The tug of war between taste and tenderness continues to be a struggle for the beef industry.

When I think of great tasting beef, I think back to the days when we'd haul a dry, two-year-old heifer to town for butchering. She'd probably been in a drylot for a month to six weeks, getting a bucket or two of corn each day, along with all the hay she could eat, to get her “on the gain.”

That meat had the flavor of, well … beef. It was dark cherry red when Mom laid it in the frying pan, and it sent out a mouth-watering aroma when turned. It had texture and form, it was juicy, and it had that sharp, tangy taste so unique to beef that's made it the most desired protein on the planet.

Even the run-of-the-mill, commodity supermarket beef of a generation or two past — while certainly not having many of the other palatability attributes of today's counterpart (especially, consistency and tenderness) — had taste, did it not?

I know it's heresy to badmouth the taste of beef in a beef magazine. But, it's no joke today that all too much of the beef being carted out of supermarkets doesn't in any way taste like what came off our ranches and out of our feedyards just a couple of decades ago.

It might not taste like beef …

So much of what's plucked out of the meat case is bland, watery (sometimes intentionally) and mushy. It's so tasteless you have to soak it in teriyaki sauce or reach for the A-1 to keep from wondering if a turned-around turkey hadn't stumbled into the packing house fabrication line.

And, just how important is taste to consumers? You probably think that tenderness is the number-one consideration of consumers when it comes to eating beef. Well, that's the kicker; we just don't know.

According to renowned meats scientist Gary Smith, Colorado State University, Roeber et al. 2002 reported that domestic merchandisers of U.S. beef (purveyors, retailers and restaurateurs) identified the following as among the top quality challenges for the beef industry, in order of importance:

  • inadequate flavor;
  • inadequate juiciness;
  • inadequate tenderness; and
  • inadequate overall palatability.

In a landmark 1996 study, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) reported that tenderness was a more important purchasing criterion than flavor. NCBA analysts concluded that consumers felt they have a better ability to impact flavor through seasonings and preparation techniques. Lack of tenderness is harder to remedy, especially for the cut that will be cooked “as is;” like steaks on the grill.

There's a great deal of other informal and scientific information to back NCBA's observations. But, the perspective of Fergal Quinn of SuperQuinn Supermarkets, Ireland, rings like an international arbitrator in this taste versus tenderness struggle.

“The end product you sell is not meat … it is taste,” he says. “Consumers won't pay more for food that satisfies their nutritional requirements or fits their food safety requirements. People will pay more for greater satisfaction … and, taste is their measure of satisfaction in food.”

… but it's tender

So, what was it about the beef from our two-year-old heifer from the past that you won't taste in so much of today's supermarket beef?

First, she was most likely of a biological type that allowed her, even with a limited grain ration, to put down some taste-generating marbling. Second, it wasn't calf-meat we were eating, and it had enough physical maturity to the muscle structure that's so important to holding moisture during cooking. Third, it probably had been hung (dry-aged) long enough to concentrate its natural flavor-eliciting compounds in the meat tissue.

We could argue forever about the many other factors — anabolics, grass-feds, breed, etc. — that combine to effect the eating attributes of beef. And, you could make the case that good-tasting and tender beef can be had — albeit, usually at a price.

Granted, that heifer beef we grew up eating couldn't be counted on as being among the most tender. But, back then we really didn't know any better either — when it comes to tenderness, that is.

Maybe that's one of the issues today; do consumers just not know any better? Could it be that the beef industry has focused so much on tenderness that a huge segment of our population is getting conditioned to desire tender beef with little of the traditional beef taste?

This is something the beef industry is going to have to deal with. If the trend continues to throw taste out the window in the pursuit of tenderness, we need to be prepared to acknowledge that awful phrase: “It tastes just like chicken.”