Steak lovers are always on the lookout for the best cuts – the more individual and unusual the steak, the more enjoyable the culinary experience. However, the steak you find on the meat counter at your local supermarket or discounter is "standard meat" in most cases. Specifically, its origin is generally a young bull or heifer from a dairy or dual-purpose breed, such as Fleckvieh or Holstein. While these animals do produce splendid steaks from time to time, the selection is almost identical from shop to shop, especially in grocery stores. If you are a meat fan and prefer to source your steaks from the butcher or online, a wider selection of steaks from different breeds awaits you. These steaks differ in terms of their colour, marbling, fibre structure and meat flavour. Read on for an overview of five meat-producing cattle breeds that are currently extremely popular among connoisseurs.
Dairy, meat and steak breeds
However, before we get into the specific merits of individual breeds, here is a brief classification of the dairy-breed and beef-breed categories. This distinction lays the foundation for a better understanding of meat quality.
DAnimals from dairy breeds such as Holstein Schwarzbunt or Braunvieh have been bred for decades to deliver a particularly good milk yield. These animals spend much of their energy producing milk, which in turn is only possible when the cows are pregnant. As a result they put on little muscle and fat because they expend the energy from their feed directly – carrying calves and producing milk. Steaks produced from these cattle are rarely tender or marbled, as the meat plays a secondary role in their utilisation. This applies equally to the male offspring of dairy cattle, which are usually fattened briefly and intensively and then marketed as young bulls.
Classic meat breeds, on the other hand, are animals whose genetics have been optimised for their meat yield through their natural disposition and decades of breeding. These animals are generally big in stature and put on large amounts of muscle. At the same time, classic meat breeds such as Limousin or Charolais do not tend to store fat, resulting in meat that is fairly tender yet lean with generously proportioned steaks.
Cattle breeds for outstanding steaks
So-called "steak breeds" provide connoisseurs with the best quality meat in the form of steaks. These animals are usually on the smaller side, which also means that their muscle fibres are particularly small and thus tender. At the same time, they have a tendency to store fat, which produces the coveted marbling in the meat when they are fed a specially crafted diet. The breeds in this category are particularly interesting for meat connoisseurs in search of high-class speciality steaks. The classic varieties are Aberdeen Angus and Irish Hereford. However, there are many other breeds that are not yet widely known or available.
Wagyu is probably the best known of the rare steak breeds. Originally from Japan, these cows tend to store intramuscular fat like no other cattle. This makes the meat structure more tender and succulent than in any other breed. As Wagyu cattle are still rare in Europe and Japanese export regulations are highly regulated, prices for Wagyu cattle have settled at a very high level in recent years. However, with a growing number of breeders in Europe, domestic Wagyu is becoming more widely available. If you've never eaten Wagyu before, you might be surprised at how tender and juicy a piece of meat can be.
The Hinterwald cattle breed is at home in the Black Forest and is considered by connoisseurs to produce high-class steak meat with tender muscle fibres and solid fat deposits. These very small-framed cattle graze in areas that are difficult to cultivate and spend almost the entire year outdoors. Due to their natural diet of grass and hay, their meat develops an intensely mineral-like flavour with a texture that remains particularly crunchy due to the small, tender fibres. Well-fed Hinterwald heifers are among the best the meat market has to offer, however they are extremely rare. The breed was once threatened with extinction but is now being marketed again by several small-scale Black Forest-based initiatives (e.g. SMA meat), and thus conserved.
Pinzgauer cattle, an old Alpine breed from Austria, are also considered a particularly noble breed among steak connoisseurs, as the small animals tend to have very tender muscle fibres. Meat from Pinzgauer cattle is characterised by a dark colour, a very fine distribution of fat in the meat and a strong mineral aroma, as the animals graze almost exclusively on wild pastures.
The Shorthorn breed originates from the British Isles and has long been known there for its particularly high-quality steak meat. These cows remain quite small (so the meat has a tender texture), reach adulthood quickly and then tend to become adipose, which is conducive to good quality steaks. Adiposity means that the animals store the energy from their feed in their muscles in the form of fat, which results in juicy steaks that are extremely flavoursome. Shorthorns have been bred into larger cattle in the USA, but the smaller variety with the most tender meat is still found in the UK.
Galloway cattle are extensively reared, which means they roam as "walking landscape gardeners" over heathland and moorland where no agricultural equipment could otherwise work. Due to their light stature, they also scarcely contribute to soil compaction. This makes them particularly easy to care for and popular with breeders who own difficult-to-access pastures. Connoisseurs appreciate the flavour of Galloway cattle, which is particularly intense and mineral-like due to their extremely natural rearing. In old age, the females tend to store a lot of fat, which sometimes leads to wagyu-like marbling. The intense aroma of these older animals combined with strong marbling results in a unique steak experience.