Dakota Beef
So tempting, even non-beef eaters give it a second glance. From Dakota Beef, 100% certified organic.




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Caitlin Barrett is a beef-eating member of THE NIBBLE editorial staff.



October 2005

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Meat & Poultry


Sampling the World of Specialty Beef

The Best Organic Beef & Natural Beef


CAPSULE REPORT: With growing the interest in USDA certified organic beef, grass fed beef and all natural beef, our resident beef specialist investigated the differences—both academic and “on the hoof,” and tasted her way through some of the leading producers. Below, an evaluation of organic versus natural beef.

Until not so long ago, decisions about beef buying fell out along a few specific dimensions: cut preferences, preparation preferences, budget, desired accompaniments. However, a relatively new consideration has entered the decision matrix: specialty beef options. The world of specialty beef is a somewhat complex one...but like most things in the world of food, after a little bit of education, the complexity starts to melt away.

Specialty beef splits into two broad camps: natural beef and organic beef.

Natural Beef

According to the USDA, natural beef has no artificial ingredients or colors and is only minimally processed (i.e. ground). Beef that is labeled “Natural” may or may not have been fed animal by-products, allowed to graze, treated with hormones, or treated inhumanely.

Many companies, such as the ones discussed below, take the “Natural” label seriously and engage in responsible and humane practices. They are mindful of welfare of their animals and the farmers that raise them, as well as the environment. Still, there are companies who take advantage of this loose definition and label meat “Natural” that has been fed animal products and pesticide-ridden grain. With all natural products, it is important to familiarize yourself with the company to confirm that you are buying something wholesome and healthy, as the natural label often tells you very little about the conditions that product actually comes from.

Two companies who have earned reputations for conscientious production of high quality meats that are not USDA-certified organic, yet meet their own self-policed standards for natural quality, are Coleman Natural and Niman Ranch.

Coleman Natural Products

Five generations ago Coleman Ranches were founded in Colorado. In those days, cattle raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics was the norm, but Coleman Natural Meats continues this family tradition today. The company’s chairman, Mel Coleman, Jr., is an advocate for the entire natural and organic beef industry: He headed a successful effort that lead the USDA to create special labeling standards for natural beef. Though Coleman's products are natural (not organic), they do work closely with the Organic Trade Association and the Organic Food Alliance and these alliances are evident in the quality of their meat. They use no artificial ingredients, preservatives or fillers; all of their animals are fed a vegetarian diet and they use organic ingredients wherever it is possible.

Niman Ranch

Northern California’s Niman Ranch has been raising livestock for over 30 years. They raise cattle on their original ranch in Marin County, right across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but work with over 300 independent family farmers across the U.S. who share the values of Niman Ranch. None of the livestock are fed antibiotics or growth hormones and are raised in a caring environment that ensures each animal will have no need to compete for food and water. They are never fed any meat or meat by-products. On average, a cow on Niman Ranch eats more conscientiously than the average American. There is a very good reason that you will find Niman Ranch meats listed by name on restaurant menus: this is some of the best meat in the world.

Organic Beef

organic sealOrganic beef has some similarities to natural beef, but several key differences that are critically important to people who prefer organic products. In order to be labeled organic, a company follows a set of very strict guidelines outlined by the USDA. These guidelines include restrictions on everything from what livestock eat (their meals and straw bedding must also be organic) to how the animal is treated. Organic is a philosophy as well as an environmental and health concern: many who purchase organic meat are doing so to support organic farming and the environment, but many others are catching on to the fact that organic meat also translates to high quality. Organic means will bear a USDA organic seal that ensure that the meat is from a certified-organic producer.

Two prominent producers are Dakota Beef and Organic Prairie Farms, both collectives of independent family ranchers.

Dakota Beef

Dakota Beef works closely with not just producers and distributors but with also with chefs and retailers to ensure that their beef is treated within their stringent standards of care.  Many of the ranchers in the Dakota Beef program are pioneers in the organic food movement and have been advocates of the need to treat cattle humanely, to reduce stress and to improve the quality of the beef they produce. Dakota Beef was founded in 2000 by Scott Lively who managed to do what no one in South Dakota had done before: he banded together with local ranchers who were already producing organic meats and together they worked out a strategy to turn the mainstream market onto organic beef. For more information visit Dakota Beef Company.

Organic Prairie

Organic Prairie began producing meat without the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or pesticides almost 10 years ago, years before there was even an organic label. They insisted on third-party certification before the government body was even in place (USDA certification began in 2002), and were the first to ban animal by-products from their cattle’s diet. In short, they were true pioneers in the organic meat industry. Organic Prairie meats are available at retailers nationwide. For more information visit Organic Prairie.

And Now, For The Tasting

Beyond the broad groupings of Natural and Organic, there will always be variations producer to producer—based on breeds, genetics, feed, pasture, and numerous other conditions.

To get a flavor for just how different the beef could be, we tasted a sampling from the producers above: Coleman Natural and Niman Ranch representing natural, Dakota Beef and Organic Prairie representing organic. We also through in some quality meat from our supermarket, that was neither natural nor organic, as a benchmark.


For our sampling, we chose two versatile cuts of beef: skirt steak and ground chuck 80% to 85% lean, just enough fat for a juicy burger. These meats made the most sense to us simply because we use them most often, and the products we use the most often are the ones we want to taste the best.

  • Ground beef can be used to make hamburgers, meatballs, and meatloaf and adds serious substance to lasagnas, casseroles, chilis and tacos.
  • Skirt steak, which may seem like an unusual choice, is equally versatile. It is most well known for its frequent appearance in fajitas, but is a beauty pan-seared and served with a salsas verde and roasted potatoes, or at breakfast with fried eggs. While not as tender as other cuts, in our opinion it is a tastier piece of meat. In fact, many of the meat professionals we consulted when preparing this sampling admitted in hushed tones that it was their favorite cut of meat...as if when the secret gets out, there won’t be enough skirt steak to go around.

We cooked the meats simply so as to not mask their flavors:

  • We sprinkled the skirt steaks with salt and pepper and pan-seared them to medium rare.
  • The ground chuck was formed into small patties and pan seared to medium rare as well. We tasted them both plain and on tiny hamburger buns.
  • Each steak and burger was coded to colored toothpicks, so tasters had no idea which meat came from which company. Differences in opinion led to spirited debates (“I like blue best,” one taster would declare. “Are you serious? Have you even tried green yet?” “I think red is my favorite by far. It is so juicy and flavorful,” another taster would counter.)

The results were surprising. We enjoyed the natural meats the best, followed closely by the organics. The regular supermarket meat also scored well. The bottom line? All of the beef was very good, and what you like will prefer upon your individual preferences—as with ice cream, wine, cheesecake, or any other food. So to find the beef that you’ll love above all others, taste them all.

Tasting Notes

Company Meat Type Description Best For...

Niman Ranch


Skirt Steak When it was raw, the meat was richly marbled and bright red. When cooked, it took on a caramelized appearance that was mouthwatering. There is a reason restaurant menus list Niman Ranch by name: they produce great meat. This steak was best cooked the way we tested it, simple and unadorned, but would be great in any dish.
Ground Beef Our favorite burger. The flavor and texture of this meat was exceptional. It could be used in any dish, but its flavor was showcased extremely well as a plain burger.

Coleman Natural


Skirt Steak Thin, intricate streaks of white fat crossed these steaks, making the end result juicy and flavorful throughout. The big beef flavor of Coleman’s skirt steak would shine when grilled or broiled and served with a hearty portion of mashed potatoes. For an added touch, skip the gravy and serve with a warm balsamic reduction.
Ground Beef These burgers were very dense, but in a way that was complimentary to the soft bun. Each bite released rich, savory flavors and satisfied our umami* taste buds. Because the burgers were so firm and juicy, we thought that this meat would make top-notch meatballs.

Dakota Beef


Skirt Steak Marbling and freshness are two determiners of a quality beef, and this steak was definitely quality. The marbling was thick and white and the steak was a beautiful red. The cooked steaks were a little thin (in contrast to Organic Prairie) but made up for it with big flavor.
Although we would use Dakota skirt in a fajita or a similar dish, it works best when left to speak for itself: seasoned simply and pan seared and served with salsa verde and roasted potatoes.
Ground Beef Our tasters thought that these burgers tasted “earthy,” “like hay,” or “like a farm.” An unusual flavor profile —perhaps  based on a particular feed or pasture? Need to taste a different batch. While this flavor profile might appeal to hardcore fans of organic meats, its “earthy” taste was a bit too forward for use in a burger. It could add interesting dimension to chilis and lasagnas.

Organic Prairie


Skirt Steak The “steakiest” of all, this skirt steak plumped when we cooked it. This is the best “steak and eggs” steak. It was hearty and thick and would be great with a fried egg on top and a side of home fries.
Ground Beef Some of our testers thought that this beef tasted “healthy”: less fatty than the others and with “grassy” flavors that they likened to organic meats. This is simply a great hamburger meat. Due to its complex flavors, tasters didn’t even miss the condiments.
Supermarket Meat Skirt Steak Nothing about the appearance of this steak was particularly notable, but everyone enjoyed its flavor and texture. Since this steak is less pricey than the ones above, we would buy regular supermarket steak when entertaining a larger crowd.
Ground Beef While these burgers didn't hold together as tightly as the natural and organic ground beef, they had fantastic burger flavor that all of our tasters loved. Again, as it is priced lower than the other meats, it is a great choice when cooking for a lot of people, or when using a recipe that would mask the subtle complexities that we enjoyed in the other meats.

*Umami: a taste sensation that is meaty or savory

We’ll keep on tasting.  Look for more results in this section of THE NIBBLE.


Do you have a favorite producer of natural or organic beef? Click here to tell us about it.

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