Much of the following information comes from Mark Schatzker, author of the book “Steak – One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef“.  Using information from Mark we will try to answer the question, “What is the relationship between flavor and fat”?

triglycerides fat we see, phospholipids fat within the cell wall we can't see

USDA grading based on marbling fat and exterior trim fat (triglycerides), the fat we can see.

Previously we noted that the USDA grading system is based on visible carcass fat.  When the grading system originated, almost all “fat” cattle were fattened on grass and forages, not on grain (corn).  There are two kinds of fat in meat, what you can see is called “triglycerides” and fat at the cell level (what you cannot see) is known as “phospholipids”.  Phospholipid fat is actually within the cell walls, also refered to as structural fat.  Mark Schatzker describes a University test where all the triglyceride fat (marbling and trim) was removed from a piece of meat and prepared.  The sample still tasted like beef.  In another meat sample all phospholipid fat was extracted.  When this piece was prepared it tasted like burnt hair.  Obviously, the fat stored at the cell level contains the flavor we know as “beef”.

Luckily we can also “see” the potential for flavor stored at the cell level by observing the visible (triglyceride) fat.  White or ivory colored fat, like the sample shown above, reflects a forage based diet.  Conventional beef fat will tend to appear clear.  So what is going on?  Mark Schatzker thinks the rumen (special stomach found in cattle that handles grass and forage digestion) alters or changes the chemicals in pasture grass and expresses the altered plant chemicals as flavor in the beef.

Researching the topic a little further we turn to Mark Bader’s website.  Mark Bader, President of Free Choice Enterprises, Ltd., explains that within the rumen, proteolytic bacteria (grain digesters) and cellulolytic bacteria (forage digesters) work side by side and compete for space.  In a forage based diet, the cellulolytic bacteria thrive and carry out their work and acetic acid production increases.  This increase in acetic acid promotes high solid fat (white marbling) in meat.  When proteolytic bacteria dominate the rumen in a high grain (corn) diet, “greasy” fat accumulates over the muscle (clear fat).

Mark Bader comments confirm Mark Schatzker thoughts on the difference between bland tasting grain fed beef versus flavorful grass-fed beef.  Mark Schatzker goes on to say we cannot stop at the diet of the animal.  In addition to a forage based diet, just as important, is TIME.  Immature fat (animals harvested young) will have a definite “off-flavor”.  Harvesting mature animals is a must for excellent flavored meat.

Looking for excellent flavored beef?  Look for animals raised primarily on a forage based diet and allowed to mature.  Remember, when USDA setup the protocol for “PRIME” beef, cattle were harvested after they fully matured from a forage based diet.  Consider seeking out beef raised like grandpa use to and they will taste like beef should.

Our earlier post (The taste of beef), pointed out that the USDA beef grading system is based largely on visible carcass fat, the best grade known as Prime.  When the grading system originated (1920s), almost all beef had a much higher percentage of grass in their diet and harvested at a much older age than beef today.

usda prime beef shield

USDA grading system for beef largely based on visible fat (triglycerides). Photo source: http://www.ams.usda.gov

Today a conventionally raised (corn-fed) USDA Prime steak, in my opinion, has very little flavor.  Maybe because almost every processed food product today contains CORN.  We eat corn for breakfast, we drink corn during lunch, we eat corn at snack time, we drive home using corn in our vehicles, we have corn during our evening meal and finally relax in the evening with corn for desert.  Corn corn corn, give me a break, but I digress.

If we have a Prime steak fattened primarily on grass and another Prime steak fattened primarily on corn and the USDA grades on visible fat, do they taste the same?  Of course not, refer to the post A cow named grass-fed.  Does beef flavor come from “fat”?  Yes and No.  Flavor is stored in fat (more in a future post) but the flavor actually comes from the diet of the animal.  The animal is largely, what it eats.  Remember also, you are largely what you eat and when you eat meat, you are what your meat eats.

Do you want to experience true flavor in the beef you consume?  Find a local farmer and get to know their production practices.  Then taste their beef and you will be experiencing the “flavor of their farm”.  Maybe you will find some beef like grandpa use to raise.