These days steak is prized as one of the best meats you can sink your teeth into, but every food has a history and once upon a time beef and steak were unknown as foods! The word beef means meat from cattle, and this can be bulls, cows, steers or heifers. Meat from the muscle can become short ribs, roasts or steaks while trimmings and processed cuts can become ground beef or sausage.
Some kinds of blood sausage use blood and the liver, tongue, oxtail, glands, heart, brain, kidneys and other parts are also enjoyed in some places. Even the bones aren’t wasted – you can make excellent beef stock with them.
Beef is the third most eaten meat on the planet after pork and poultry. The US, China and Brazil are the three biggest beef consumers, although Uruguay has the highest amount of beef eaten per head followed by Argentina then Brazil. African countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Mozambique eat the least amount of beef per head. The biggest exporters are India, Australia and Brazil.
When Did We First Cook Beef?
People have been eating beef since prehistoric times and some of the earliest cave paintings show hunting scenes with aurochs, which are the ancestor of domestic cattle. Cattle have been domesticated since about 8000 BC for not only beef but leather and milk too.
Most cattle seem to have originated in the Old World except bison hybrids which are from the Americas. Although we don’t know for sure when people started to cook beef, cattle were used across the Old World for milk, as draft animals, and also for human consumption. Some breeds were bred to increase meat yield with the mechanization of farming, or else to improve the meat’s texture. Some breeds of cattle, like the Brown Swiss, are bred for both milk production and meat.
Cattle were introduced to the Americas via the Spanish through Mexico. Columbus brought cattle from Europe to the New World on his second voyage in 1493 and Spanish Vera Cruz and Portuguese traders did the same. The English brought lots of cattle to North America, in particular the Jamestown colony, in 1611 and the English and French colonists kept raising cattle in the east of North America through the colonies development and Revolutionary War.
Beef wasn’t really a main part of the American diet until the Civil War though. Instead cattle was used for milk, butter, drafting and making hides. Cattle moved west after the Civil War and cattlemen then discovered some Spanish missions already had big herds in the West.
An Increase in Popularity
Expansion in the southwest of the United States saw a huge increase in the beef industry. The grasslands were acquired through 1848’s Mexican-American War and then the Plains Indians were expelled from here and also the Midwest.
This is when the American livestock industry kicked off in earnest, beginning with taming wild longhorn cattle. New York City and Chicago benefitted first in their meat market and stockyards. There are different ways to raise and feed beef cattle including free range, feedlots, backgrounding, intensive animal farming and ranching. One pound of cooked beef typically requires 27 pounds of fodder, almost 300 square feet of land and 170 gallons of water
In the 1800s cattle were mainly raised in the West where traditional crops weren’t so easy to grow. The cattle would graze on native grasses and then they would be moved to feedlots to be fattened up. When ready they were moved to the Midwest to be slaughtered and shipped in refrigerated cars to the East where most of the population was back then, Chicago especially. A lot of things changed during industrialization in the United States including the method in which cattle are raised, slaughtered and then processed.
Modern Cattle Raising Practices
Antibiotics are used today because of increased feedlots, to keep cattle healthy in less-than-sanitary conditions. Synthetic growth hormones and bioengineering advances along with steroids also feature in today’s huge beef output.
Grass-fed beef is popular these days and that means beef raised in open pastures rather than in feedlots. A lot of people these days also demand organic beef for health reasons.
In the grocery store today you can find all different types of beef from steaks to ground beef and roasts. Conventional beef products, grass-fed beef and organic beef sit side by side on the shelves. Beef has been with us though from caveman times right up until today.