I fly into a rage whenever I read that meat from grass-fed or pastured animals is uniformly tough. I’m going to throw my computer through a window the next time I happen upon a blog blithely repeating the claim that it should be cooked “slow and low” as if a dumb rhyme makes it compelling. Many a night I’ve lain their, kept from sleep by the possibility that there might be people out there tossing piles of gorgeous ribeyes into their crock pots. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but it really does bother me.
The amount of connective tissue largely determines how tough a given cut of meat is. While it’s true that pastured animals generally get more exercise and thus can develop a bit more of this, steaks from a grass-fed steer or chops from a pastured hog should not require the same culinary approach as an old laying hen. In my experience cuts from a well finished grass-fed animal should be treated the same way as those you’d buy in the grocery store. The occasional (though not universal) exception to this is the round, which seems to have a smaller proportion of meat tender enough to make into roast beef. However, even this is something that better genetics may well address.
The other issue is whether the animal has a good finish, meaning a good amount of intramuscular fat. Without getting into the issue of whether animal fat is a healthy food (I think it is), it certainly tastes good. But finishing a steer without grain is not the easiest proposition; in this climate the optimal harvest window is only a few months, at least without planting high energy annual fodder. I think a failure to account for this contributes even more to grass-fed meat’s dodgy reputation than poor genetics or management yielding excessively tough meat. I’ve both read and anecdotally confirmed that a steer that is actively gaining weight at slaughter yields the highest quality cuts.
It is a difficult situation for producers, since customers understandably want meat year round, and finishing animals well in the off season can be difficult. But the alternative - sending animals that are not in tip top shape - contributes to the idea that grass-fed meat is so tough and so prone to off flavors that it’s safest to just boil it to death, regardless of the cut. This perception, unfortunately accurate in some cases, is one of the biggest impediments to more widespread interest in these products.