Interview with Carrie Oliver
After reading an interesting article in The Wall Street Journal by Mark Schatzker called Having a Cow About Steak Quality, I immediately set out to learn more finding the perfect steak so I did some research and found The Artisan Beef Institute and Carrie Oliver. After exchanging emails and a phone call, I asked Carrie if she would answer a few questions about “Artisan Beef, what it is, why we should be buying it and where to find it.”
As you will learn from reading this interview, Carrie is a wealth of information and she is happy to share it with fellow steak lovers here and at her web sites. She is currently working with several cattle producers and has put together a home tasting kit at her Oliver Ranch Company for anyone who wants to compare 4 different steaks from different ranches.
Enjoy the interview and I welcome your comments at the end.
How did you get started in researching and writing about Artisan Meats?
This began as a personal journey. We wanted to buy beef that was genuinely naturally or organically raised but didn’t want to trade off flavor. Sadly, no one could tell us what was on our plates and the steaks were random from week to week. When I discovered why, I was both inspired and upset and decided to do something about it.
After careful study of the industry (and many beef tastings!), I realized that producing tasty beef is incredibly complicated. Flavor and texture can vary widely by farm, breed, diet, the age of the cattle, and many other variables. The industry has attempted to bring some order to this by seeking uniformity in cattle and promoting USDA Grade (Prime, Choice, Select), and marbling as the key indicator of quality. Unfortunately, this has led beef to become as a commodity product focused on yield and throughput, not flavor.
I felt that I could break this commodity trap by going the opposite direction and helping people discover and celebrate the wide range of flavors of different beef in North America. To do this I created the concept of Artisan Beef and founded The Oliver Ranch Company and The Artisan Beef Institute to find and support those producers who raise cattle with the same care and attention that you see going into fine wines, gourmet coffees, chocolate, or even tomatoes.
Are you a big meat eater yourself?
I love to cook & eat meat, though like many families we are eating less of it nowadays than we used to, especially pork and chicken. We also tend to eat smaller portions.
I know you are also involved with The Artisan Chicken Institute with lamb and pork coming soon, but let’s talk now about beef and how to find the most flavorful, tender, mouthwatering steaks available. On your web site you say, “beef flavor, texture, and quality are not driven by USDA grade or percentage marbling alone.” So then what does determine great flavor, texture and quality?
I love this question, as the answer is so surprising: beef flavor, texture, and overall quality are influenced by the same factors as wine. The breed, quality of genetics (think root stock), growing region, specific diet, husbandry practices, age at harvest, aging time and technique, and importantly, the relative talents of the farmer, trucker, slaughterhouse workers, and butcher – these all play an important role. Marbling is just one factor. Moreover, some people find the marbled fat has filmy or greasy feel and would rather avoid it.
The BIG difference between wine and beef is that with wine, one often wants to create stress in the grape. It is the opposite with beef; we never want stress – it can ruin both flavor and texture.
When I go to the supermarket or Costco where I buy a lot of my meat, I have no idea where that steak comes from or what breed it is. (you call this “Mystery Beef”) Why is it so important to know where the beef is coming from, what breed and what it was fed?
If you think about it, the way we currently buy meat is a bit absurd. Would we buy ice cream with no idea what flavor it is? Would we be willing to choose our apples from a big barrel while wearing a blindfold? Why are we willing to buy mystery beef?
Fact: there are some 800,000 beef cattle ranches in North America raising hundreds, perhaps thousands of different breeds and diet combinations. Highland, Hereford, Limousin, Angus, Charolais or various crossbreeds – at your local supermarket they can all jumbled together and labeled “Choice” or whatever. Just like the varieties of apples and the orchards that produce them, they taste different. Unfortunately, with supermarket beef you have no information to help you pick the ones that you like best.
Have you ever had that experience where this week’s steak isn’t as good as the one you bought from the same store last week? I call this The Great Supermarket Lottery.
One of the best reasons to know the origins of your beef is that it can tell you something about how it is going to taste. Further, if you happen to like that particular flavor and texture, you know where to go to buy more of it. You can also decide which farms and butchers you want to support – ones whose farming practices and animal husbandry you believe in.
I see more and more supermarket fish departments required to label where their fish comes from. I wonder why they are not doing the same with our meat and if there will be a day sometime soon when they have to?
In 2009 the USDA started to require the country or countries of origin to be included on the labels of some fresh beef products (known as COOL). I suspect this was well intentioned but it really doesn’t tell you much about the quality or flavor of the beef.
Plus, COOL is not required for smaller retailers, restaurants and cafeterias, butcher shops, or processed foods such as beef lasagna. I’ve seen ground beef packages that listed six countries on it (Product of the United States, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, and Uruguay).
I would like to see retailers, butchers, and restaurants voluntarily offer far more information than this. At minimum, as with wine, they should offer the name of the farm, feedlot (when relevant), breed, diet, and aging technique. THEN we will start getting some clues as to how the beef is actually going to taste.
Do the butchers at supermarkets even know any of the history of the beef they are selling? Is the breed or ranch marked on the boxes it’s shipped in?
For the most part I don’t think so, no. The majority of stores are selling what is known as “boxed beef” or “shelf-ready” beef. Some might specify a particular grade, brand name, grass-fed, or organic but very few can name the farm, breed, region, diet, etc.
With boxed beef, processors seal major cuts (such as the whole Rib-Eye primal) in plastic bags and pack them into cardboard boxes. When the boxes arrive at the store, a meat cutter cuts them into individual steaks or roasts and packages them for sale. Many stores even skip this step and simply order pre-packaged steaks, roasts, and ground beef from large processors.
Fortunately, some smart purveyors are responding to consumer requests for transparency. I encourage everyone to ask the name of the ranch, feed lot, breed, diet, and aging technique and whether the cattle were raised without growth hormones and preventative antibiotics. The more we ask these questions, the more people will be able to answer them. I’ve created a guide with additional questions that I use to find Artisan Beef, too.
With your experiences of tasting steaks from around the country, can I even find a really flavorful piece of meat in my local supermarket?
Sure, every once in a while you’ll win The Great Supermarket Lottery
But seriously, if you can’t find Artisan Beef or visit a farmers’ market in your area, you can do a few things to increase the odds of getting a flavorful steak.
- Start with steaks that have been labeled as “naturally raised” or “organic.” The beef will at least have come from cattle that were raised without the use of growth hormones, beta agonists, or preventative antibiotics. These drugs are telltale signs that a producer’s goal is to fatten cattle as quickly and cheaply as possible, not to produce fabulous tasting food. They reflect a straight-up commodity mentality.
- Next, ask for beef that has been dry-aged or wet-aged for at least 10 days before being cut into individual steaks as aging helps tenderize beef.
- If your supermarket or local butchers carry it, definitely try the grass-fed steaks (and burger!). Some of the most delicious, flavorful beef is from cattle raised 100% on grass. (In part, this is because grass-fed cattle are typically a bit older – 18 to 24 months – than commodity beef; beef from older cattle tends to have more flavor.)
It is important to keep in mind that we all have different palates. If you like bold coffee or wines and beer with complexity, you might prefer grass-fed beef and dry-aged beef, which are often more deeply flavored and adventurous than wet-aged or grain-fed beef.
On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate a supermarket steak compared to one of the Artisan steaks you recommend at The Artisan Beef Institute?
Given how random the selection is at the supermarket, I don’t even bother to compare them. Even if we “win the lottery” and happen upon a great steak at the grocer, it would be hard to repeat the experience since we wouldn’t know what we ate in the first place.
Speaking of ratings, you have developed a unique rating system and beef tasting guide for both home and professional cooks to use as guidelines to evaluate beef. Can you tell me a little about the system and how it works?
At the first steak tasting I hosted I realized that we need language to use to describe the beef we eat. Beefy, meaty, gamy, juicy, and tender, this about sums up our vocabulary. Working with a team of wine and food sensory experts, ranchers, butchers, and chefs, I have developed an easy-to-use process and guide to help people describe and calibrate the aromas, flavors, and textures of meat and to compare the differences between different farm & butcher teams.
The guide is purposely designed to be objective – there is no worst to best scale – and fun. You can use the guide whether you’re tasting steaks or burgers from just one farm or comparing different farms.
The key is to cook the beef the same way and without fancy rubs or seasonings. For steaks, I recommend that people choose the same cut from each farm, ideally trimmed to the same thickness, season the steaks with unflavored kosher or sea salt, and cook the steaks to medium rare. Avoid the use of pepper as it flavors the beef and many people cannot taste past it.
As you taste each steak or burger, take notes and then give it your personal rating. At the end, rank the steaks. After a few times doing this, most people will see a pattern emerge.
Please describe your three basic criteria – Texture, Personality, & Impression?
At the high-end of quality I find beef that is so good it will tell a story and evoke an emotional reaction in me or other tasters. Artisan Beef will distinguish itself on these three basic criteria – Texture, Personality, and Impression. Some people also like to explore specific flavor notes as well.
Texture is simple enough, it can range from very soft to very chewy. Some people like chewier beef than others. You should consider whether the Texture of one steak or burger appeals to you more and why.
Next is Personality.
Let’s keep it fun (not intimidating like wine), so imagine if you could meet this beef at a dinner party, what kind of Personality would he or she have?
Is he reserved and shy, by the end of the night you conclude that he’s just about the beef, i.e. there are no other flavor notes than just “beefy”? Or on the other hand is she very adventurous, the life of the party, do you taste many distinct flavor notes in the steak such as blue cheese, caramel, toasted nuts, or even lamb?
This is important because some people find reserved Personality beefs elegant, while others find them boring. Adventurous Personality beefs are fascinating to some tasters, but off-putting to others. It’s a matter of opinion.
Last, there is Impression.
Now that you’ve met this beef, will you remember him 10 years from now or did he leave just a fleeting memory? Did the flavors linger for a very long time or were they there and gone? Some prefer steaks and burgers with a brief impression, others a long lasting one.
Once you get used to using my guide, I guarantee that a really good steak will evoke an image in your mind. Was this an Outdoor Adventure Beef, Easy Going Beef, Seductive Date Beef, or something else?
You don’t have to like the steak for it to offer up an image, but Artisan Beef will be distinct. And the accompanying flavor notes will have you racing back to the source to buy your favorites again and again.
You say, “It is important to know that we are not seeking to find the “best” steak, burger, chop, or roast, thus, our scales do not go from worst to best.” Does this mean that everyone’s tastes are different and I may like one style of steak and you another. So if I can define my own personal tastes, I can seek out similar steaks with the same criteria?
Yes, when it comes to my tasting guide that’s right. Once we get into Artisan quality, it is already great beef. We each have our own taste buds and also values when it comes to food, so it’s important to have a guide to help you understand what it tastes like – don’t you agree?
I have been to many wine tastings and understand what to look for in a glass of wine, how a smell can describe so much about a wine and how it tastes while sitting in my mouth touching my taste-buds offers enormous amounts of information about the quality of the wine and whether or not I will like it. Can I do the same with steak?
Yes and no. Steaks from different farms will have a unique aroma and you can tell something about the texture by its appearance and feel to the touch (fine grained is usually better and in general, the texture should be soft).
You will likely develop an awareness of certain sensory attributes that please and do not please your palate. For instance, I am very sensitive to Ocean Notes in beef and pick those up just from the smell.
My experience tells me, however, that you need to eat the steak in order to truly identify its unique Texture, Personality, and Impression. With practice, you’ll learn how to make the right choice in beef just as with wine.
You speak a lot about the merits of grass-fed cattle on your web site. Can you describe what a grass-fed cow is? Does that mean it eats no grain at all? Isn’t grain important to fatten up the cow?
All cattle eat grass. Yet most of them (over 95%) are “finished” on a diet that includes corn or other grains. “Grass-fed” means cattle that eat no grain at all. There are several different grass-fed standards. But ALL require producers to raise their cattle on pasture (vs. a feedlot) for a certain percentage of time and that cattle eat no grain. The American Grass-fed Association and Food Alliance standards are great – they also forbid the use of growth hormones and preventative antibiotics.
It is a myth that you need to feed cattle corn or other grains in order to fatten them up. Many grass-fed beef pioneers consistently produce well-marbled beef with a good fat cover.
I am a huge fan of grass-fed beef and burgers for a number of reasons. For one, I’m a flavor hound and grass-fed steaks and burgers tend to be more intensely flavored and have more adventurous Personalities, which I prefer. From an environmental perspective, with proper management cattle raised on grass can help sequester carbon and enrich the soil. There are compelling arguments with regard to animal welfare and nutrition, too.
I’m an even bigger fan of Artisan Beef as it takes into consideration other factors than diet and husbandry practices alone, including flavor and community.
How prevalent are drugs in the cattle industry and what type of drugs are they using and why? Do they effect the overall taste of the meat?
As with humans, the cattle industry uses many drugs, including vaccines, to ensure the health of the livestock. Controversy surrounds the use a different set of drugs: growth promotants, including hormones and steroids, which are used to get cattle to grow bigger faster.
A new type of drug called beta agonists is used to promote muscle mass, which again helps improve throughput and yield. Finally, some producers administer sub-therapeutic antibiotics to cattle to prevent them from getting sick and spreading disease to other cattle. (Some feedlots can house a quarter of a million head of cattle in a year.)
What few meat lovers know is that growth hormones and beta agonists can make beef tougher. Further, all these efforts to grow cattle faster work against those of us who enjoy having flavor in our beef. That’s because older cattle tend to be more intensely flavored. There are gustatory reasons to avoid commodity beef.
Does the breed of the cow really matter?
Yes, breed is a critical decision for any farmer or rancher. Some breeds and crossbreeds are better suited to some growing regions and climates than others. For instance, a longhaired breed that hails from the cold, wind-whipped, rugged Scottish Highlands may not thrive in the humid American south. (Remember, stress is bad for beef.)
In addition, breeds are genetically predisposed to certain characteristics including tenderness, marbling, heat and cold tolerance, mothering instincts, ease of birth, and countless other attributes that directly or indirectly impact flavor, texture, and quality.
Some will purposely selected a breed that does not marble easily as they want to offer leaner beef to their customers. Others will choose a small breed because their customers like smaller portion sizes.
At the supermarket I see a lot of promotion for Angus and Black Angus and they always cost more than the other non-Angus steaks. What’s so special about Angus and should I buy the hype?
Angus is technically a specific breed of cattle that originated near Aberdeen and Angus, England. There are Black Angus and Red Angus cattle. That sounds simple enough but in North America, Angus is often just a brand name. To be marketed as Angus beef, the USDA says the animal simply needs to be 51% or more black-hided.
Either that, or the cattle must have at least 50% provable Angus genetics (one parent or both grandparents has the paperwork showing they are registered Angus.) The USDA and some brands list a few other criteria but Angus is often just a marketing term.
I should note that in most of my tastings, including my home tasting kit, I have included two or more Angus beefs, including several in which we compared two 100% Black Angus steaks from different farms. Ask any of the tasters, the steaks were strikingly different from each other.
I read on your web site that “Stress – which can be inborn, man-made, or from a natural event – can ruin the taste and texture of beef.” How in the world can I determine if a steak I want to buy comes from a cow that had a stressful life?
Because the color, texture, and pH balance are notably different, it’s my understanding that you will not find this beef on a supermarket shelf. A butcher can tell if there are any problems.
I have always understood that USDA Prime rated beef was the best and therefore the most expensive and hardest to find. What is your understanding of these ratings and is Prime really that much better than Choice and if that’s the case, how inferior must Good (Select) be?
Despite conventional wisdom, marbling – the primary metric considered in the USDA grading system – plays a limited role in predicting the tenderness, flavor, and even juiciness of beef. Many people do not realize that USDA grades are based on a visual inspection alone. To me this is like determining the flavor and quality of a wine or apple based on how it looks. It’s a start, but too simplistic. Lean beef can be very full flavored and tender.
At countless tastings, I have seen very lean beef do just as well as very marbled beef. Indeed, there are a number of people who do not like heavily marbled steaks or fatty burgers. Sometimes that fat can have a disagreeable mouth-feel, kind of a greasy or filmy aftertaste.
So What Do I Do? – Do you have some buying tips for home cooks searching for the real thing, that is a steak with incredible taste but won’t bankrupt the piggy bank?
Today, it is hard to find Artisan Beef as this is a new and unique approach to livestock rearing and meat production. I encourage people to use one of the questionnaires that can be downloaded from my site. It’s a tick list of questions that will get you most of the way. The rest is a matter of judgment and, of course, tasting the beef.
I also review, rate, and provide tasting notes on my site, host live Artisan Steak and Burger tastings, and offer a Discover Beef Experience Artisan Steak Tasting sampler for home tastings. I have found ranchers and butchers on my own but many have contacted me directly.
People know that I’m interested to help more producers so many call, email, or send message on Twitter or Facebook with the names of their favorites. Finally, as a consultant, I can help individuals, restaurants, and retailers find Artisan Beef or close to it.
The most powerful thing we can do is to ask a lot of questions about the origin of various meats. We need to work together to encourage and even demand change in the meat industry.
Let me end with the fact that Artisan or near Artisan Beef does not have to break the piggy bank! The three points I make in all of my tastings:
- Beef is like wine
- Low stress makes for better beef
- Buy by “the case”
When we taste a wine or beer we really enjoy, we stock up. Why? Because we save money by buying in volume and get to have our favorite flavor on hand to enjoy whenever we like. The same works with beef. Buying a ¼ or a side of beef or joining a cow-pooling arrangement or CSA is a fantastic way to get a really great price (typically less than commodity beef at retail) and eat the style of beef you like best.