Why You Should Eat Cheeseburgers Made from Dairy Cattle
In Portland, Oregon at chef Chris Cosentino's meat- and offal-centric restaurant Jackrabbit, where trotters are prepared three ways and the pigs' heads are served whole, the cheeseburger is otherworldly. It's like a meat angel sent from heaven, only heaven is a cow and angels are edible. Topped with melty cheddar, dripping with a bacon-and-tomato jam and served with the option of a sizzled egg or foie gras, the burger is made with meat from dairy cattle, and all in the name of sustainability (but also in the name of a damn delicious burger). In my thirty-something years of life, I have consumed countless cheeseburgers, but have never knowingly consumed one made from the meat of dairy cattle. Dairy cattle. It’s not only a sustainable practice that helps eliminate food waste, but Cosentino’s robust burger proves the beef’s elevated flavor.
In case it isn’t clear, the difference between dairy cattle and beef cattle is pretty straightforward: dairy cattle are bred to produce dairy, and beef cattle are bred to be slaughtered and processed for beef. Now that we’ve unearthed this complicated distinction, let’s move on to the real meat (sorry) of the conversation. Dairy cattle can only produce so much dairy, and once they’ve maxed out, they’re, well, sent to that special farm with your childhood pet. Cosentino, among a few other prominent meat mongers in the culinary industry, have found a sustainable solution to the inevitable food waste we face when the milk runs dry. “We talk in this country about food waste, but nobody really thinks it through anymore,” says Cosentino. “There were a couple guys in the Bay Area who started taking retired dairy cattle and putting them out to pasture, letting them graze and roam. What you end up with is a cow that’s more mature, with more structure, more muscle, more myoglobin … so why not put them back into the food system?” (Myoglobin is the protein that delivers oxygen to muscle tissue and gives meat its color.)
In 2015, Business Insider reported on Mindful Meats, a groundbreaking beef purveyor that processes only mature, dual-purpose, grass-fed cattle from organic dairy farms in hopes of ultimately changing the way our meat-loving country views, sources and consumes meat. Today, you can buy dairy cattle meat in grocery stores, butcher shops and online.
“Back in the day, cattle weren’t raised for meat; they were raised as working animals,” says Cosentino. Letting the older, retired dairy cattle graze and roam about after they’ve ceased to produce milk—at about five years—keeps their muscles working, producing naturally aged, super tender and myoglobin-y meat. Beef cattle, on the other hand, are typically slaughtered at right around a year and a half. Cosentino likened the difference to chicken breast. “What does chicken breast taste like?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said. “Okay, and what does a chicken thigh taste like? Something,” he said, “because it’s the part of the animal that’s being worked. We call dairy cattle ‘antique’ because it’s got age on it and it’s been worked, and we make a burger with it because it’s got depth and character—it’s not one dimensional.”
Cosentino cooks with a nose-to-tail ethos—the epitome of sustainable cooking—and his menus are like pedestals for organ meats and odd bits (this is a strong argument in favor of adding that foie to your burger, in case you were wavering). His re-implementation of dairy cattle into the food system just takes this mindset one step further. “We’ve gotten in a couple different [dairy cattle] cuts for steak, those work really well. We do the burger at The Acacia House in Napa, too,” says Cosentino. “It’s a different thought process; it’s about flavor and sustainability, it’s about being bigger.” It’s also about burger perfection. I wouldn’t steer you wrong … sorry, I’ll see myself out.