Merlyn Baker: Four keys to finding the perfect meat
Driving the back roads of Northeast Oregon with herds of beef cattle dotting the countryside and grazing leisurely on the range grasses, many of us wish we could pack our freezer with good quality, local beef.
A simple and tender filet mignon wrapped in bacon, seasoned perfectly, char grilled and topped with local morel mushrooms tossed with olive oil, herbs and garlic then flame-roasted until the edges of the mushrooms begin to become slightly crispy and the centers ooze with their rich juices. Pan-seared porterhouse steak fiorentina rich with extra virgin olive oil and rosemary, served on a bed of wilted arugula and toasted garlic.
The simple comfort of Yankee pot roast surrounded with caramelized rooted vegetables laced with rich brown gravy. These are all visions of beef we love and enjoy, relying on a key ingredient — great beef.
In the pursuit of understanding beef, there are volumes in many languages which could be researched. I recommend “Pure Beef” by chef Lynn Curry. Once you have this basic information, secrets to recipes for both beef and large game will start to unfold.
Local grass-fed cattle, living their leisure life of freedom, should produce tender meat. This, unfortunately, is not a dependable conclusion. I am not a rancher and do not have the experience or expertise needed to raise cattle, but as a chef with a history of raising, butchering and preparing beef, I would suggest some considerations in achieving great meat for your plate.
First, breed. Select a breed known for producing quality beef. There are many notable meat breeds regionally throughout the world. Your rancher can help you decide on a heifer or steer. Gender may matter.
Second, feed. What is important to you. Organic? Grain fed? Grass only? The feed and pasture practices you wish for your beef need to be decided before you proceed.
Third, age and weight. Yes, this is the time to consider the age and weight. Why? You need to coordinate harvest with the desired size and optimal season. Maximize your investment by getting the most meat possible, but harvest date may be more important than the size of your beast.
Fourth, harvest date. For quality 100 percent range-fed beef, harvest dates are key. Harvest in the fall, after the summer grasses, ripe with their seed and wild grain, have fattened cattle for the winter and before the stress of winter life begins taking its toll.
Never harvest in the spring, when recovery from the long, lean winter has just begun and the green spring grasses are rebuilding the quality of your animal. If you desire the greater marbling of grain-fed beef, coordinate the grain supplements to maximize the fat gain in the fall.
Merlyn Baker, of La Grande, is chef at Merlyn’s Catering and chef/owner at Merlyn’s Mystic Seasonings.