When to Choose Grass-Fed or Grain-Fed Beef

Sustainability and healthfulness aside, there’s more to know about the different ways of raising cattle.

Published Jan. 28, 2022.

When considering the choice between grass-fed and grain-fed beef, the majority of home cooks know the basic differences: Grass-fed beef is generally more environmentally sustainable and a little leaner, while grain-fed beef’s higher fat content is often said to enrich its flavor. (Want to go deeper? Check out this comprehensive guide.)

But did you know that there’s more to these different styles of raising cattle than that? Most U.S. beef is raised on grain, but grass-fed beef is becoming an increasingly popular option. While both are perfectly good options, here are the facts to help you make the choice that’s right for you and your recipe.

You want the healthiest beef.

There are lots of ways to define “healthy,” but grass-fed beef is leaner than grain-fed, and it’s also higher in certain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-fed beef also contains twice the amount of conjugated linoleic acid isomers, a small family of fatty acids that purportedly fight cancer and lower the risk of diabetes. So there’s a clear winner in this category.

You want the easiest beef to cook.

Grass-fed beef cooks faster than grain-fed beef, thanks to its leaner constitution—though the differences in cooking times, when compared by ATK’s test cooks, were never more than 4 minutes. It’s safe to say that in this category, it’s a tie.

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You just want the best-tasting beef.

It may seem obvious that grain-fed beef would be the winner in this category, earning a reputation for richness because of its higher fat content. However, ATK test cooks conducted an experiment in which they compared grass- and grain-fed strip steaks and rib-eye steaks to see if taste testers could tell the difference. “Interestingly, preferences were evenly split as to which option is better,” they concluded.

In reality, it simply comes down to preference: Tasters in the experiment could hardly differentiate between the two cuts of strip steaks, but they did notice differences in the rib eyes, noting that the grain-fed beef had a “mild” flavor, while the grass-fed steaks had more complex, “nutty” undertones. When it came to texture, the grain-fed was generally considered juicier and the grass-fed somewhat chewier.

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