Friday, May 20, 2011

Quality Matters

In the recipes I have posted on this blog, I have often put a lot of emphasis on the quality of the products that go into the dish. There are a couple of reasons I stress this so often. First, there are just so many consumer options in the stores these days, it can be very difficult to choose which version of an ingredient to use. Secondly, there can be vast differences in the quality of apparently similar products that can greatly affect the finished product. Yet recipes hardly ever specify what quality of ingredient should be used. In the first recipes I posted I put notes about how I choose my ingredients but it would too redundant to put these notes into every recipe that contains the ingredient. I have many recipes with chicken, also many recipes that call for stock or stock concentrate. Rather than having you comb through the recipes to find this information I will write an upcoming post that gives tips for selecting a variety of ingredients I use frequently. This post is about general principles of food quality and what I look for in the food I buy.

Obviously there are huge differences in processed commercial products, since different brands will use different recipes to create the products. So it is so important to read labels so you can know as much as possible. Even after buying, it is advisable to taste the product before using it in a recipe. Some of the most important differences to watch for are the amounts of sodium, sugar, and fats or whether there are preservatives or other additives in the product. If there is any ingredient on the label you do not recognize, it is probably not a great choice. Of course there are exceptions but I find that to be a fairly good rule.

With fresh foods, the differences can be harder to identify and understand. There are different varieties of fruit and vegetables and different farming practices, and this goes beyond whether or not they are organic. Some are produced on large factory farms and harvested and processed using automated processes while others are hand-picked from small plots using traditional farming methods. Is one better than the other? Well, I believe so but in some cases the differences might be so small many people will not notice the difference. In my mind, a very important factor is whether pesticides or herbicides are used in the field and, if they do, exactly which ones are used (ie. are they natural or synthetic, do they leave a detectable residue, etc.?) I also have concerns about foods that have had elements of their genetic structure altered to bring out some desirable quality in the food. We are told these genetically modified foods are safe but I do wonder about long term effects or very small effects that would be hard to trace because of the complexity of the human body and the lack of knowledge about same.

Probably the most dramatic differences are found in meat and animal products. This is because almost every aspect of how an animal has lived will have some effect on what the meat of that animal will taste like in the end. For example, grass fed beef tastes very different from grain fed. Veal, while always tasting dramatically different from adult beef, will be very different whether the animal has been grain fed or penned and milk-fed. On a related note, a younger animal will almost always taste very different from the exact same breed from the exact same farm slaughtered at an older age. Think of veal compared to beef, lamb compared to mutton and chicken compared to stewing hens (this difference has more to do with toughness, but mature chickens are more flavourful as well). As a general rule, younger animals have a more subtle taste, sometimes to the point of having less flavour, but also are almost always more tender. This is because, the longer an animal lives, the more their muscles are used (muscles = meat). More heavily used muscles usually have more connective tissue inside and generally become tough when cooked. However all this muscular development creates a more pronounced flavour. This is also why some cuts from certain animals are more suited for long, slow cooking than other cuts. On a cow, stewing cuts are taken from the shoulders, legs and hind quarters, parts of the cow that are often in motion. Rib and loin cuts are found in a cow’s midsection, where the muscles are not heavily used, making for more tender meat.

As I mentioned above, the food an animal eats also affects the taste. But this effect goes beyond meat. There is a big difference in the taste of dairy products produced from organically raised animals. I had stopped drinking milk for many years because milk with any fat in it did not taste very good and left an unpleasant feeling in my mouth. But then I started drinking organic milk and 2% milk suddenly tasted so much better and no longer had the bad mouth feel. The milk has a very pleasant, almost sweet taste and now I drink milk regularly, so much the better for my health.

There are also ethical issues. Large factory farms keep costs down and revenues up by packing many animals together, feeding the cheapest feed available and bringing the animals to market size as fast as possible. I am particularly disturbed by the practices in industrial chicken farming, though I’m sure they exist for other popular meats, like beef and pork. I also have serious reservations about the practice of keeping calves mostly immobile in small pens to create milk-fed veal (I’m not sure I mentioned it, but the veal recipe in the previous post was made using grain-fed veal). Other people raise objections to other practices, such as the force feeding of geese and ducks to produce foie gras. I personally do not have a problem with this because of what I know about the practice and the quality of the end product. I also have ethical concerns about genetic modification and the departure from local food production in favour of foreign imports.

So then everyone should buy organic, local, humane and sustainably produced food at all times, right? Well, it’s not so easy. There is one obvious stumbling block in front of this worthy goal and that is cost. Consumer demand is enormous and constantly growing, while fewer and fewer people are actually farming. With this growing pressure on demand, cost is driven up. And since food is required for survival, sometimes compromises must be made. If you make barely enough money to cover the cost of heat and housing you have to find ways to stretch your food budget. With customers requiring affordable food prices, producers have to find a way to lower the costs of bringing food to market. This is what drives the shift to mechanized farming systems, high density feedlots and low cost animal feed. Hormones are sometimes used to speed growth; dosing healthy animals with antibiotics prevent infections the animals will inevitably get from living in crowded, substandard conditions; the cheapest effective pesticides and herbicides will ensure higher crop yields. I want to encourage healthy farming practices and am concerned about what goes into the food I eat but, over the last year, my finances were extremely tight and the cost of organic ingredients high enough that I just could not afford to spend that extra money if I was going to have food on my table. I still refused to buy the lowest cost chicken and tried to buy organic dairy and produce, but during the worst of that time, even that was impossible when I was no longer working full time for an extended period following a long time of underemployment. Now that I am living back with my parents, things are different. They are doing reasonably well and, as there is less stress on the budget, are able to be more uncompromising in regards to quality choices. Almost all the dairy we buy is organic (the only exceptions being sour cream and cheese, because organic producers do not produce the level of quality we expect for these items). We make a concerted effort to buy either organic meat or non-organic that is produced locally and in a sustainable manner. Though here the price of some cuts of meat can be still be too much so we either choose cheaper cuts or occasionally will choose meat of slightly lesser quality, but still better than the mass-produced low-cost options. For produce there is often less of a price difference, but quality is the most important factor here. Organic usually is the best quality but not in every case. Sometimes plants or animals are raised in a sustainable and natural way, but may not quite meet the requirements to be certified organic. And even if some non-organic methods are used, local product from small farms is still worth encouraging and the taste is usually better. The one saving grace used to be that eating local, seasonal food was cheaper than out-of-season imported food. Unfortunately, local food is often MORE expensive than imports from overseas. In-season in produce is usually still cheaper, but even that is not always the case. But the quality is almost ALWAYS better for local, seasonal food.

So what is the answer? What I would suggest is to make selections based on quality up to the point that you can reasonably afford. In food, the adage of “you get what you pay for” is generally true, so better quality products will cost more money. So just make a decision as to how important food quality and ethical practices are to you and decide what you can afford on your budget. But if you can afford it, you will find there is a difference in the quality of your food if you spend those extra dollars.

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