A thick, juicy steak is a fine thing, but rather limited in its way. The bold, assertive flavor of the beef will always be the dominant note in the finished meal, no matter how it's prepared. Veal is another matter entirely. Harvested from young animals, its delicate flavor and pale color present the skilled cook with limitless scope for creativity. True veal and baby beef -- harvested from slightly older animals -- aren't as easy to find as ordinary beef, but they are well worth seeking out.
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Veal is typically a by-product of dairy farming, since dairy cows won't give milk unless they bear a calf. If these surplus calves are processed for meat before weaning, they're referred to as milk-fed veal. The calves range from 1 to 3 months in age. The youngest produce veal with a soft texture and slightly grey, pork-like color. As they approach the 3-month mark, the calves yield veal with a firm but tender beef-like texture, and a delicately rosy hue.
Milk-fed veal represents a minor quandary for the farmer, because the whole point of breeding a milk cow every year is to maximize milk production. Sharing that milk production with a calf is at least moderately counterproductive, so farmers often feed their calves instead on the bovine equivalent of infant formula. This liquid diet results in veal that's very similar to its milk-fed equivalent, but less costly to produce. That's an appealing combination for farmers, and the beef industry estimates that "special-fed" veal accounts for roughly 85 percent of U.S. production. The calves are typically harvested at 18 to 22 weeks, with weights of up to 450 or 500 pounds.
Some animals are harvested slightly later, after they're weaned from formula and have begun to eat grass or grain. At this stage they're 5 to 6 months old, and they can reach up to 600 pounds in weight. Their meat is sometimes marketed as "grass-fed veal" or "grain-fed veal," but this isn't entirely candid. While cuts from these animals are paler and tenderer than mature beef, they're not as mild and delicate as veal from animals that haven't been weaned. In regions where this type of meat is commonly sold, it's frequently described as baby beef so purchasers won't feel misled.
Veal Preparation Basics
The tenderest cuts of veal are the rib and loin portions, typically sold -- like lamb -- as chops or elegant racks of ribs. These are premium cuts, hotly sought-after by fine-dining restaurants. Cuts from the forequarters and hindquarters work well as roasts and pot roasts, stew meats or cutlets. The less-tender leg meat is also commonly used for cutlets, sliced and then pounded thinly to soften the stringy leg muscles. The lower leg, or shank, is the only truly tough cut of veal. They're typically braised, most notably as the Tuscan specialty "osso buco." Veal and veal bones are high in natural collagen, a form of gelatin that lends rich body to broth and sauces, so they're frequently used in restaurants as a base for veal stock.