Issue No. 54: What gives meat flavor? Part 1: Breed

When you buy a bottle of wine, what factors do you consider? I’ll bet one of the things you think about is what grapes it’s made from. We expect that a Cabernet Sauvignon will taste different from a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay, and depending on your own taste preferences or what you want to eat with the wine you may make different choices. How about when you buy a pork chop—do you consider the breed of the pig? If your answer is no, you’re not alone. Over the last half a century, the meat industry has selectively bred more and more standardized animals, taking the question of breed completely out of the consumer’s mind. Pork is pork, right? Maybe. The vast majority of the pork that you buy at the grocery today is likely to be a breed developed over the last few decades, so it’s all going to be pretty similar. That’s a big change from a century ago. While through most of history we’ve bred animals to be disease resistant, or good tempered, or hardy, or delicious, the current trend is toward one very particular trait: the ability to convert feed into meat as quickly as possible.

The chicken came first.

In 1925, it took fifteen weeks to grow a chicken that weighed 2.2 pounds. By 1990, you could grow the same chicken in about four weeks. The biggest cost to raising a chicken is the feed, so the quicker you can raise a chicken the less feed you have to give it and the less expensive it is to raise. With the new, faster growing chickens, the slow growing chickens that had pecked around farms were economically obsolete. Within a few decades, dozens of centuries-old heritage breed chickens were almost extinct, replaced by a few new breeds. Chicken meat became cheap and suddenly the dream of a chicken in every pot became a reality. Well, maybe more like a McNugget in every bucket.

But there were a lot of tradeoffs for quick growth. These chickens lost their disease immunity so they started getting daily antibiotics in their feed. They grew too big too quickly for their skeletons to keep up causing them to have trouble moving around without fracturing bones. The solution was to jam pack them into tiny cages that barely allowed them to move. And while the meat was plentiful, it was bland.

The Other White Meat was next.

After seeing the financial success they’d had with developing new chickens, meat executives turned their attention to pork. Like chickens, today’s commercial pigs grow faster and bigger than they ever have before. Also like chickens, the vast majority of pigs that are raised today bear little resemblance to the breeds that were rooting around on farms 75 years ago. Back then, pigs were raised both for their meat and for their fat. Lard was the number one cooking fat in America until World War II, when it was so important as a grease used in making explosives that advertising campaigns implored housewives to switch to using “more healthful” vegetable fats like margarine so that the lard could all be used in the war effort. As the idea that animal fats were bad caught on, farmers started breeding pigs to be leaner. The meat industry noticed that lean muscle developed much more quickly than more flavorful fat, and they sped the changes along. Within a few decades pork became so lean and that it ended up being dry and flavorless and it got a bad reputation for being low quality (with the exception of bacon, which had enough fat and salt to still have a little flavor left).

The good news is that there are a handful of farmers out there who are still raising heritage breed pigs—the same breeds that could have been raised by their grandparents. Here are a few of the heritage breeds of pork you may find on the market today, including on our shelves:

Berkshire: one of the most common heritage pigs today, Berkshire pork is tender and incredibly flavorful—you might call it especially “porky.” It’s a popular choice with chefs.

Duroc: first developed in New England around 1800, Duroc pork is earthy, nutty, bold, yet clean and juicy.

Ibérico Pata Negra: these are the famous pigs that root in the forests of southern Spain and eat the acorns to become Ibérico de Bellota. The meat is usually cured. When fresh it’s unbelievably rich and savory, almost like a cross between beef and pork.

Red Wattle: originally from New Orleans, Red Wattle pork has incredibly complex, herbaceous, subtly sweet flavor. It has prized fat that melts in your mouth.

Tamworth: first developed in Ireland, and known for being one of the best breeds for bacon. The pork has sweet, nutty notes.

And then there’s beef.

Unlike chickens and pigs, which have undergone such radical transformations over the last century, today’s cattle look similar to cows of the past. There are a few reasons cattle genetics have changed less, but one of the simplest ones is how long it takes to get a new cow. A chicken lays eggs daily, and chicks grow into full-sized chickens in a couple of months. In industrial conditions, a sow can have twenty or thirty piglets per year and the pigs reach full size in six to eight months. But a cow only has one or two calves per year, and it’s at least a year and a half before they’re ready to go to market. Since it takes so much longer to get each new generation, changes have been slower. The result is that, compared to chicken or pork, way more of the beef on the market is closer to being a breed that has been around for a long time.

Is knowing the breed of an animal enough to know how the meat will taste?

No. Knowing the breed is a good start, and the older breeds will certainly all taste a little different. But there are a lot more factors that also play a role in the flavor of the meat. What was it fed? Where was it raised? How was it treated? When was it harvested? How was it processed? That’s a lot to keep in mind, but each question can have a big impact on the flavor of the meat. Over the next few weeks of The Feed we’ll take a deeper look at each of these questions, and use them to try to answer one big question: what gives meat great flavor?