As any wine connoisseur will attest, the factors influencing the taste and drinking enjoyment of a sought-after cabernet or chardonnay are many, including the type of grapes to the region the grapes are grown to the age of the wine. Similarly, the flavor of beef is the culmination of many factors.

Top chefs, food scientists and processing equipment engineers are all able to wield considerable influence in manipulating the flavor of beef, each in their respective stages of food production and preparation. In many cases, however, all of the technology, classical training and ingredient innovations cannot begin to trump the flavor attributes that are established in beef long before it reaches the plate or retail shelf. The impact of breed, grading designation and feeding practices can easily overshadow steps taken during processing, butchering, seasoning and cooking methods. Some of the inherent characteristics of beef catapult eaters past a mere taste-based experience to the more refined realm of savory flavors, thanks to its color, aroma, texture, juiciness and mouthfeel.

According to the Beef Checkoff, the umami (pronounced “oo-MOM-ee) taste, or fifth taste, in the palates of carnivores is the bull’s-eye when it comes to beef flavor. Taste researchers have identified taste buds on the tongue that respond to umami, which is actually the taste of salts of amino acids. Consumers describe the umami as meaty or savory. Product developers regard it as the Holy Grail of meat appeal.

Dale Woerner, assistant professor at the Center for Meat Safety and Quality at Colorado State Univ.’s Department of Animal Science, affirms that “beef flavor has become a huge hot button. So we are looking at a lot of things that can influence the flavor of beef.”

Factors influencing the eating experience often start with production claims, including feeding/finishing practices (grass-finished vs. grain-finished or even corn vs. barley finished) as well as breed distinctions. Aging practices can also play a significant role.

Breeding benefits

Perhaps Angus and Wagyu (American-style Kobe) beef are the best known breeds, thanks to effective marketing by meat companies and branded beef associations such as Certified Angus Beef. Angus is roughly defined in many circles as cattle with mostly black hides, and among branded beef programs, it is the leading specification used to denote the breed. While links between Angus-bred beef and flavor are somewhat sketchy, one conclusion that can be drawn is that it tends to grade USDA Choice or higher, “because of its tendency for marbling,” Woerner says. Angus meets the standards of many of today’s branded beef programs, which require not only low-Choice graded products, but even meet the requirements for premium Angus programs that rely on the upper two-thirds of the Choice supply, such as Certified Angus Beef. Woerner points out that the Angus breed claim alone, doesn’t necessarily guarantee higher-quality beef with marbling to earn a Choice grade. There are plenty of Angus Select-graded products on the market today.

“Everyone has really used the Angus name because of its marketing distinction, but not all Angus products are created equal,” he says. “Consumers, food professionals, chefs and people in the culinary world should be very well aware of that.”

Another breed that is growing in popularity is Wagyu cattle, marketed by many companies as American-style Kobe. According to Woerner, when offered in blind taste tests he conducts on a regular basis, Wagyu is typically the favorite. “They like the mouthfeel of the fat in the beef,” he says. The flavor associated with highly marbled beef such as Wagyu, is most often described as “buttery” by consumers and is what most US consumers enjoy. “That’s why we grain-finish cattle in this country; it’s for quality purposes.”

Most US beef is finished on corn, “which tends to stabilize or neutralize flavor profile differences,” and it explains why tenderness is more likely to be the most distinctive difference in flavor. When it comes to the average beef eater, pinning down a specific attribute or taste is usually a challenge. The relationship between tenderness, marbling and how these factors impact beef flavor is the subject of considerable debate. But indeed, tenderness is perhaps the most important contributor to the overall beef-eating experience. It is the product of marbling, aging and breed type. “What we think contributes the most to a positive beef-eating experience is tenderness,” says Woerner. Tenderness and mouthfeel, he says, is most related to the level of fat in a beef cut.

Grass vs. grain

Beef production experts say the easiest way to affect the flavor of a product is to manipulate the fat within it; not only the amount but the composition of the fat. The type of feed used in production and finishing is one manner of affecting fat composition. For example, when comparing grass vs. grain-finished steer, the fatty acid profile of each is considerably different.

Grass-finished beef, most of which is not assigned a quality grade by the US Dept. of Agriculture, is typically leaner than grain-finished beef. There are differences in the fatty-acid profile of each. Grass-finished has a higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids, however in these proportions, the amounts don’t make a difference in terms of health benefits.

A grain-finished steer that is fatter than a grass-finished steer actually contains more omega-3 fatty acids, said Woerner, but in lower proportions. In taste tests, there is a distinct contrast in flavors between the two. “There is a big difference in flavor, mainly from the leanness of the product and the fatty-acid profile differences.” Most consumers, he says, would classify grass-fed beef as stronger in flavor, or in many cases, they will categorize the flavor as “gamey.”

“Based on research done here, we have classified those flavors as being ‘grassy’ or even a fishy-type of flavor,” which is related to influence of omega-3 in the meat that is a product of the grass finishing, he says. For some consumers, these flavor profiles are the epitome of beef flavors. “They like the stronger, gamier flavor of grass-finished beef,” according to Woerner, “but they are a minority.”

The average consumer in the US favors traditionally produced, grain-finished beef, which makes up more than 96 percent of all beef produced in the US. He contends that if demand for grass-fed beef was higher, ranchers would produce more, but for now the supply is adequate to meet the needs of the niche. To appeal to that niche, most grass-fed beef companies market their product as “locally raised and processed” and often is sold at local farmer’s markets or regional supermarkets.

Aging tastefully

Aging is another means of influencing beef flavor. Dry aging is achieved by exposing the meat to an open-air environment where humidity is controlled, without the benefit of packaging. The more common method, wet aging, occurs when a product is packaged in a vacuum-sealed bag, and results in higher yields of product because there is no dehydration loss like there is with dry aging. According to Woerner, there is a discernible flavor difference between the two aging methods, but they are too subtle for most consumers to detect. Dry-aged products have a concentration of flavors due to the dehydration process. “Those products have micro-flora or in some cases certain types of mold growing on that product that can impart specific flavors.” In blind taste testing, however, most consumers are unable to taste the difference between dry and wet aging, Woerner says. “Beef connoisseurs can distinguish that difference, but the general public generally won’t.”

Due to the leanness and absence of fat in grass-fed beef, the benefits of dry aging this type of product comes at the expense of dehydrating the exposed lean meat. “So instead of trimming off the exterior fat that you normally would with grain-finished beef, you’re trimming off the edible portion of that product.”

Influencing backyard grillers

Released this past spring, McCormick & Co.’s Flavor Forecast 2011 identified many factors expected to influence popular grill flavors, including beef, in the coming outdoor-cooking season. According to Mary Beth Harrington, spokeswoman with the McCormick Kitchens, there is almost a universal, basic understanding of cooking a steak on the grill among consumers. Now, she said as part of the forecast findings, many grillers are getting adventurous. As an example, “They’re adding big flavor with a zesty balsamic marinade and serving it sliced over a colorful salad.” McCormick’s noteworthy trends influencing flavors on the grill include the use of bold, regional ingredients sourced locally; blending earthy and smoky flavors with hot ingredients; and a willingness among grillers to experiment with global flavors. For beef, infusing smoky flavoring using ingredients and adding a splash of regional, craft beers for another level of taste is expected to be among the more popular combinations. To address these trends, McCormick’s latest Grill Mates offerings feature marinades, rubs and spice blends targeting the trends. The company is now marketing ingredients that capture regional barbecue flavored spices, alcohol-infused marinades and earthy, coffee-accented meat rubs.

Culinary opportunities

Dave Zino, executive chef in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s consumer marketing division, says NCBA research indicates beef eaters naturally gravitate toward products with superior marbling. He points out that chemically, beef is 70 percent water, 22 percent protein, 7 percent fat and 1 percent minerals. The longer beef is cooked, the more moisture is removed. “Marbling is our hedge against that moisture loss because it melts into the beef, creating a more tender product,” he says

Zino says when it comes to beef flavor trends, there is sustained demand for undervalued cuts, as evidenced by the prevalence of items such as red-wine-braised short ribs on menus as well as premium burger offerings. In this arena, “Many chefs are still learning about all of the options available to them,” Zino says. One creative option in the culinary world of beef is offering rib eye steaks with the cap removed from the fillet portion. “Done right, that is like eating candy.”