Organic or Natural? Grain- or Grass-Fed? How to Buy the Best Beef

We chatted with industry experts to find out what you should know when buying beef.

When it comes to beef, we’ve all heard terms like grass-fed, forage-finished, and hormone-free bandied about—as well as more pervasive lingo like organic, all-natural, and sustainable. But it’s not always clear what exactly these buzzwords mean, other than a higher price tag at the butcher counter. I think we can all agree that more humane treatment of animals is a good thing and that, ideally, we’d prefer it if our animals weren’t pumped up with hormones, but beyond that, it can be difficult for the consumer to figure out when and why it’s worth the extra dollars. Is organic better than natural? Are heritage breeds better than modern breeds? What is vertical integration, exactly? And can you really get the same marbling from grass-fed beef that you can from more traditional grain-fed cows?  We chatted with industry experts to beef up on our beef knowledge. Here’s what they had to say.​

Know your producer.

Though our meat gurus don’t agree on everything, they all said that knowing whom you’re buying from, understanding their production methods as well as their ideals, values, and motivations, is key. If you can’t buy directly from your producer, a good butcher is your next best option. “A great butcher will do the research for you and be able to communicate the core value of the meat they’ve chosen to sell,” says Anya Fernald, the cofounder and CEO of Belcampo Meat Co.

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Look for multispecies farms.

If there is proof that the meat times they are a changin’, it’s Will Harris. Formally William Harris III, this fourth-generation farmer has transformed White Oak Pastures from a “commoditized, industrialized, centralized” model to the largest organic farm in the South. For him, the most important indicator of good meat is a polycultural production farm. You can’t sustain a monoculture without using industrial tools like antibiotics, hormone implants, and artificial feeds, he explains. Or, put another way, “Nature wants a smorgasbord.” At White Oak, they raise cows, hogs, goats, rabbits, sheep, turkeys, geese, guineas, ducks, and chickens. They grow certified organic vegetables, too.


Will Harris preaches polycultural production.

Consider breed.

Most beef you’ll find comes from two breeds—Hereford and Angus—though ranchers are experimenting with different breeds. Bryan Flannery, the second-generation butcher behind Flannery Beef, says that 90% of his beef now comes from Holstein cows, which are traditionally dairy cows. “They are starting to create marbling on grass,” he says, and that marbling structure is completely different. “It’s almost like pointillism in painting; you get a whole different mouthfeel. It’s a smoother, more elegant product.” Fernald crossbreeds heritage genetics into her beef (and all the other species on her farm). “I find that the heritage breeds, which were developed over centuries by small farmers, are just better tasting than the modern breeds, which have been developed recently and primarily for high-yield characteristics,” she explains.


Jim Norman runs the meat program at Cakebread Ranch in Wyoming.

Slaughter is a buzzy issue.

There’s a lot of talk right now about the importance of slaughter and how it doesn’t matter how well you raise your beef if you’re sending it to a commercial manufacturer. Both Belcampo and White Oak Pastures have their own slaughtering facilities (White Oak’s was actually designed by noted animal scientist Temple Grandin), so they can control the process from birth to slaughter—also known as vertical integration. Flannery isn’t as convinced that the big slaughterhouses are the black hats they’re sometimes made out to be. He says the industry is fairly self-governing, thanks to something called a “dark cutter.” This happens when an animal gets really stressed. The result is meat that’s so dark it’s identifiable even to a novice—and no one wants to buy that, so slaughterhouses don’t want it either.

Related: Giada’s Turkey Jerky Recipe


Chickens and cows co-exist at White Oak Pastures, the South’s largest organic farm.

Look for marbling.

As a general rule, prime beef has the best intramuscular fat, or, marbling. But, according to Flannery, the USDA grading system (the one that determines whether your rib eye is prime, choice, or select) isn’t foolproof. He says the prime beef he buys from a processing plant in the Northwest is of lower quality (i.e., has less marbling) than the choice beef from the Midwest, and that you can often find prime meat in the grocery store that’s been labeled a lower grade. (If you do, grab it!)


Anya Fernald is the CEO and cofounder of Belcampo Meat Co.

Buy organic when possible.

Flannery doesn’t sweat the difference between “all-natural” and “organic,” even though organic requires certification. He argues that for smaller operations, many of them with excellent practices, the cost to get certified can be prohibitive. But Fernald disagrees: “We’ve opted to get certified organic, as well as Animal Welfare Association approved. Even though I thought we were already doing everything as well as we could, we learned a few new practices and ways to be better at caring for our animals and at caring for our land. So I can speak personally to the power of both those certifications.”


Second-generation butcher Bryan Flannery in his cave.

If it’s grain-finished, it isn’t really grass-fed.

Jim Norman, who runs the progressive meat program at Cakebread Ranch in Wyoming, notes that grass-fed can be a dubious label as nearly all cattle are grass-fed for some portion of their lives. Fernald adds that grain finishing can eliminate the health benefits of a cow that has been mostly grass-fed. “Even 30 days on grain at the end of the life of a beef cow can completely alter the crucial ratio of Omega-3s to Omega-6s—and not in your favor!” she explains.

Related: A Leaner Porchetta Recipe


Marbling and dry aging yield a superior steak.

Grass-fed beef can be prime.

Grass-fed beef takes longer to put on fat and develop marbling—Fernald says Belcampo’s prime beef are on pasture for at least 30 months, a full year longer than standard grain-fed beef. For that reason, fewer grass-fed animals are awarded the prime grade—but it’s still absolutely possible to achieve. “It’s a mistake to assume that because an animal might be finished on grass a consumer should accept a lower quality or leaner product,” asserts Norman, adding that the correct breed and properly managed handling can produce very high-quality, marbled, and tender steaks.

Grass-fed beef tastes different.

If you’re thinking grass-fed beef is going to taste the same as grain-fed, you’ll be disappointed. Not only does the grass-fed stuff taste different from grain-fed, not all grass-fed is going to taste alike. “The field itself is going to seriously effect the final flavor,” observes Flannery. Fernald says that while there’s something to be said for the pleasures of a familiar taste, she finds grass-fed beef is more flavorful, with less need for sauces. (And, she adds, it never makes her feel bloated.)


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