I do, I didn't let my ignorance and stupidity get in the way. I just jumped right in.

I made some mistakes, but overall the experience has been very rewarding. I won't go into the details of why or how to go about ordering meat from a farmer -- there are numerous websites (some listed below) out there that have lots of helpful instructions. But I do want to share a few more obscure lessons (or tips, aka sirloin tips, haha) I've learned, that you might not find elsewhere.

First off, don't be intimidated by the effort involved, because it is minimal. Don't be intimidated by farmers thinking you're a complete idiot. You're not. In general, the farmers that sell direct to the public are more than happy to answer all of your questions, and they are very friendly. If you happen to find a farmer that's not very friendly, then go somewhere else. You are the customer, after all.

Tip #1: Know what the farmer feeds their animals.

The first quarter beef we ever ordered came from an organic farm about 50 miles from our house. The farm is very nice and well respected. It is run by friendly folks. I had ordered whole chickens from them in the past. So I figured, why not order beef from them as well.

The hamburger from the meat was good, as was the sirloin. But the rib steaks, short ribs, T-bones had an unpleasant flavor. It tasted fishy, almost. This was our first venture into locally-bought beef, and we were confused. Is this the way the stuff is supposed to taste?

If I had been smart, I would have just called up the farmer and asked him about it. But I wasn't. I was a newbie, and didn't want to look like an idiot. Instead, I did a bit of research. I knew that this farm was an organic farm that raised a lot of different animals. They also raised a lot of grains, including flax. In order to boost the omega 3 in the eggs that they sell, they mix a lot of flax into their poultry feed.

Now, I came across a study that found that chickens fed an excess amount of flax had fishy-tasting eggs. I put two and two together, and reasoned that the farmer might have finished his cows on grain a few months before butcher. It's possible that the farmer doesn't separate the grains he feeds his cows from the grains he feeds his chickens. So, perhaps the cows ate a bunch of flax, which in turn gave a fishy flavor to the meat.

That's my theory at least. To be honest I still haven't spoken to the farmer about it, and it's been over five years now. I just decided not to buy any more beef from him. Instead, I tried buying beef from another organic farmer across the border in South Dakota. Which leads us to the next tip.

Tip #2: Have the meat cut/processed at a reputable butcher.

We ordered our next quarter beef and were pleased to discover a distinct lack of fishy flavor. However, it was replaced by another unpleasant flavor. It took us awhile to figure out what it was. It was most noticeable in the hamburger. Again, if I was smart I would have called up the farmer. Not that he would have had a clue about it in this instance, but it would have been a wise first step. Instead hubby and I just gave the hamburger to the cats and muddled through the rest of the quarter.

A short while later I was watching an episode of Alton Brown's 'Good Eats', and heard him say that if you cut up meat with a grinder/saw at too high a speed, it will actually heat up the grinder blades to the point where it will sear the meat. This gives the meat a burned fat flavor. When I heard that I jumped up and said, "That's it!" That's what we had been tasting. Burned fat. The processor must have been grinding or cutting the beef at too high a speed.

At this point I did call up the farmer, and asked him about it. He didn't have a clue. I think he thought I was imagining it. I did find out where the meat was processed, though. And after asking around, found out that this particular butcher does not have the greatest reputation. In fact, most folks wondered how he was able to stay in business.

Needless to say, I didn't buy meat from this farmer again. And I made sure the meat we did buy wasn't processed at that facility.

Tip #3: If you have special requests regarding the meat, make sure you call the butcher to give them your instructions, well ahead of time.

Normally when you order a beef or a hog, you do so while the animals are still growing. It will be several months before it is butchered. Make sure the farmer calls you when the animal is sent, so that you can call the butcher with your special instructions.

Most butchers will have 'default' butchering processes. These may include cubing the round steak, curing the hams, and smoking the bacon. If you want your round steak uncubed, want fresh hams, or want unsmoked bacon (side pork), then you must call the butcher and let them know this. Processing costs add on to the total cost of the meat, so the less you have processed (smoking, curing, sausages, etc.) the cheaper it will be.

Also, if you want the more unusual pieces of meat (fat/lard, head, flank steak, kidneys, etc.) you should let the butcher know this. You might as well get it all -- you're paying for it regardless. At the very least it will make excellent pet food.

So, after two failed attempts at buying locally raised beef, my hubby was ready to quit and go back to store-bought. Good thing we didn't. The third time round we found a place with an excellent reputation, that raised grass-fed beef that was butchered at a well-regarded facility. The meat was tasty and the farmers were very helpful. And we've never gone back.

Here are some local farms in our area that sell direct to the customer. Their websites offer up a lot of good information on what and how to order.

Moonstone Farm
Pastures A Plenty
Murphy's Organic Farm
Morning Has Broken Farm

And here's a Fact Sheet from Oklahoma State Univeristy.

Keep in mind there are a lot of farms that don't have websites. Some state or univeristy Department of Agriculture websites might have more information about farms in your area. Check around at the local food co-ops, or ask around at farmers elevators if you have trouble finding a farm close to your home.

Good luck!


Mama Pea said...

Very informative post! There sure are more "underlying" things to think about than what's on the surface.

We get our beef from a farmer and it's wonderful. But we think his pork has the strangest flavor. Maybe you can't expect to get all different kinds of meat from the same farmer?

Erin said...

Great post! We had to get used to knowing what to ask for as well. We got lucky in that the first humane farm we went to, the pork was off the charts good, so we went back and waited for a beef share - again, incredible! I love how he sends an email out letting us know when "our cow" share has reached weight and is headed to the abbatoir, although I still have alot to learn about the different cuts, I still need to get better at that! I also kind of like that we really have to wait for the beef to reach butcher weight and they can't tell you when it will be, that means they aren't being stuffed full of grain on a timetable, and instead are busy pasturing and socializing with their bovine friends, having a good time until the big day! My kids always thank the animal we are eating at dinner, and I love that, taking them to the farm to pick up the meat was the best thing I ever did food wise for them. The farmer's daughters (there's 11 LOL) - think "Duggars", showed the kids all around!

jenny said...

We have a local cattle ranch down the road that raises grass-fed Texas long-horn steers (unusual for WV) and their meat tastes great, but unfortunately, they ONLY sell ground beef and at 5 bucks a pound, expensive. Found another place that sells grass-fed beef, and they butcher it themselves and sell by the cut, which is nice, but I think it's a little pricey-- 25 pounds can cost nearly 100 dollars, especially now that we have 4 kids and the husband only works part-time.

A friend wants us to go "halfsies" on a cow next fall, but we wondered about the price.. Any idea what we can expect to pay for half a cow?? I realize different regions may cost different, but I'd still appreciate your input.

Jo said...

Hey Mama Pea! Yeah, maybe a good beef farmer isn't always a good pork farmer. I think it's pretty cool that what an animals eats can have such an impact on how the meat tastes. Seems obvious, but most people don't think about it.

Hi Erin -- Glad to hear you have been successful with local farms. How cool that your kids thank the animals they eat, they will always understand that food comes from a farm and not the grocery store.

Howdy Jenny -- Yeah, the most economical way to go is by quarters, halves or wholes. It's hard to do comparison shopping, since some farms include the processing fees in their prices and some do not.

Moonstone Farm, the grass-fed beef farm I mentioned in my blog, charges $2.25/lb hanging weight and the processing fee is rougly $90. Their hanging weights are about 200 lbs, so you pay $450 in meat plus $90 processing which is $540. You receive about 125 lbs of finished meat, which works out to be $4.32/lb. Expensive for ground beef, but cheap for steaks and roasts.

If you live near a city or a non-agricultural area I would imagine the prices would be higher. If it's possible to do so, buy a 'sample' of the farm's meat (a pound of hamburger or a steak) to see if you like the flavor. That way you're not too heavily invested in case you don't enjoy it. Hope this helps!

Thistledog said...

This was a very interesting post for me, as I'm reading it from the point of view of the farmer (in the near future) selling my grass-fed beef to a customer just like you.

Taste is everything. Developing consistently high-quality meat from a small herd with grass-based genetics that will be marketed directly to discriminating consumers will be my primary goal. And based on your experience, eliciting feedback from my customers is clearly a high priority.

I don't want to be the farmer selling off-tasting meat and losing customers because of it.

Erin said...

Jenny, hi! Just wanted to show you another way to buy it, which is called a "share"... basically the beef is divvied up smaller than quarters. A share is roughly 45-50 lbs and I paid 318.00 for it here in VA (we are a coastal higher priced cost of living area). This works out to roughly 6.25 - 7.00/lb which is pricey but it reflects the smaller amount, it's always cheaper to buy larger. I did a post on it last year and photographed everything I got in the share to get an idea of what a share box entails, enjoy!

ThistleDog, thanks! It's farmers like you that will ensure our family never makes any rash decisions like becoming a vegan! Good quality meat and a relationship with where our meat comes from will ensure longtime loyal customers for you that will tell all their friends. Good Luck to you and your family.

Karen Sue said...

I have been throwing out a lot of meat from my freezer a couple of packages at a time. When I fry the ground beef, it has a smell and then you put it with anything and you can still smell it. No one wants to eat it... A horrible waste of money, but we can't get it past the nose. I thought I could hide it in chili or sloppy jo, but nope, so out it goes.