Veal is the meat of very young cattle — mostly male calves from dairy herds. Their immature muscles are especially tender, and the meat is correspondingly more expensive. There are many well known classic recipes using this meat, and it can be handled and prepared as a delicate, mildly flavored cut of beef.
Adult cows must be "freshened" yearly in order for them to continue producing milk; this means that they must give birth to a calf. About half of the calves born are female and are raised by the dairy farmer to replace and replenish the milking herd. Only a few adult males are needed for breeding stock, so the surplus male calves are sold for meat.
Calves are graded according to their age and weight when they are butchered. The meat is also classified by the way the calves were raised — either milk-fed or grain-fed. Milk-fed, sometimes called special-fed, are calves that were raised on a milk and liquid supplement diet. Grain-fed calves, on the other hand, initially receive milk and are then raised on a diet of grain and hay.
The difference is noticeable. Milk-fed calves have flesh that is light pink, finely textured, and very lean. The meat from grain-fed calves tends to be darker in color and fattier.
At the Market
Many people consider this meat to be a delicacy, and the prices at most markets will reflect this. A pound (about 453 grams) of veal, however, may yield at least four servings; one serving is typically considered to be 3 ounces (84 grams). While the cost by weight of regular beef will likely be much less, veal is often equally affordable when evaluated in cost per serving. Packages should be securely wrapped with no sign of leakage. The meat itself should be creamy pink, and any visible fat should be milky white.
In the Kitchen
There are two basic cooking methods for veal — either dry or moist heat. Dry heat methods include roasting, grilling and frying. They are appropriate for the more tender cuts, such as leg, ribs or loin chops. Moist heat cooking, which includes braising and stewing, works best for tougher cuts of meat, such as round steak and shanks.
Specific recipes and serving suggestions for this meat can be found in many cookbooks. With some adjustments, it is usually a suitable substitute for any dish specific to beef. Reliable sources should be referenced for cooking times and temperatures to ensure safe eating; experts recommend that the meat be cooked to medium, which is 160°F (71°C). Popular preparations include thin cutlets in Marsala wine sauce and a dish called osso buco which is bone-in shanks braised for several hours.
Cooks who do not have veal or who choose not to use it can try substituting chicken breasts or pork tenderloin, although they will give the dish a different flavor and texture. Depending on the recipe, the substitute meat may need to be pounded thinly to give it a similar thickness; cooking times may also need to be adjusted.
Veal tends to have fewer calories and less fat than beef from adult cattle, although this can vary significantly depending on the cut of meat. A 3-ounce (84 g), pan fried veal cutlet, for example, has about 180 calories and 7 grams of fat. A braised loin chop or shoulder arm steak will have more calories (240 and 200, respectively) and more fat (14 and 9 grams). It also provides significant protein, zinc, and several B vitamins.
Raw meat should be refrigerated at 40°F (4.44°C) or colder. Ground or cubed stew meat should be used within one or two days, while larger cuts may last three to five days. Meat can be frozen nearly indefinitely if it's wrapped properly and kept at 0°F (-17.78°C) or colder. Extended freezing, however, wil affect the quality of the meat, and cooking experts recommend that ground veal be used within three to four months, while cuts such as a roast be consumed within four to six months.
Cattle are herd animals. By necessity, a newborn calf's muscles develop and toughen quickly. Many farmers traditionally limit their calves' mobility by penning them in tight spaces. This results in a more softly textured flesh that is the desirable, signature characteristic of this meat.
Most calves are sold to be butchered within 16 to 26 weeks of age. At this point, their weight will have exceeded 450 pounds (205 kg). A smaller number are butchered at 3 weeks or 150 pounds (68 kg) or less; these are known as "bob" veal. Most countries that produce the meat have a process of certifying that a cut of beef is, in fact, veal.
Some people have strong objections with the cultivation and consumption of veal. The slaughter of such young animals is one point of contention, especially with very young calves. Animals are also often treated with antibiotics, which many people feel may increase the number of drug-resistant bacteria. Although the use of hormones in veal is banned in the US, there are indications that they are used by some producers.
Another concern is the restricted living conditions of the calves. In the US, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has guidelines on how calves should be housed, which include the ability of the animal to stretch and lay down. Even with this room, however, the pens are still quite small and often considered unnatural. Not all producer follow these guidelines either, and there is particular objection to the use of crates that sharply restrict the animals' movements.
In response to these concerns, some farmers have adopted more organic, free range operations for raising their calves. Crating is banned in a number of countries, including the European Union and the United Kingdom, and several states in the US. Sales of free-range veal have increased in recent years, which may prompt more large producers to change their methods.