Alongside Wagyu and Dry Aged Beef, "Old Cow" is among the most important steak trends of recent years. While meat from old cows may not sound very appealing to a steak novice, this product has become a real hit among steak fans because Old Cow promises meat flavours and a culinary experience that virtually none of the classic steak varieties can rival. Reason enough, then, to take a closer look at this growing trend! As with all hype, the fuss about old cows should certainly be taken with a grain of salt; by no means is every old cow a delicacy – in fact, quite the opposite.
Why doesn't every dairy cow produce delicious steaks?
When something as commonplace as an old dairy cow suddenly becomes a big trend, it's worth taking a closer look at the facts. Old cows have always existed; after all, a dairy cow does not simply die after bearing its first calf. On the contrary, cows are only economically viable thanks to their mothering capacity. During their lives, dairy cows produce many male and female calves and thus milk and/or meat-producing assets for their owners. More importantly, as expectant mothers they produce large quantities of milk directly, making them an essential supplier to the dairy industry.
Many older dairy cows become exhausted from milking and regular birthing. This is also evident from the state of their meat – dairy cows' muscles are highly collagenous and only weakly developed, since the animals use most of the energy obtained from their feed for milk production over the years. This is very much the norm for old dairy cows, which are not suitable for subsequent steak production. At this point you may well be asking yourself why, then, is there so much hype about steaks from old cows? To find the answer we must look to Spain, where this trend originated.
Old cows – a Spanish tradition
In the Basque Country, it is traditional to process the meat from old dairy cows – typically the large-framed Rubia Gallega breed – into gigantic steaks. However, only the fattest cows are selected for this via a process that has been perfected by a company called "Txogitxu", whose business model is based on the selection and marketing of old cows. As a result, cows are now selected from across Europe and transported to Spain for fattening. Or to put it another way, there are simply very few old animals that can produce good steaks at all. You can't plan a tender old cow – you have to look for them, for example at slaughterhouses that process large numbers of animals. Every now and then there is a lucky find in the form of an animal worthy of the title "Old cow with steak potential".
Fat, the decisive factor
In order to become at all interesting from a culinary point of view, various requirements must be met. The animal must be well built, have a lot of meat mass and – most importantly– have put on a lot of fat. Generally speaking, old damns have a tendency tend to store fat, which they put aside as energy reserves for their calves' development. However, to really become a delicacy – assuming they meet the basic requirements – a fattening phase is essential to create additional fatty deposits and a solid fat layer on the meat. This may occur due to a genetic anomaly or through deliberate feeding before slaughter. This fattening in turn costs not only time but also money as high-quality feed is required. However, this is the only way to boost the chances of success, as the firmer tissues are broken up by the fine fat fibres and the meat thus acquires a suitable structure for steaks.
These delicate old cows are certainly a special case – but they do exist. And the culinary experience they deliver is exceptional. Indeed, it's important to realise that the flavour of meat improves with the animal's age. "Old cows" must be at least ten years old – this guarantees an intense flavour that is incomparable to meat from younger animals. If these steaks are also matured via a dry ageing, the flavours are further intensified and complemented by the nutty notes of maturation. It is this interplay of flavours that fascinates meat-lovers and makes "Old Cow" speciality steaks particularly desirable.
However, it should be noted that these steaks are not especially tender because meat from older cows is always on the tougher side. Although the marbling loosens up the fibres, the collagen (connective tissue) content, which increases with age, provides a meaty texture that is simply part of the allure of these steaks.