The Master of Meat

Bill Niman raises beef and pork to a higher level
Dec 15, 2000
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The Master of Meat

Bill Niman raises beef and pork to a higher level

By Mark Bittman

Bill Niman's cattle graze some of the most beautiful and peaceful land in California, on 1,000 acres of rolling hills with Pacific views in the Point Reyes National Seashore. The bucolic environment is typical of Niman's operation: His animals are treated with care and respect, and the result is beef that ranks among the best in the country.

Steve Johnson, chef and co-owner of The Blue Room in Cambridge, Mass., is a believer. "Awesome," is his judgment of Niman beef. "It's rich, juicy and flavorful -- that is, the flavors are strong, not at all insipid like most meat -- the texture is great, and the customers noticed the difference immediately."

There isn't a major city in the country where a chef isn't using meat from Niman Ranch, and it's increasingly available to consumers, not only through the company's own Web site, but also via stores and third-party mail-order sources. Niman's business has doubled every year for the last few years and is expected to continue to do so; sales are now in the range of $20 million annually.

Niman's success with beef has led him to expand into pork products. Three years ago, Niman was killing 35 pigs per week on one farm in Iowa. Now he has a separate company in Iowa, half-owned by Niman Ranch and half-owned by about 100 different farmers who raise the pigs according to Niman's protocol.

"It's the fastest-growing part of our business," says Niman, who predicts that production will double to 2,000 pigs per week by the end of the year. "There's the other white meat, and then there's the other pork."

He has recently expanded his offerings to include corned beef, pastrami and hot dogs (which are, incidentally, simply incredible), and other products are in the works. Perhaps the best gauge of his success, however, is the loyalty of his customers.

"It's not just a matter of trust," says Craig Stohl, chef and co-owner of Delfina, in San Francisco's Mission district, who uses all Niman's meats. "I like the idea that I can trust Bill's production methods, of course, especially since I have no confidence at all in the meat that comes from the big distributors. But there's more to it than that: Bill's meat is the best you can buy."

For the complete article, please see the Nov. 15, 2000, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 154.

Chef Steve Johnson showcases Niman beef

Rib-Eye With Shallot-Thyme Butter

1/4 pound butter, softened slightly
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, rinsed and dried
10 chives, minced
1 shallot, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar or lemon juice
4 rib-eye steaks, 6 to 8 ounces each

Prepare a gas or charcoal grill; the fire should be so hot you can hold your hand over it only for a couple of seconds. (You can also pan-grill the steak if you like.) Meanwhile, cream the butter with a fork, integrating all the remaining ingredients except the steak, using about 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Taste, and add more of any ingredient you deem necessary.

When the fire is ready, grill the steak, about 4 minutes per side for rare, about a minute or two longer for medium-rare to medium. Season the steak with salt and pepper as it cooks.

Spread each steak with about 1 tablespoon of the flavored butter, and serve. Wrap and refrigerate or freeze the remaining butter for future use. Serves 4.

Mark Bittman writes "The Minimalist" column for The New York Times and is the author of the best-selling How to Cook Everything (Macmillan, 1998).

Buying Niman Meat

Although Niman Ranch meat has been sold almost exclusively to restaurants until recently, consumers who want to buy it have several choices. The "products" section of the company's Web site ( lists meats currently available for shipping and a full price list, though all meats are not always available. Or you can call the company directly at (510) 808-0330.

Among the beef offerings on the site as of this writing were rib-eye steaks at $13 per pound; ground beef at $3.95; corned beef at $6.25; and the all-important hot dogs at $6.15. For pork, there are center-cut pork chops at $8 per pound; tenderloin at $10; baby-back ribs at $7; and thick-sliced, apple-wood smoked bacon at $6.65.

There are also several retail outlets throughout the country -- the Trader Joe's chain and Harry's in Atlanta, for example -- and more to come, according to Bill Niman.

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