I was recently invited to a tasting event to learn about Scotch beef. It was an eye-opening experience, and I learned a great deal about beef in general and Scotch beef in particular.
Firstly, why Scotch beef and not Scottish beef or beef from Scotland?
Because they all mean different things:
To be described as from Scotland a beef product only has to have been processed in Scotland. So, for example, beef born, reared and slaughtered in another country, imported to Scotland and processed further into beef products can be labelled as from Scotland.
Scottish beef must be born, reared and slaughtered in Scotland. However there are no specifics about rearing, feed, quality assurance and these vary from producer to producer.
Scotch beef must not only be born, reared and slaughtered in Scotland but also assured from birth by Quality Meat Scotland Assurance schemes. It has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) which lays down stringent guidelines about production methods and controls, animal welfare, traceability, labelling and quality. In addition, Scotch Beef comes from steers and heifers only.
For me, that last sentence made me sit up straight with surprise.
Bull, cow, young bull, heifer or steer?
Not only had I never thought about whether the beef I was eating was from a male or female, I’d certainly never thought about the age of the animal or which stage in life it had reached. I didn’t even understand some of the terms.
Bull – a mature male, with genitalia intact, which has already mated with cows.
Cow – a mature female, which has mated and given birth to at least one calf.
Young bull – a “teen” male, with genitalia intact, which has never mated with a cow.
Steer – a young or “teen” male, castrated and, obviously, never mated.
Heifer – a young or “teen” female, never mated or given birth, usually under 3 years of age.
Calf – a very young bovine of either sex, which has not yet been weaned, usually less than a year old.
What had never occurred to me, but was obvious as soon as I considered it for a moment, is that the differences in hormones between the above categories can make a huge difference to the taste of the beef. Beef from cows often has a characteristic acidity, sharp like malt vinegar, a hormonal sourness. Beef from bulls has a different kind of sourness, strongly metallic on the tongue, from the testosterone.
Stressing an animal in the weeks before it is slaughtered, whether by changing its feed or environment, or by a particularly long or arduous journey from farm to abattoir, will also have an impact, introducing a bitterness to the beef that comes from the hormones produced as a response to stress.
Cattle are broadly divided into three subspecies: bos primigenius, bos indicus and bos taurus. Bovine species are hard to pin down as not only can cattle interbreed between the subspecies, they can also do so with closely-related species such as yak and bison. The breeds we raise in Europe are virtually all from the subspecies bos taurus.
There are hundreds and hundreds of breeds of cattle, some of which are best suited to dairy, others as draught animals for farm work and of course, some which are well suited to the production of beef.
Laurent Vernet, the head of marketing for Quality Meat Scotland, tells us that, contrary to what I had assumed, the breed of cow will make far less difference to the taste of the beef than the age, sex, stage of life, whether the animal has developed its muscles from foraging and being able to move freely or been reared indoors with restricted movement, what the animal has been fed, how the beef has been aged, and differences between cuts.
In fact, the choice of breed a farmer raises often depends more on how the different breeds handle different terrains and climates, with some being much hardier in cold and wet weather and others coping better with dry heat.
We discussed feed only briefly during the session. Beef cattle can be fed on widely different diets, which make a huge difference in the finished product.
Corn fed cattle have a diet that is predominantly composed of corn and soy.
Grass-fed cattle are allowed to forage fresh grass in pasture, and may also be fed legumes and silage. Silage is made from grass crops such as corn and other cereals, using the entire green plant, not just the grain. The plant is cut and stored in silos where it undergoes a two week fermentation that converts sugars to acids.
Supplements, providing additional nutrients, may also be fed to animals.
I’ve since been in touch with by Quality Meat Scotland to learn more about the specific diets of Scotch Beef cattle:
They have “a grass based diet, grazing outside in summer and fed a conserved forage (such as silage) in the winter. Small amounts of grain or distillery by-products (fermented grain) are sometimes added to this ration to provide additional energy but the majority of the ration remains grass based. Any additional feeds the cattle get have to be approved by QMS in order for the beef to carry the Scotch Beef Label.”
The traditional way of aging beef is dry aging, where an entire half, or large cuts of beef are hung in a cooler fridge for a period of time. During this process, moisture evaporates from the meat, concentrating the beef flavour and taste. The beef’s natural enzymes break down the connective tissue in the muscle, which increases tenderness. Certain fungal species also grow on the external surfaces of the meat, which also complement the natural enzymes in improving flavour and tenderness.
Of course, the loss of moisture means an overall loss of weight. As beef is sold by weight, this affects profits, unless the beef is sold at a higher price by weight. That has resulted in a huge increase in the use of wet ageing, where beef is vacuum-sealed into bags in order to reduce moisture loss. The natural enzymes within the beef will still break down connective tissues, but there is no formation of external moulds on the surface, nor concentration of flavour due to moisture loss.
It’s become quite the thing to laud meat that’s been aged not just for a week or two but for 28 days or 45 days or even 60!
Laurent explained that the tenderising is complete in less than two weeks.
I was already a little conflicted about this since our trip to the Falklands back in February 2010. Weather conspired against our planned itinerary and we spent an extra night on Saunders Island, along with a charmingly batty group of British girl guides. The owners of the island had slaughtered one of their beef cattle two days previously, and generously gave all of us an enormous joint to roast for dinner, as we’d all catered for the number of meals we’d originally expected to eat on the island. Obviously, the meat had not been hung and yet it was absolutely delicious; tender and full of flavour. It certainly made me question the litany of longer aging for better flavour.
Firstly, we did a blind tasting of two pieces of red meat, the fat had been removed from both. In my notes I wrote down that A had a more irony, bloody taste and that B was sweeter, softer, with a more hazelnut taste. I could detect a clear difference but I assumed that was down to two different cuts of beef, or maybe what they’d been fed or how long the meat had been aged. I was gobsmacked when Laurent revealed that A was beef but B was actually lamb!
Laurent explained that red meat protein tastes much the same from one animal to another and that the fat is what gives the meats their distinctive tastes.
However, he also warned us not to fall for the marketing myth that a joint of beef wrapped in a thick layer of fat will result in the fat melting into the meat and improving flavour. That doesn’t happen. However, it does increase the moisture within the meat by creating a cap that blocks the steam that would otherwise escape during cooking.
Marbling, on the other hand, where the fat is distributed throughout the meat, provides flavour in each bite.
Before we started tasting different plates of beef, Laurent ran through the criteria for assessing steak.
Tenderness is broken down into First Bite and Global. As we take the first bite, we subconsciously make an assessment about whether we think it is tender or tough, moving it to the back of our mouth if we think it will be soft and to the front if it’ll need more chewing. As we go on chewing, we make a more global assessment, based on how much chewing is needed to process and swallow the piece of meat. More than four chews is where we start to perceive a problem.
Juiciness is not about how much moisture the actual food releases, but about the sensation of juiciness in our mouth, something which a good presence of fat can also create. It’s about a natural reaction that creates saliva, and whether this is brief or lasts throughout the eating of that bite.
When it comes to Texture, we really only notice this if there’s something unexpected or if it feels wrong.
Flavour is broken down into three aspects. First is the Basic flavour where our taste buds detect sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. The tongue is not very sophisticated, beyond these key profiles, as we confirmed by tasting some coriander with our noses closed, and again with our noses open. That’s because most of the Taste is detected by receptors in the throat and the olfactory system, our system for sensing smell. And lastly, there is Aftertaste, which is about the residue of taste that remains in the mouth once we’ve swallowed the bite of food. This is most evident when we open our mouths and bring in oxygen. This was the last stage of our coriander test, after tasting it with nose pinched close, then nose open and lastly, opening our mouth and breathing inwards.
I did some additional reading on this when I got home and found a couple of other ways that we assess what we are eating. These are much less relevant for tasting beef, of course. Thermoreception detects temperature and chemesthesis detects chemical-induced reactions – think about the sensations you get from eating menthol or chilli.
Our first trio of tastes were all 9 day aged sirloin from a cow, a young bull and a steer.
The juiciness in the cow sirloin dissipated fast. The meat was rather tough, and resistant to chewing. The flavour didn’t stand out hugely. I noted down that it was irony fresh blood, quite neutral. Laurent detected a whole milk flavour.
The young bull was softer and more even in texture and the juiciness lasted longer. It was much more sour and I really felt that in the back of my jaw, where the muscles tightened unpleasantly in response. I have a similar but more violent reaction to most strongly acidic and sour food.
The steer was softer again, I noted that it was silky. It was really juicy and that wetness lasted throughout the eating. The flavour was sweeter, with a nice savoury umami aspect. Not much sourness or metallic notes. My own notes include earthy and reminiscent of fresh raw mushrooms. Others also mentioned a buttery note.
Next we looked at aging, trying steer sirloins that were aged for 9 days, 16 days and 27 days, respectively.
The 9 day aging resulted in meat that was a touch chewy but acceptable. The juiciness was short lived. The flavour wasn’t strong, but there was a touch of metallic iron from the blood.
The 16 day aged was meltingly soft and with long lasting juiciness in the mouth. It had a deeply rich umami flavour with the oxidised fat giving an almost bacon-like smokiness.
The 27 day aged was not quite as soft as the 16 day, nor quite as juicy, but better than the 9 day aged on both counts. It had a good meaty flavour, though the bacon profile was missing. The acidity was more evident too.
For me, the 16 day aged was my clear favourite.
I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing what I learned. If you want to know more about Scotch beef, contact Quality Meat Scotland directly.
Kavey Eats was a guest of Quality Meat Scotland.
The event took place at The Guinea Grill, which always has Scotch Beef on its menu.
Photographs are by George Powell.