On a recent afternoon at Otoño in Highland Park, chef Teresa Montaño is rhapsodizing about an unforgettable steak in Spain’s Basque Country.
“I’d never seen anything so beautiful,” she sighs, eyes closed. “They presented it to me raw, and the meat was a deep red, with this gorgeous bright yellow fat. I picked the biggest one, and it came out perfectly cooked, with a powerful beef flavor. My heart was racing with every bite. It was one of the best meals of my entire life.”
Montaño had just experienced vaca vieja, literally “old cow,” a steak sourced from older steers at the end of their working life. Beef from mature animals — particularly animals raised on pasture by responsible farmers — offers an entirely different eating experience than the melt-in-your-mouth steaks many Americans are accustomed to.
Flavor-wise, old beef is, by virtue of its maturity, more intensely meaty, with a deeper beef taste, more flavorful fat and complex textures. The muscles in older animals, those around 5 to 9 years old, are more developed, and they tend to eat a more varied diet, including grasses that impart a yellow tinge to their fat.
“It tastes like real beef,” Montaño says. “Clean and rich. The flavors and textures are coming from a different, more intense place.”
Until recently, high-quality mature meat has been both tough to source and tough to sell in the U.S. But that’s changing as curious diners seek new flavors and a more sustainable way of eating. Now, with the rise of operations such as Mindful Meats in Marin County and independent farmers willing to sell older working steers, chefs and butchers across California and Nevada are experimenting with more mature meat offerings in stores and on menus.
Eating meat from older animals is a straightforward concept familiar to generations of farmers — working cows plow, pull and produce milk until they are no longer able, and only then do they wind up on your dinner plate.
“Historically, you’d never raise an animal just for meat,” says Adam Danforth, a butcher and meat educator who works with chefs around the country. The numbers don’t lie: A multipurpose cow can provide more than 80,000 pounds of food in its lifetime in the form of milk, cheese, butter and beef, as opposed to just 600 pounds of meat from a beef cow.
But as Montaño learned when she was opening her first restaurant, the now-closed Ración in Pasadena, finding beef that could mimic the taste of her transformative Spanish steak was no easy feat. The USDA, citing mad cow disease concerns, bans most imports on beef from cows over 30 months old and subjects older animals to prohibitively strict processing regulations. And in the U.S. for nearly the last century, the meat industry has operated as a single-purpose model in which cows are raised either for beef or dairy, not both.
“Post-World War II, once we started raising animals just for meat, economics pushed that capitalistic ideal of bigger and faster,” Danforth says. Conventional beef cattle are fattened quickly on a grain-based diet and slaughtered around 15 to 20 months. There’s a whole host of problems associated with this model, from the health of the animal to the health of the planet, but conventional beef satisfies the top priority for most Americans: tenderness.
“People in this country are challenged by the idea that meat does not have to be at the pinnacle of tenderness to be enjoyable,” Danforth says.
Dairy cows are another story and often another beef entirely. Most beef cows are big, fast-growing Anguses, while dairy cows are Holsteins or Jerseys, smaller but renowned for their sweet milk.
Conventional dairy cows have a working life of about five to seven years, most of it spent in confinement, and are then sold off as low-grade meat. There simply hasn’t been much of a non-ground-beef, non-pet-food market for beef from dairy cows, which are often smaller, leaner, older — and therefore chewier — than their beef-specific counterparts.
Even organic dairy cows, which are raised to a higher standard, often wound up in cans — until Claire Herminjard stepped in.
In 2011, she founded Mindful Meats in Marin County, with a mission to repurpose retired organic dairy cows from nearby farms and create a viable market for their beef.
“These farmers have an amazing product in their backyard that they’re losing out on premium pricing for, and the community is losing out on great meat,” she says. Mindful Meats works with the last remaining USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in the San Francisco Bay Area to produce 11,000 pounds of meat every week, including every cut of steak and ground beef, and is one of a small but growing number of operations able to consistently supply curious chefs and butchers with mature meat.
Montaño is one fan, using Mindful Meat’s ribeye for her Spanish restaurant’s vaca vieja. She dry-ages the meat for two to three weeks to develop its flavor and help tenderize it, then sous-vides and grills it, serving the steak with a black garlic aioli and potatoes confited in beef fat.
“It’s not a buttery, grain-fed steak, and it’s not all grass-fed,” she says. “It’s a little gamy, and it does have some chew, but it tastes very clean and very pure.”
Other chefs and butchers are championing old meat as well. When Spanish chef José Andrés, familiar with vaca vieja from his home country, opened the steakhouse Bazaar Meat in Las Vegas, he made a concerted effort to reintroduce older animals to American palates. But Andrés, along with executive chef Alex Pitts, recognized the need to do so gradually.
“Compared to Wagyu or some other amazing, ridiculously expensive steak, older meat can be considered tough,” Pitts says. “But it’s also a flavor bomb. It tastes like you rubbed bouillon all over a steak.”
At Gwen, Curtis Stone’s butcher shop and restaurant in Hollywood, butcher Andrew Sutton has found that dairy cows make for excellent cured meats, like a bresaola seasoned with rosemary, garlic and black pepper.
“When you have an animal that’s 5 or 6 years old, it has that deep yellow fat,” he says. “It makes for bresaola with a butteriness and a depth of flavor that you just can’t get out of younger animals.”
Sutton says Gwen’s customers are generally an adventurous lot who are actively looking to try new offerings in the butcher case. Still, older meat can be a hard sell.
“When I got started, people told me I’d never get a good steak out of a dairy cow. There’s still this pervasive mentality that meat from older animals isn’t as good,” Herminjard says. The muscle fiber of an older animal is larger, the meat is darker from use, and the fat is yellow from the beta carotene in the grass it has eaten.
“We do have a bit of a challenge selling to groceries and butchers, because people buy with their eyes, and most consumers associate dark meat with being bad or old. We’ve had to do a lot of education with our retail buyers about why our beef looks this way,” she says.
But for Sutton and other Los Angeles-area retailers such as Standing’s Butchery on Melrose Avenue and Cookbook Market in Highland Park, older meats offer a chance to educate consumers about flavor as much as sustainability.
“The amount of water and resources that go into raising animals is intense. This is a more environmentally sound way of producing beef,” Sutton says.