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Tenderness??? The real story...

Beef, the first thing we think of when we hear the word "beef" is a big juicy steak. Maybe the image of a t-bone pops in your head, or a rib-eye with melted butter pooling on the surface. We all think of tenderness, in fact the USDA grades the beef business on that one point alone. Ever heard of “Prime” or “Choice”, maybe even “Select”? These are measurements of fat content that is presented in visual marbling. This all equals out to how tender that beef will be, the more fat, the more tender it will be.

Let’s understand the why… intramuscular fat, also known as marbling, is the white flecks of fat content that you see webbing its way across a steak. When cooked, that fat renders, allowing the muscle fibers to separate easier, resulting in tenderness.

Now back

up for a minute, ask the real question. How do you make a steak tender? We noted earlier that the more fat equals a more tender steak, and while that’s a true, there is a lot that goes into the raising of animals to make that happen.

Things that affect tenderness, from birth to harvest, of a steer:

1.     Breed – some breed are known to have more marbling than others, such as Angus, Hereford, Simmentals, Charolais, Brahman, Beefmaster. At the far end of the spectrum is Wagyu, which doesn’t even rate on the USDA scale for marbling (it’s so marbled, it has it’s own scale – A to C and 1 to 5, example: A2 would be extremely marbled)

2.     Feed – it’s well known in the ranching and farming world that if you want to add weight to an animal, pour the grain on. No different in cattle, you want to add marbling? Feed grain, higher energy/glucose levels, fat deposits disperse to collect that energy. This is also where commercial beef companies give hormones and other medications to increase size and weight.

3.     Activity – in the industry jargon, ranchers will sometimes say “don’t let them walk it off”, meaning, you’ve spent money feeding them extra energy, don’t give them 200 acres to run around and use it all up. A lot of activity will also strengthen connective tissue and muscle fibers, resulting in less tender meat.

4.     Age – as an animal ages, the muscle fibers and connective tissue continue to develop and strengthen. The older the animal, the tougher the meat will be. That’s where Veal came from, less than 8 months old at the time of harvest, tenderness comes from the young age.

5.     Stress – this is mostly centered around the stress during harvest, but if that animal lived a hard life and released cortisol into the system regularly, tenderness will be sacrificed. Animals that experience high stress directly prior to and during harvest will actually result in a carcass that can’t be used, these are called dark cutters.

6.     Cooking – bottom line, you overcook a steak, it’s gonna be as tough as shoe leather.

So what do we do with this information, how do we adapt our beef as a result of what we know here? At Hawthorne ranch, we take the following stance:

1.     Breed – we love our Longhorn cattle, but understand that they are a very lean breed and are exploring cross-bred options. We are currently utilizing a Hereford Bull on our Longhorn cows to improve the offsprings ability to marble naturally.

2.     Feed – we will continue to feed our cattle primarily on grass from the time they are weaned until 90 days prior to harvest. During those last 90 days we will provide organic/non GMO feed at 1.5-2% of their bodyweight, but this will be free choice, they will always have access to fresh pasture or hay in the winter months. No suboptimal doses of antibiotics, no hormones, and no adrenergic agonists to increase size.

3.     Activity – we will never pen up an animal to limit their movement, period. We will sacrifice tenderness here, but sorry, we’re not sorry.

4.     Age – our animals will be harvested between 18 and 30 months, mostly dependent on their growth rate, full blood longhorns and other small frame cattle take longer to reach harvest weight, while cross bred and traditional beef breeds take less time.

5.     Stress – this is a no brainer, we keep our animals as stress free as possible, we use a processor that takes the upmost care on the day of processing to make the animal as comfortable as possible.

6.     Cooking – cook steak to an internal temp between 125 and 145 degrees F. Any more than this and you’re taking a chance on a tough steak. For roasts and ribs continue to cook low and slow until it’s fork tender.

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