Home from the range

Buying artisan meat straight from the ranch can be smart, but first you'll need to plan, shop--and clear some freezer space

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Oregonian

Photo by Anna M. Campbell, The Oregonian

Many people are eating local produce these days, either straight from their own gardens, from the farmers market or directly from the farmers themselves. The fruits and vegetables are at their glorious peak of ripeness, and you can enjoy more variety than what you generally see at the grocery store, including interesting types of heirlooms that are bred for flavor, not convenience.
But there's no need to limit this local sourcing to produce, because you can do the same with meat. A growing number of producers are selling directly to consumers, so you can enjoy beef, pork and lamb that's locally and sustainably raised -- and not much more expensive than conventional meat.

Recipe included with story: Chile-braised Short Ribs, New York Strip Steaks With Salsa Criolla, Spicy Beef Handpies, Spicy Beef Handpie Filling

That's because you're buying meat in bulk. Everything from burger meat and short ribs to premium cuts such as New York and rib-eye steaks rings in at the same price, generally between $5 and $6 a pound. So, while your per-pound price for ground meat is higher than grocery store prices, the roasts and chops are cheaper.

Depending on which producer you choose, you also can ask how the animal was fed, raised and slaughtered, and have a say in how it is cut and packaged. One caveat: Most small to mid-size ranches are not processing their bulk meat at a USDA-inspected plant, unless by special request. So it's up to the buyer to get assurances about safe meat-handling practices.

But having a variety of meat cuts in your freezer is like money in the culinary bank. If you like to braise, the chuck and arm roasts from the front of the animal will keep you well-fed all winter long. The round and sirloin, lean muscles from the rear of the animal, can be left as roasts, cut into steaks or cubed for stew meat.

The only catch is that you have to buy at least a quarter animal -- and when we're talking steer, that's a lot of meat -- about 90 pounds for a quarter of a 1,000- to 1,200-pound animal.

Figuring out how to store and cook a box full of tomatoes, eggplant and corn from a community supported agriculture subscription is one thing; doing the same with a quarter steer is another. But with some understanding and preparation, it's completely doable with less effort than making your weekly pick-ups from your CSA.

Do your research
Actually, buying beef directly from the producer offers many of the best features of a CSA, but with more control. The first thing you want to do is research your options before signing up. Ask around, get recommendations and gather as much information as you can about the rancher's philosophy and growing practices. Talk to the ranchers or read their Web sites. Sample the meat from a producer you're considering, either by buying a steak from the butcher or farmers market and cooking it, or by tasting that producer's meat in a restaurant. If you can't taste first, ask for a reference.

Next, figure out whether you want to do this alone -- a whole pig or lamb might be reasonable for a large family, but for beef, it really makes sense to form a "steer-pool" with friends, neighbors or relatives who'd like to share.

Once you've decided to commit, you reserve your animal like a vegetable share, securing your purchase with a deposit. Unlike a produce share, however, you know about how much you're getting and it's an easy, one-time pick-up of wrapped, labeled and frozen cuts of meat. There's no scramble to use up the delivery before it wilts in the crisper drawer, and you have a say in what you receive.

Kevin Silveira of Valley Meat Service butchers to customer's specifications.

Photo by Anna M. Campbell, The Oregonian

Choose cutting option
When it comes time to butcher the animal, customers can often choose from a menu of several cutting options geared to different cooking methods and preferences. How thick do you like your steaks? Overcooking, which is common mistake with delicate grass-fed beef, can be avoided with steaks between 1 inch and 1 1/4 inches thick. How many per package? Do you want the ground beef in 1- or 2-pound packages? Some processors will offer a choice of paper wrapping or cryovac, a method of vacuum sealing that uses thick plastic (see Test Kitchen). When properly sealed, freezing is nature's best preservative for meat products. The increased protection and storage time cryovac offers is well worth the few extra cents a pound that it may cost.

If you're ready to take the plunge, start with the accompanying stories on what cuts of meat to expect from a beef share, the different breeds to consider and how much freezer space you'll need. Then, use our list of steer-share resources and start shopping.

Ellen Jackson is a Portland chef, food stylist and food writer.

©2009 The Oregonian

Just how much meat is that?
A typical quarter steer (or 25 percent of a 1,000- to 1,200-pound animal) should yield about 90 pounds of meat, enough for 50 to 60 meals a year for a family of four, or one meal of beef a week. For best quality, buy only what you can eat in a year.

You can find a friend or two and split a quarter share, but remember that there's only two flanks (and two flank steaks) on any one steer. It's up to you to divvy up the prime cuts, and your quarter portion might not include any of the trendy cuts you're fond of from the meat counter, like hanger steak.

Here's what a typical quarter share of a steer might look like:
Steaks (1 inch thick)
5 T-bone steaks
3 sirloin steaks
5 rib-eye steaks
3 round steaks
1 flank steak or tri-tip roast
Roasts (3 pounds each)
1 sirloin tip roast
2 arm roasts
1 rump roast
4 chuck roasts
1 brisket
Other cuts
Two 1 1/2-pound packages of short ribs
At least two 1 1/2-pound packages of soup bones (extra are often available)
40 to 50 pounds ground beef
Organ meat available from some processors

Do I need another freezer for the meat?
A quarter steer sounds like a lot, but with some organization, you can fit the beef into a chest freezer or the freezer compartment of that extra fridge in the garage. Even just reducing the amount of space you use for ice cream and orange juice in your main freezer can do the trick.

The roughly 90 pounds of meat from a quarter steer will take up around 4.5 cubic feet, enough to squeeze into a 6-cubic-foot top freezer of the average home fridge, as long as it's fairly empty.

Larger models, side-by-side configurations and those with a lower drawer freezer often boast as much as 9 cubic feet of freezer space.

For $200, you can get a chest freezer with 7.2 cubic feet of space that costs about $25 a year to run. An upright freezer that's roughly twice the size is also twice the price and costs slightly more to operate annually.

Whichever route you take, be sure your freezer can maintain a temperature of zero degrees or colder, in order to preserve meat quality over the months. And if you're in an area of frequent power outages, get a generator or take your chances.

Grass-fed beef producers such as Cory Carman (right) and her sister Kate Carman
deliver their meat directly to customers much like Community Supported Agricutlre farmers do.

Photo by Bruce Ely, The Oregonian

What to look for and what to ask
The breed of an animal and the manner in which it is raised affect the characteristic flavor and texture of its meat. The best way to understand what you're getting is to ask questions about the following:

Breed: Americans are accustomed to the flavor and size of British breeds such as Angus, Hereford and Shorthorn. Many producers raise one of these breeds. Piedmontese, Charlois and Simmental are continental European breeds that are somewhat larger in size with leaner meat. Corriente and Longhorn belong to a third category of animals sometimes called "landrace," whose roots can be traced back to the first Spanish cattle brought to North America. They are among the smallest breeds, sometimes 30 percent smaller than a British animal.

Age: The age of the animal combined with the breed will tell a great deal about the characteristic of its meat. Younger animals tend to be leaner. British breeds raised on pasture between 9 and 14 months will have veal-like qualities, whereas an 18- to 24-month-old animal will have more external fat and marbling. Continental cattle can take longer to mature on pasture because of their size, and Corriente can be 3 years old before they are fully mature.

Diet: Grass-fed beef eat only grass and herbaceous leafy plants -- never grain or grain byproducts -- and animals have continuous access to a pasture during the growing season.

A "finishing" diet refers to what the steer is fed in the final stage of growth before it is slaughtered. This stage is crucial because it is the time when the animal's fat layer and internal marbling develop. Most conventional cattle eat an all-grain diet through finishing; "naturally raised" cattle are raised on pasture and eat grain during finishing; while 100 percent grass-fed beef is finished on pasture. If you want grass-fed beef, ask if the animals spend their entire lives on pasture.

Aging: Meat available through retailers is generally wet-aged, a process where large pieces of meat are vacuum-sealed immediately after they are cut to prevent moisture loss. Dry-aging is an old-fashioned method; it refers to the time from when the animal is slaughtered to when the carcass is broken down into cuts. Beef purchased from farmers or ranchers who use small meat-processing plants is typically dry-aged by hanging the carcass in a walk-in cooler. Most research shows that hanging beef between 10 and 14 days is optimal for improving tenderness, increasing the "beefy" flavor and minimizing weight loss from evaporation.

Northwest resources

www.localharvest.org: Sources of pasture-raised beef by the whole, half or quarter
www.oliverranch.com: The lowdown on artisan beef. Learn how flavor and texture are influenced by breed, growing region and diet; find top-notch natural or organic ranchers around the country.

Some local producers

Abundant Life Farm
Dallas; 503-623-6378

Afton Field Farm
Corvallis; 541-738-0127

Carman Ranch
Wallowa; 541-263-0812

Deck Family Farm
Junction City; 541-998-4697

Full of Life Farm
St. Paul; 925-876-6720

Harmony J.A.C.K. Farms
Scio; 503-769-2057

Highland Oak Farm
Scio; 503-551-2680

Kookoolan Farms
Yamhill; 503-730-7535

Son Up to Son Down Ranch
(meat CSA: monthly packages of pastured beef and pork)
Banks; 503-616-1395

Winter Green Farm
Noti; 541-935-1920

6 Ranch
Enterprise; 541-426-3827

Thundering Hooves
Walla Walla; 866-350-9400

-- Ellen Jackson