Let’s get to the point- just look at this steak. It looks good, real good. Tastes great, with deep, beefy flavor and a juicy texture. If you like beef, you know this is the good stuff. Even better, it is local (in Norcal), organic and grass-fed. The cattle that produced this steak were well raised and humanely treated by a fourth-generation ranching family. This is a quality steak you can feel good about. This steak is from Stemple Creek Ranch.
This week, I had the pleasure of visiting Stemple Creek Ranch, a producer of grass-fed beef and lamb. The pastures and beef are certified organic, while the lamb is all-natural. All of their animals are 100% grass fed with no hormones or antibiotics. The ranch is owned and run by Loren Poncia and his wife Lisa, fourth-generation ranchers. They raise and sell over 200 head of beef cattle and hundreds of lamb every year. Stemple Creek grass-fed beef and lamb is sold direct to consumers (http://www.stemplecreek.com) to gourmet butchers like Olivier’s in San Francisco (http://www.oliviersbutchery.com/), the Local Butcher in Berkeley (http://thelocalbutchershop.com/) and is available seasonally at Whole Foods in Napa, Marin and Sonoma counties.
The ranch is in Tomales California, which is only fifty-five miles north of San Francisco, but it might as well be in another world. The region is full of picturesque barns, streams, rolling green hills and herds of beef cattle, dairy cows and sheep as far as you can see. A quick drive through the area makes it clear why this land is so good for raising livestock- there is deep, green grass everywhere. The region is close to Tomales Bay and the open ocean, which provides the cooler, moderate temperatures that are perfect for growing dense, high-quality grass. And if you are in the grass-fed beef business, it’s all about the grass.
As Poncia showed me his property, he made it very clear that one of the keys to raising good cattle is farming good grass, “I am a grass farmer” he stated, “the more rye and clover grass we can have, the better”. Along with closely managing the genetics of the cows, providing consistent access to high-value grasses produces the best quality beef with good intramuscular fat, also known as “marbling”. Good marbling provides the juicier, tastier beef the American consumer expects.
Traditionally, at least in the United States, beef is raised on grass but “finished” in feedlots on grains like corn. Grain is not part of a cow’s natural diet, but will add the desired fat to the animal before harvest. Feeding grain to cows can be a controversial practice, as it requires the animals be concentrated into feedlots, which promotes disease and health issues that often require the introduction of antibiotics. For some time, it was believed that finishing with grain was the only way to fatten cattle. But grass-fed cattle ranchers like Poncia are showing that with good grass, sound genetic management and sustainable ranch practices they can produce beef with great flavor and excellent marbling. For consumers, this means they can choose grass-fed, organic beef with no loss of quality.
But well-marbled grass-fed beef does not come easy. It is hard work for Poncia to raise and manage the grass that will feed his cattle. Poncia maintains over 100 separate pastures and 40 watering spots on the 2000 acres he manages. Herds are moved strategically into pastures to consume the best grass (and also fertilize the land) at the optimal time of year. Poncia is constantly experimenting with ways to naturally, and sustainably, increase the amount of rye grass and clover in his pastures.
The cows certainly seem to like how Poncia manages the grass. Most people have images of cattle being herded by wranglers on horseback or on motorcycles, but Poncia simply opens a new pasture to the cows, honks a horn, calls-out a few times and the cows come running (see the video below, apologies for the audio quality). Generally, however, the cows are docile and content to enjoy their grass. And this is by design. Poncia wants the cattle to simply “eat a lot of grass, lie down, rest and get fat”. As for the lamb, they are a natural compliment to the cattle. The cattle “like the top half of the grass and the sheep like the lower half”, thus Poncia can get the maximum value from his pastures.
On the business side of the ranch, Poncia is steadily building a successful operation. Poncia’s goal is to expand the business and pass it to a fifth generation (two daughters). He made the move to organic and grass-fed six years ago, and the business continues to grow. They sell-out of beef and lamb every year and cannot keep up with demand. While there are other bay area grass-fed ranchers, the demand is high enough that Poncia does not view them as direct competition. Marketing mostly consists of farm tours (next one on May 5th), a stall at the farmers market, internet channels and word-of-mouth.
Consumers can buy directly from the ranch, individual cuts and 1/4, 1/2 and full beef and lamb are available. Once harvested, the meat is given to a local butcher who will break the animals down to steaks, roasts and ground meat, making it a relatively easy purchase for the consumer. The overall cost is approximately $7 per pound, which is very competitive to the cost of feedlot beef. The meat will keep well for up to a year in the freezer.
I encourage anyone interested in flavorful, quality, humanely raised beef to check out Stemple Creek Ranch’s grass-fed beef. It is the real deal, raised by good people who care about their land and animals. As for the steak, you don’t need to do much for a perfect meal. Here is a good recipe:
Pan-Seared Ribeye Steak:
Notes Before You Start:
- Really good steaks are hard to find and should never be wasted. A quick-read meat thermometer is highly recommended. Why risk overcooking a great steak? Use the thermometer to get the doneness you desire- and remember the steak will gain another 5-10 degrees while it rests. It is best to get the steak off the heat a bit short of the desired temperature.
- Rest the steak for at least 10 minutes before serving to redistribute the juices in the meat. Don’t touch it until then!
- One bone-in Ribeye Steak, about 2 to 2 and 1/2 pounds, and approximately 1 and 1/2 inches thick (we use Stemple Creek Ranch grass-fed)
- Kosher salt or fleur de sel
- Parsley and butter for garnish (optional)
- Place a rack in middle of oven. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
- Heat a cast-iron skillet over very high heat. Make sure it is very hot.
- Liberally salt both sides of the steak. Then place steak in skillet. Do not move the steak for 2 minutes.
- After 2 minutes, flip the steak and let the other side cook for two minutes, do not move the steak. After 2 minutes are up, flip the steak again and place the skillet in the oven.
- Cook in the oven for 4-6 minutes. Check temperature after 4 minutes with meat thermometer.
- When you reach the desired temperature, remove the skillet from the oven and place the steak on a cutting board.
- Allow the steak to rest for at least 10 minutes. Garnish with butter, parsley and sea salt, if you like. Serve.