Expert Cooking Tips for High-Quality Meats and SeafoodNovember 15th, 2021
Ever purchased a high-quality piece of grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon, or pasture-raised chicken to cook for dinner, only to have it come out less delicious than you hoped? When you’re working with high-quality meats and seafood, a few extra minutes or a couple of degrees can make all the difference; they require some additional expertise to get them just right.
Still, we think choosing high-quality proteins like the ones available at Thrive Market is 100% worth it; they’re better for the environment, your health, and animal welfare. So we called up Mike Hacaga, Thrive Market’s Lead Product Innovator in the Meat & Seafood category, to get some expert cooking tips for grass-fed beef, wild salmon, and pasture-raised chicken.
Farmed vs. Wild Salmon
Salmon is a superfood that provides anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids—that’s true of both farmed salmon and wild salmon. Farmed salmon, however, also contains a lot of omega-6 fatty acids; these are often found in processed foods and can increase your risk of heart problems.
Hacaga explains that in the wild, salmon are harvested when they’ve just made the arduous journey upstream to lay their eggs. A wild salmon “is out there fighting its way upstream and expending its energy,” causing it to be leaner than its farmed counterpart.
Some people notice a difference in flavor between farmed salmon and wild-caught salmon. Hacaga says that is related to the controlled environment in which farmed salmon are raised. “With a farmed salmon, you always get that same flavor profile,” he explains, because farmed fish are fed the same feed day after day. He adds that the diets of farmed salmon often include supplements to help with their growth. “With a wild sockeye, you’re almost dealing with a different fish every time you’re eating it. You get more of that natural flavor that most consumers aren’t truly used to.”
How to Cook Wild Salmon
Unless your salmon recipe expressly calls for wild salmon, the instructions are most likely based on farmed salmon, which means you will probably need to shave off some cooking time if you’re using wild-caught fish. Here are a few more tips for how to cook wild salmon:
- Don’t season too soon. Since salt pulls moisture out of whatever you put it on, don’t sprinkle your raw wild-caught salmon with seasonings until right before you’re ready to cook it, to prevent it from drying out.
- Measure—then watch the clock. Fine Cooking recommends cooking wild salmon for 8 to 10 minutes for every inch of thickness.
- Experiment with cooking methods. Try a gentle method like poaching to avoid overcooking your wild-caught salmon, or wrap the fish in foil or parchment to help retain moisture.
Grass-Fed Beef vs. Conventional Beef
According to Hacaga, the main reason for the difference between grass-fed beef and conventional beef is a lack of internal fat running through the muscle. That results in a piece of meat that is slightly less forgiving (so be mindful when cooking), as well as a slightly different flavor.
“What the everyday consumer is used to is a grain-influenced taste,” Hacaga says. “A grain and corn diet softens that robust beef flavor.” He explains that grass-fed beef has earned a reputation for tasting gamey. “But if you get the right breed of animal on the right grass you have that perfect marriage of a really high-performing animal that eats tremendously.”
Thrive Market’s grass-fed beef comes from Patagonia, Chile, a verdant region with copious tall, nutrient-rich grass for the cows to enjoy. Hacaga credits these favorable conditions for helping the cattle grow remarkably quickly without the use of any filler feed (as opposed to grass fed beef that’s feedlot-finished, meaning the cows spend their final weeks fattening up on corn and grains).
How to Cook Grass-Fed Beef
“The thing that happens most often with grass-fed beef is that it gets overcooked,” Hacaga warns. “Once the juices stop running internally it’s basically like eating a piece of shoe leather.” To prevent a dry, overcooked result, here are a few tips for how to cook grass-fed beef:
- Reduce the cook time and temperature. “Grass-fed beef should always be cooked to a lower temperature than conventional beef,” Hacaga says, adding that although the USDA recommends a lowest internal temperature of 145 degrees for beef, you should aim for closer to 130 with grass-fed beef.
- Get your pan good and hot. Cooking your grass-fed steak on a properly preheated pan will help prevent overcooking.
- Don’t cut into the meat to check for doneness. Doing that will let the juices run out and result in a dry steak.
- Aim for rare or medium-rare. “Unless you’re a connoisseur who wants your steak medium no matter what,” Hacaga says, you’ll have better luck keeping your grass-fed beef juicy if you leave it rare or medium-rare. A quick pan-sear (his preferred method) should take 10 minutes or less.
- Let the meat rest. Your steak will keep cooking after you remove it from the heat, meaning its internal temperature will continue to rise—an important thing to keep in mind if you’re using a meat thermometer to judge doneness.
So how does an expert in high quality meat cook his steak? A simple sear in a cast-iron skillet with no frills, aside from a bit of Thrive Market Organic Ghee “to give it that Ruth’s Chris sizzle.” And if you’ve splurged on a grass-fed filet, take a tip from Hacaga and skip the marinade. “I’ve learned over time that marinades are usually used to hide something. I let the quality of the beef stand on its own.”
Pastured Chicken vs. Conventional Chicken
Pastured chicken is leaner than conventional chicken because it lives a more active lifestyle (noticing a pattern?). It also contains a healthier ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, similar to salmon.
In the case of Thrive Market’s pasture-raised chicken, breed is also a factor. Hacaga explains that the pasture-raised chicken available at Thrive Market is a heritage breed with “a little bit of an elongated frame.” He adds that it’s a unique bird not often found in the poultry industry. “You’re not going to see that plump, butterball chicken,” he says. “You’re going to see more of an athlete.”
Hacaga notes that there is an important distinction between free-range chicken and pastured chicken. In order to be labeled “free range,” the USDA stipulates that chicken must have outdoor access. In practice, Hacaga explains, free-range chickens at many farms have the option to go outside, but few actually do. “Just because a chicken is marked free-range doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to actually get itself outside to enjoy the sun,” he notes.
At the farm Thrive Market sources its pastured chicken from, the birds are encouraged to venture out, explore, and forage. Instead of just one or two small doors, their barns have huge panels that swing open to the pastures beyond. “It’s not one or two that come poking out, looking around,” Hacaga recalls from a recent visit. “The birds come pouring out into the pasture. I was amazed…they just came running out and started playing and exhibiting other natural behaviors.”
How to Cook Pastured Chicken
By day, Casey Bradford is an Ecommerce Operations Associate at Thrive Market, but he’s also a Primal Health Coach—which means he has a lot of experience cooking high-quality meats. In his view, pasture-raised chicken is a premium protein that’s worth the slightly higher price tag.
Bradford explains that pastured chicken is naturally extra juicy and flavorful compared to conventional birds. For that reason, he prefers “simple preparations with salt, pepper, and lemon” to make the flavors pop (though he loves his pastured chicken with buffalo sauce too). Read on for more tips on how to cook pastured chicken:
- Don’t skip the marinade. Since pasture-raised chicken is extra lean, a marinade with some acidic element (think citrus or vinegar) can help ensure optimal texture.
- Go low and slow. Slow-roasting and braising are popular ways of preparing pasture-raised chicken, since they help prevent the meat from drying out.
- A little pink is ok. “Pasture-raised chickens are running around, and their muscles become oxidized from that activity,” Bradford explains. “This results in their meat staying pink, even when fully cooked.” He warns that trying to cook away the pink entirely could result in a dry, overcooked piece of chicken. Regardless, internal temperature is a better gauge of doneness than color, so use a meat thermometer to ensure your pastured chicken has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees F before eating.
- Let it rest. Especially when you’re roasting a whole pastured chicken, let the bird rest after cooking but before carving, to keep the juices from running out.