But with beef, as with everything in the American diet, change is afoot.
Shoppers are seeing more and more grass-fed beef in regular grocery stores, along with meat from breeds marketed as special (like Angus), and meat from organically raised animals.
The local/sustainable movement has been singing the praises of the grass-fed cow, while the grain-fed industry has been under attack by food activists.
The grass-fed cow, which eats from a pasture and is not "finished" on a diet of grains and supplements for rapid weight gain, is said by its promoters to be better for the planet (less energy goes into growing grass than grain); better for the beef eater (less overall fat, and more omega-3s and other "good" fats); and better for the cow (critics decry feedlot practices as inhumane).
In this article, though, we're looking not at meat politics but at three things that most cooks are acutely interested in: price, taste, and nutrition.
Price may be the first thing you have noticed about grass-fed beef: In supermarkets, small-production, grass-fed meat can be a lot more expensive than your average grain-fed beef, just as artisanal cheese costs more than industrial cheddar.
Cooking Light: Six ways to save on beef
But the cook will notice that the meat often looks different, too -- sometimes a lot darker, often with less of the coveted fat-marbling you see in the highest-grade grain-fed meat.
To dive into the subject, we bought half a cow. Specifically, we bought half of a 648-pound Brangus cow, pasture-raised by Alabama farmer Melissa Boutwell, who is pretty local: She works about 175 miles from our main editorial offices. Boutwell Farms supplies regional restaurants, which have included James Beard Award-winning Chef Frank Stitt's restaurants in Birmingham.
We talked to Boutwell about her husbandry. We saw our meat through the butchering process, took delivery of 243 pounds of meat (plus bones) cut to our specifications, and conducted blind tastings in our Test Kitchen.
Cooking Light got 243 pounds of Brangus, cut to order.
As for nutrition, we put fat-content claims to the test by sending some of our finest grass-fed steaks for nutritional analysis, along with supermarket and specialty grain-fed cuts.
And on the matter of taste, we confirmed that grass-fed beef can be delicious and versatile but, if it comes from a lean cow like the one we bought, requires careful cooking lest the extra effort of buying it go to waste on the plate.
(We're still cooking our way through steaks, ground beef, chuck, roasts, and ribs, plus bones and organs, and we will provide beef recipes from our grass-fed project as the year goes on.)
Buying beef directly from farmers not only is a logical next step in the "buy local" movement but also hearkens back to the way many of our parents or grandparents bought meat.
All you need is to do some digging for local suppliers and buy a good-sized freezer (you'll find our primer on sourcing and buying online at CookingLight.com/features).
Some readers are already doing it, as we learned after putting the word out on Facebook, and one benefit of bulk buying is that it obliges the cook to experiment and enjoy less familiar cuts of meat.
"Purchasing a quarter cow was very educational," says Cooking Light reader Julie Lineberger. "I had never even cooked a roast, and now I am comfortable with roasts, brisket, and all sorts of cuts."
Of course, most cooks won't want to buy a whole grass-fed cow or even a half-cow. One option is to "cowpool" with curious friends.
Read the rest of the story and get recipes too!