Coursera course “The Meat We Eat” meat cooking project

Over the past several weeks I’ve been participating in a basic overview meat sciences and technology course from the University of Florida, via Coursera, called The Meat We Eat. The course description, from Coursera, is:

The average American is now at least three generations removed from production agriculture.  This leads to the disconnection between how the public views agriculture and how scientists and producers view it, resulting in consumer distrust of science and commercial food production.  It is this lack of trust which leads to consumer confusion and the urge to grasp at multiple solutions.  However a growing number of consumers in developed countries are aspiring to “know where their food comes from”.  Animal agriculture needs to explain the technology which will be used to sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050.

As a proponent of sourcing meat and meat products from local, sustainably run farms raising pastured, ethically treated animals rather than from massive industrial operations where output, rather than animal/environment/worker welfare and product quality, is prioritized, I thought it was important that I understand more of the details of large-scale commercial meat production. I’ll type up some lecture notes in another post; here I will discuss my final meat cookery project.

The Assignment

Document preparation of a meat recipe, discussing the details of the type and cut of meat, its packaging and appearance, storage, cookery method, sanitation, and food safety issues. I chose to cook a steak dinner, as beef is currently the only non-fish meat I am eating, and as an extra challenge, I wanted to grill the steaks. I’d never grilled steaks before, myself. (See here for another recent foray into cooking steak–I’ve only recently added steak into my pescatarian-for-over-ten-years diet.)

What I cooked

The Charlottesville, Virginia farmer’s market has several local meat vendors; I chose Wolf Creek Farm based on their wide variety of cuts of beef, and a prior positive experience. Wolf Creek breeds and raises their own cows on a pure (chemical fertilizer-free) grass diet, without antibiotics or hormones. They value environmental stewardship, healthy animals, and happy workers and community, while creating products customers will enjoy.

Wolf Creek Farm

Wolf Creek Farm’s website describes the stark contrasts between their small-scale beef production and typical industrial beef production:

“Our grass-fed, natural beef is a result of carefully selected herd genetics, that:

  • enjoys animal husbandry based upon intensive personal care and respect with no force-fed hormones and no antibiotics
  • is finished only on lush natural grass pastures with no grain or other supplements
  • is processed calmly with artisan skill in a small and clean rural abattoir with no need for irradiation and no antimicrobials
  • produces cuts that are dry-aged, safe, and nutritious

Contrast this with the beef produced by the industrial beef conglomerates who control 98% of the US beef production, where:

  • animal husbandry consists of force-fed hormones and constant antibiotics in a mechanized process
  • finishing is accomplished in confinement feed-lots by feeding grain that is produced under significant chemical fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide loads, combined with feed supplements containing antibiotics such as Rumensin to inhibit rumen gas build-up and bloat from the grain and Tylosin to reduce liver infections caused by bacteria from pH imbalanced rumens, ionophores, synthetic estrogens to promote growth such as Revlar which are banned in Europe, liquefied fat, and other protein supplements
  • processing is accomplished in an industrial slaughter-house with minimum wage labor on a disassembly-line where the emphasis is on speeds reaching over 400 animals per hour and requires irradiation and hot steam chamber antimicrobials at the end of the line to ensure the meat is “safe”
  • cutting these tens of thousands of wet-aged carcasses produces co-mingled meat containing high levels of saturated fats”

Beef prices by cut

Not being very steak-savvy, I asked the purveyor to recommend a steak for grilling. His immediate response was “rib steak.”

Beef retail cuts

How is a rib steak different from the better known ribeye steak? They’re basically the same, but the rib steak is bone-in while the ribeye is not. Rib cuts are harvested from the rib primal, which covers the upper rib cage. A rib steak is comprised of three major muscles, Longissimus Dorsi, Spinalis Dorsi & Multifidus Dorsi, and as this area of the cow is not used for locomotion or weight-bearing, the meat is naturally tender and marbled with fat.

Rib cuts

The meat is butchered at the farm’s abattoir, hung in cool storage for 21-28 days to dry age–wherein natural enzymes tenderize and flavor the meat–and then vacuum sealed and flash frozen. The steaks at the market were stored frozen in clean coolers. I chose two steaks: one was 0.98lb, for $16.57, and the other was 0.82 lb, for $13.87. Rib steaks are $16.50/lb plus tax.

Frozen steaks

In addition to the two steaks, I picked up some shiitake and oyster mushrooms (1/4 lb for $4), and an avocado ($2), and two tomatoes ($1.50) to go with some cucumbers from a friend’s yard.

How I cooked it

My initial plan, based on the meat purveyor’s suggestion, was to sear the steaks over high heat on the grill for 10-15 seconds a side, and then let them cook a couple minutes per side over 250-300 degree heat. But then a friend told Trusty Sous Chef Mr HP and I about reverse searing and we were intrigued.

‘A small but vocal population of steak lovers swears by the “reverse sear” technique. The theory behind this method is that cooking the steak in the oven first will dry the outside of the steak while slowly cooking the inside and keeping it tender. If the outside of the steak is dry, it will then sear faster and more efficiently in a hot pan.’ — from Mark’s Daily Apple

The new plan: start the steaks in a 275 degree oven until they reach 100-110 degrees, and then move them to a hot grill to sear the outsides.

Step 1: Thaw the steaks.

In the fridge, overnight. Our fridge is around 38 degrees.

Thawed steaks

Step 2: Unwrap the steaks and pat them dry. Then wash hands.

Pat the steaks dry

Step 3: Salt and pepper both sides of the meat.

Salt and pepper the steaks

Step 4: Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Preheat the grill to high. When the oven is ready, load in the steaks on a rack to facilitate air circulation around the meat.

Steaks go in the oven first

(Meanwhile, chop cukes, tomatoes, and avocado. Mix in a large bowl with a bit of olive oil and balsamic or wine vinegar.)

Chop the veggies

(Then chop up the mushrooms, keeping the shiitakes separate from the oysters, as cooking times differ. Heat a dry skillet to medium, add the shiitakes first, and then the more delicate oysters a couple minutes later. When the mushrooms are almost cooked, add some butter to the pan for a boost of flavor.)

Mixed mushrooms

Step 5: When the steaks reach 100-110 degrees (not the 87 pictured below), remove them from the oven onto a clean plate.

Checking temperature in oven

I found that when the steaks hit the target temperature, they took on a grayish color (see image below), which I will use next time as an indicator that it’s time to check temp, rather than the paranoid stabbing of the steaks every couple minutes that I employed here.

Steaks out of the oven

Step 6: Drop the steaks on the hot hot grill to sear for 2 minutes each side.

Grilling the steaks

Check the degree of doneness using a meat thermometer. As we learned in class, palatability is maximized at 145 degrees, which is right between rare (140 degrees) and medium rare (150 degrees). My steak, being smaller than Mr HP’s, would be a little more cooked, but that was ok with me as I’m just getting back into the eating steak swing of things.

Checking temperature of steak

Step 7: Move the steaks to a clean plate and cover loosely with foil for ten minutes, to let the juices reabsorb into the meat.

The picture of that wasn’t interesting so I am sparing you.

Step 8: Serve and enjoy!

Dinner is ready

Cooked rib steak

Storing Leftovers

The steak was fantastic, and the only “leftovers” were fatty bits and the bone from each steak; luckily we knew a certain dog who would be very interested in helping take care of those. The gristly pieces went into a sealed container in the fridge to be portioned out over the next few meals, but he got to enjoy a bone right away.

Steak leftovers

Leftover rib steak bone

Leftover rib steak bone

Summary

This experiment was a great success. The quality of the steak, the ease and results of the reverse-sear cooking method, and the simple but complementary sides (which were completely local except for the avocado, so that’s a potential place for improvement) all exceeded our expectations.

Estimated costs

Steak 1: $16.57

Steak 2: $13.87

Mushrooms: $4

Cucumbers: free

Tomatoes: $1.50

Avocado: $2

Total meal cost: $37.94

Total meat cost: $30.44

Meat’s percentage of total cost: 80%

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2 thoughts on “Coursera course “The Meat We Eat” meat cooking project

  1. Wow! That’s some thorough reporting! Great post, only possible addition at the end would be the % local calories — with the avocado and probably salt, pepper, and oil as your only outliers, I bet you’d be at 95%+ for local calories, neat!

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