Buying Better Beef
Most Albertans know that not all beef is created equal — our provincial dedication to Alberta-ranched beef proves that we have discerning taste when it comes to meat. But beyond the prevalent “Albertan is best” attitude, many of us are lost when it comes to choosing specific beef products to throw on our barbecues. Details like specific ranch names and different feeding or aging methods can make beef sound fancier and more appetizing, but consumers often aren’t always educated as to why those labels make a difference to the steaks or burgers on our plates.
When we go to a typical grocery store we’re likely buying beef that was raised on a ranch before being sold at auction to be “finished” on a feed lot, and eventually sent off to a processing facility. That roast or package of ground beef could be coming from any one of a number of ranches, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it doesn’t fit into the realm of “knowing your food,” an increasingly important factor for modern meat eaters. Many standard beef buyers know that there is a grading system for Canadian beef with Prime and AAA at the top of the heap, but those designations don’t tell the whole story.
The quality, flavour, and texture of beef can be greatly affected by the breed, feed, cut, processing and aging. The average consumer can spot differences like the marbling (fat distribution) in a steak or the deeper colour that can come from dry aging, but many of us are still at a loss as to what to buy or order when we’re standing in front of a butcher’s counter or looking at a menu. Educating customers about the differences in cuts, breed and aging, is a mandate at Calgary’s Modern Steak restaurant, which specializes in beef that can be traced back to specific ranches focusing on singular breeds and feeding styles.
While there’s nothing wrong with picking something out of a grocery store meat cooler, it’s worth popping into a full-service butcher shop to have a conversation.
“We’ve been beating the drum about different kinds of beef for seven years now, and the needle is definitely moving as far as education goes,” says Modern Steak owner Stephen Deere. “People are becoming more aware and ‘grass-fed,’ ‘dry-aged,’ and ‘wagyu’ are the big buzzwords in the industry right now. And of course, Alberta beef and barley-fed are also important to people as they get better educated.”
But even if we know that these buzzwords denote a better restaurant meal, how does the average person translate that into a better home experience? The answer is to ask questions. Many grocery stores across Alberta are carrying a wider variety of beef products, often marked as dry-aged or grass-fed, as well as more interesting (albeit sometimes challenging) cuts. While there’s nothing wrong with picking something out of a grocery store meat cooler, it’s worth popping into a full-service butcher shop to have a conversation about the properties of each selection to better figure out what will best suit your needs, budget, and intended cooking method.
“Customers have the choice to research and find the farmer or butcher they trust or just go to the next store to buy what is on sale,” says Mercedes Messinger of Messinger Meats butcher shop and café in Red Deer. “The choice is up to the customer, the expectations they have, and what they are capable of paying.”
Messinger Meats, which supplies the Italian Centre Shop with beef from Peony Farms in Lacombe, specializes in hormone-free Piedmontese beef, an Italian breed of cattle that’s fairly uncommon here in Alberta. Different breeds, especially something unique like Piedmontese, cook up differently, and can be ruined if a home cook goes in uninformed. Gino Marghella, General Manager at the Italian Centre Shop’s Calgary location says that in addition to the breed, customers come to his store looking for information on how to best cook specific cuts of meat. “Right now people are coming in and looking for tomahawk steaks and double rib-eyes. The more people travel the more they try to find cuts that they’ve had elsewhere here,” Marghella says. “Restaurants really set the tone for those unique cuts and when people find those cuts at local retailers, the more they try to replicate that experience at home.”
Restaurants are definitely leading the charge with unique cuts — though home cooks should be warned that while it’s easy enough to throw a filet or New York strip onto the grill and cook it to medium rare, something like a tomahawk requires more finesse and cooking know-how. Restaurants like Modern Steak or any other reputable steakhouses in the province are a good place to get inspiration and to understand how different cuts behave. With in-person dining restricted, Modern Steak has introduced retail steak packs of some of its most exclusive cuts. Check with them for availability. Restaurants can also provide some guidance when it comes to the humble burger, which also improves greatly when made from a blend using different cuts or breeds that will lend a richer flavour and more luxurious texture.
“Ranch-specific” is another buzzy term that really just does mean that the beef is from a specific ranch, allowing the customer to determine how the beef is being fed, which breeds are being raised, and how the farm is being run. Many shops and increasingly popular food box delivery services like Bessie Box, Spud, and Cultivatr all specify the ranches they work with when it comes to beef and other meat products. The more we know about the ranch, the more we know about the beef, and the better informed we can be about spending our money wisely and making smart choices as consumers. The “best beef” is going to be different for everyone, and we’re lucky to live in a province with so much choice.
“It’s all about where it comes from, regardless of what kind of food it is,” says Cultivatr’s Dan Berezan. “Make sure your retailer actually knows where your beef comes from. Know what beef you like and try a lot of different kinds. Beef from Central Alberta is going to taste different than beef from Southern Alberta because the grasses are different. You’ll notice that difference because everyone has different palates and different tastes.”
Looking for options to enjoy quality cuts at home? In addition to the places mentioned above, you can buy quality local beef to cook at home from:
Hy's Steakhouse, 412 8 Avenue SW, Calgary
CharCut Butcher Shop, 899 Centre Street SW, Calgary
Sawmill Prime Rib & Steak House, 4810 Calgary Trail South, Edmonton
Bow Valley Ranch, 15979 Bow Bottom Trail SE, Calgary
Vin Room, 2310 4 Street SW, Calgary
BLW Butcher Shop – Brant Lake Premium Meats, 507, 42 Avenue SE, Calgary
Bon Ton Meat Market, 28 Crowfoot Circle NW, Calgary
Local Meats, 4922 51 Avenue, Leduc
Popowich Meat Company, 6853-170 Street, Edmonton
Real Deal Meats Ltd, 2435 Ellwood Drive SW, Edmonton
D'Arcy's Meat Market, St. Albert and Edmonton
Backyard Meats, backyardmeats.ca
Great Meats, greatmeats.ca
Ranchland Beef, ranchlandbeef.com
Alberta BBQ Box, albertabbqbox.com
The Organic Box, theorganicbox.ca
Bow River Meat Market, bowrivermeatmarket.ca