Photo of dairy cow meat courtesy of Johnny Spero
Photo of dairy cow meat courtesy of Johnny Spero

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While other chefs are racing to put Wagyu beef, known for its well marbled meat, on the menu, Chef Ryan Ratino is serving something even more rare at Masa 14: beef from retired dairy cows. It doesn’t have the same sex appeal as Wagyu flown in from Japan, but Ratino is drawn to it for its peculiarity. “I wanted to be one of the few people that was actually using it,” he says. “It’s not extremely high in marble content,” Ratino explains. “But it is really high in the fat that surrounds the muscles.”

His inspiration came from Chef Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken, the remote Swedish restaurant that ranks among the World’s Best 50 Restaurants list. Nilsson gives dairy cows an encore career as steak, and explains his reasoning in an episode of the Netflix docu-series, Chef’s Table. “It just seems stupid to do [it] the way it’s done now,” he says, referring to the Western custom of using one breed of cattle exclusively for milk and another exclusively for meat.

Ratino followed suit. “[Nilsson is] aging different cuts of the meat for certain lengths of time, and he goes up to almost a whole year on some,” Ratino says. “We started to do the same thing and we’re just using more typical cuts like the strip loin and the rib-eye.”

Since the meat from an older cow can be a bit tougher, dry-aging makes a big difference. Ratino didn’t put the meat on his chef’s table tasting menu until it had been aged for a minimum of 55 days, more than the traditional 28. Some of the cuts have been aged for more than 100 days. These pieces are intense versions of the original.

“The water content is evaporating out of it when it’s dry-aging, so the beef is actually shrinking in size and weight and becoming more concentrated in flavor,” he says. It also has a tenderizing effect. “Once we get to the point we’re at now, where it’s aged for this long, it’s equally as tender to any regular rib-eye.”

After it’s aged, Ratino gently cooks the steak sous vide, and then roasts it with brown butter. On the current tasting menu, the dairy cow is accompanied by a chanterelle mushroom puree, red wine-braised radicchio, and a beef jus made with preserved huckleberries and wineberries. “It’s a simple preparation because we just want to let the beef do it’s thing,” he says. “It’s not something you taste everyday.”

That’s not an exaggeration. “It’s nutty and it has a more well-rounded flavor. You really get the flavor of cow,” Ratino says. “It’s almost like game meat, but it’s beef,” he adds. “I always tell everybody, don’t just cut the fat off and push it to the side. Eat the fat. The fat is so yellow and it carries so much of that flavor.”

Chef Johnny Spero, formerly of minibar, is one of the few others looking beyond Angus. He fondly recalls eating txuleta, the rib-eye of an older cow, during his time in San Sebastian, Spain. He now pays tribute to the Basque country by preparing dairy cow for event menus. As he remembers it, txuleta is tempered, cooked to medium rare, and served bone-in with a sprinkle of salt.

“You can smell it as it’s coming to the table. I’s just this super funky, aromatic flavor,” he says. “It’s a pretty thick cut and a lot of fat and connective tissue, so it has a little more chew than younger beef. But the longer you chew on it, the more the juices and the flavors are coming out.”

He plans to serve the rib-eye at REI’s Wild Kitchen Summer Supper Series dinner on Sept. 18, which is sold out. Down the road, Spero says dairy cow will likely make an appearance on the menu at a place of his own sometime next spring or summer.

Dairy cow isn’t something meat purveyors put atop product lists, so both Ratino and Spero had to seek it out. Spero found his through Huntsman Specialty Game and More at a farm in Southern Virginia. Ratino gets his from Roseda Farms in Maryland through Fells Point Wholesale Meat.

Beyond the novel flavor, Ratino appreciates the practicality of using meat from an animal that’s outlived its traditional purpose in agriculture. “Where I’m from in Ohio, a next door neighbor of mine is a dairy farmer and when their cows are done, they’re just done,” he says. “If they don’t produce milk anymore, they just kill it and they just scrap it. They don’t sell it,” Ratino reports.

When a dairy cow does go to auction, Ratino says its fate could be commodity meat, beef jerky, or even dog food. “When you actually respect ingredients, you hate to seeit’s almost like it’s going to waste,” he says. That’s why he gussies up the protein and serves something as luxurious as Wagyu for a fraction of the cost.