Looking for the perfect burger? Look for local grass-fed

Picture of a juicy burger

If there is one thing that can be widely agreed upon – it’s that burgers are loved. In fact, market research firm Datassentials notes that burgers are the 10th most loved food in the US across demographic segments out of more than 3,000 items. For folks looking for the perfect all-beef burger, grass-fed is a delicious, healthy option that provides an array of benefits to the environment and the local economy.

Chef Jack Kaestner, Chef Instructor at the Milwaukee Area Technical
College and one of the authors of the Consumer’s Guide to Grass-Fed Beef

The Consumer’s Guide to Grass-Fed Beef was recently released by Grassland 2.0, a collaborative group based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that is working to create more opportunities for grazing and other types of perennial land use. The guide includes information on what exactly makes beef grass-fed, the benefits of grass-fed, and how to buy and cook grass-fed beef – including tips for cooking the perfect grass-fed burger.

“Grass-fed beef is fundamentally different from conventional grain-fed beef,” notes Jack Kaestner, Chef Instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College and one of the authors of the guide. “Because the cattle are raised entirely on pasture and not corn or other grains, it has a different flavor that many consumers love and seek out.”

Grass-fed beef also provides health benefits including higher levels of vitamins A and E and healthy fats, such as conjugated linoleic acids and omega-3 fatty acids.  EPA and DHA are two omega-3 fatty acids that make grass-fed beef a more heart-healthy red meat than conventional options.

According to Jim Munsch, a beef grazier and consultant in the Driftless region, health and flavor are only part of the story when it comes to grass-fed.

“There is really good science – from UW-Madison and other universities – that shows that well-managed perennial pasture has a spectrum of environmental benefits – starting with the fact that it is an agricultural practice on the land that has a net sequestration of carbon,” says Munsch.

A pasture walk held at Jim Munsch’s farm. Photo by Laura Paine

He also notes that raising cattle on perennial grasslands adds topsoil rather than depleting it. Managed grazing reduces runoff and nutrients in downstream waterways. “It may sound like hyperbole, but research shows that managed grazing – if done correctly – is a superior way to raise food. If you are looking for a responsible way to enjoy your burgers and steaks, grass-fed is a great way to do that.”

The Consumer’s Guide to Grass-Fed Beef provides information on how to buy grass-fed beef – whether in the grocery store, farmers market, or directly from the farmer. The guide encourages direct communication with a farmer for consumers who want to learn about on-farm practices or get advice on cuts and recipes.

The flavor of grass-fed meat is influenced by the animal’s pasture and the plants they consume. Laura Paine, Outreach Coordinator for Grassland 2.0 and one of the authors of the guide notes, “just like fine wine or cheese, grass-fed beef is influenced by the terroir of the region where it is raised. Because of this, you may find you love the taste of grass-fed beef from certain brands or farms over others.”

An excerpt of the Consumer’s Guide to
Grass-Fed Beef which focuses on finding the perfect rub
to bring out the flavor of your grass-fed burger.

According to Munsch, the regional and operation-specific distinctions in taste is part of why getting to know a farmer is beneficial. “Some producers or co-ops host consumer field days that are great family fun – plus you get to know their story, see how they run their farm, how they treat their animals and their people, and how they are protecting the land. When you know your farmer, you also get to know the flavor of the beef they produce. Chances are that if you loved a burger from them once, you will like it again.”

Buying high-quality meat is only part of the equation; preparing it properly is also critical. The Consumer’s Guide to Grass-Fed Beef includes cooking tips for grass-fed beef, suggestions for different cuts, instructions for working with frozen meat, and recipes – including a recipe for making a grass-fed burger.

“If you purchase fresh local beef, it will have good flavor from the start- sometimes you only need a little salt and pepper to have a great tasting burger, (I always say less is more)” notes Kaestner. “That said, grass-fed beef requires a little more attention while cooking, but you will savor the results. Low and slow is generally a good rule of thumb, especially near the end of cooking. For example, when grilling a grass-fed burger, start with your grill on medium-high heat to get a good sear and finish the burger on the cooler side of the grill. Grass-fed beef can go from medium rare to medium well quicker than grain-fed.”

Many consumers are turning to grass-fed as a way to enjoy high quality meat, while supporting local farmers who are caring for the land responsibly. In fact, research from IRI shows that organic grass-fed purchases were up 7.5 percent year-over-year in 2020. With this growing interest comes more questions. The Consumer’s Guide to Grass-Fed Beef is ready to answer.