from pasture to plate
Where's the Beef?

words Kathryn Williams


A cow’s a cow, right? Nope. A cow is a female bovine that has given birth to a calf. Before that, she’s a heifer. A bull is a mature male used for breeding and steers are castrated males. Babies of both sexes are called calves and once they’re weaned from the mother, they’re “weaners” (stop laughing). High-quality beef comes mostly from steers and heifers.

The first organic/alternative beef operation in the United States was at Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport. Today that program has grown into Pineland Farms Natural Meats based in New Gloucester. Pineland works with more than 200 farms across the Northeast to source its beef.

Hankering for a Maine beef burger? Try the quarter-pound Birch Burger on griddled bread at The Black Birch in Kittery or the generously priced $6 Grace Burger (so popular it has its own Twitter account) or its “rival” on the bar menu at Grace in Portland. Or keep it classic with the grass-fed double-stacked Palais Royale at the Palace Diner in Biddeford.

You’ve likely heard of “grass-fed” beef, but the truth is most cattle, conventionally raised or not, spend the first part of their lives eating grass (and mother’s milk, as calves). It’s between 12 to 16 months that the animals enter the “finishing” phase and are either sent to feedlots to be fattened quickly on a corn-based diet (making them “grain-” or “corn-finished”) or kept on pasture to forage (“grass-finished” or “free-range”). Organic beef can be either.

Put down that thermometer! Test the level of your steak’s doneness by touch and keep those delicious juices where they should be—in the meat. To use this method, feel the plump part of your palm below your thumb joint. That’s what rare feels like. Now press your index finger to your thumb, that’s medium-rare; middle finger, medium; ring finger, medium-well; pinky, well (but you would never do that to your beef, right?)

Of the 30.3 million beef cows in the United States,
approximately 10,000 are in Maine (down from 11,000 in 2015, and compared with 30,000 dairy cows). That’s a far cry from the nearly 4.3 million in Texas, but the second largest number in New England, behind Vermont.

Everyone knows the filet mignon, the flank and the rib eye. Next time, ask your butcher for one of these lesser known—yet often cheaper and equally delicious—cuts: bavette/flap, an alternative to flank; spider/oyster, so named for its webbed marbling; flat iron, a supremely tender shoulder cut; baseball—when cooked, it plumps round like a baseball; teres major, an ultra-lean “faux filet.” Bleeker & Flamm, Maine Street Meats in Rockport also suggests the Denver, a medium-tender, incredibly flavorful cut from the shoulder that is very easy to cook.