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How to talk to your butcher

It's a rare luxury these days to be able to visit a butcher shop.

In an era when nearly one in five meals at home is bought at a restaurant, buying from a butcher is nearly a lost art — something largely reserved for chefs and die-hard grillfolk. That has become the norm even as Americans are increasingly attuned to food sourcing and safety.

Indeed, meat and styrofoam packs have become inextricably linked in the American mind. The corner butcher has all but been replaced by the conveniences of the modern supermarket, and a shrinking industry keeps shrinking, with just 6,042 meat markets across the United States in 2001. Just four years earlier, there were more than 7,200. Shoppers lucky enough to frequent a butcher have a rare resource, and one that many of us still appreciate.

"People kind of miss the opportunity to talk to the person behind the counter," says Don Kuzaro Jr. of Don & Joe's Meats, in Seattle's Pike Place Market. "Not everybody wants to go to Costco and just pull something out."

I'm spoiled. I have at least a couple small, independent butchers within 10 minutes of my house. But not long ago, I realized how overwhelmed I felt at the meat counter.  I could get freshly ground lamb and sausage casings, but I couldn't figure out whether I really needed a strip steak or a skirt steak. It was intimidating — make that downright embarrassing — to ask.

It was equally difficult to get real answers to questions about what animals were fed and where they came from. Too often, "It's natural," was the stock response. When I asked for details, I got blank, or suspicious, stares.

So I asked: How exactly should you deal with your butcher? Here are 10 tips:

(1) It's a matter of trust.  As with any service business, butchering is as much about relationships as meat. And butchers acknowledge more than a little paranoia on both sides of the counter nowadays — ever more so as customers grow accustomed to usually lower supermarket prices, visiting the meat store only on special occasions.

When it comes to buying meat, a little knowledge seems to breed a lot of skepticism.

"I'll pick out the best steak and they'll say, no, no, no, no, no, I'll take that one," says Evan Lobel of Lobel's of New York, known nationally for its top-quality meat. "There's a certain mistrust of butchers, and I think it goes back to that old story about the butcher putting their thumb on the scale."

Nearly any question about meat is fair game.  But tact is key, and that comes from being a familiar face. You're more likely to get a good answer when it's clear you're not playing a game of gotcha. Says Kuzaro: "Loyalty works both ways."

(2) Be prepared. This is easy. Know which meals you're shopping for and how many people.  Look through your recipes before you leave the house; most butchers will tell you which cuts you need. 

Gabriel Claycamp, head chef of Seattle cooking school Culinary Communion, suggests a few key up-front decisions.  Does the recipe call for dry heat (grilling, roasting) or moist heat (braising, stewing)?  Are you looking for meat with a certain flavor or texture?

Moist heat will help soften tougher cuts, but doesn't do much for some tender cuts. Dry heat can make a tough cut even tougher. So ...

Learn your cuts. Here's where the confusion really starts. Americans adore certain expensive cuts like filet mignon — which, among other things, tells guests you're willing to spend top dollar. But a tenderloin cut may not be the most satisfying. "It's not always the most flavorful cut. It's the most tender," Kuzaro says.

But tender doesn't necessarily mean better. Brisket and flank steak can be just as satisfying to serve, if you know how to draw out their flavors and soften them a bit.

Beyond beef, cuts become even more confusing.  With lamb more of a rarity at the dinner table, chops and racks are the usual choice. Yet less popular cuts can be a treat, and a good deal.

"The best thing to buy is leg of lamb or shoulder of lamb and roast the whole thing," says Gianni Redzic, owner of Butcher Bros. Steakhouse in Astoria, N.Y., whose family has been in the meat business for several generations.

(4) Know portion sizes. We live in a nation of big steaks, and no one likes an empty serving platter. But consider that a standard restaurant portion is 8 ounces — "which is one of the reasons why our country is pretty obese," Claycamp says. "That's a pretty generous portion."

Federal dietary guidelines consider a meat serving to be 2 to 3 ounces cooked. Fat and water are lost in cooking, but even a Big Mac tops out at just over 7 ounces, including the bun and toppings.

Only you know how much your family or guests will eat. But tell your butcher how many people you're serving, and work out the amount you need.

Also consider whether you want boneless cuts. Bone translates into more inedible weight, so a 16-ounce uncooked T-bone actually provides far less meat.

For whole poultry, plan on about 1 pound per person as a generous serving, depending on the size of the bird.

(5) Looks can be deceiving. Nothing gray or discolored should appear in your butcher's case. But it's hard to assess quality from behind glass. Beef should be bright red, though slightly darker if vacuum-packed. Lamb varies depending on its age, but should also be a healthy red.

Neil Wyles, chef and owner of the Hamilton Street Grill in Vancouver, B.C., keeps a keen eye on meat's fat marbling: "I'm hoping it looks like a candy cane."

But he warns that marbling isn't always easy to decipher by looks alone. Meat's water content can change its appearance. A keen, experienced eye is the only real solution.

Even then, you can miss things. Wyles, who like most restaurateurs buys "primals," or whole sections of beef, recalls finding hard spots in a cut of sirloin. "That's where they get injected," he says.

(6) Grades aren't everything. You've inevitably seen USDA grades for beef used in the display case. They're useful as a quality guide, but only as a baseline.

Grades primarily deal with the amount of intramuscular fat in meat — the more marbling, the higher the grade.  Higher grades often have more fat and more calories than leaner meat. The three grades to look for are prime, choice or select, in that order.

Prime may be the highest grade available, but restaurants just about have the lock on the prime beef supply and few butcher shops offer it.

Plus, Redzic says, "not many people will know the difference if they're not butchers." Choice beef should usually suffice, even for a fancy dinner. 

The best lamb grades are prime and choice, but they're rarely labeled in stores. Fresh pork can only graded as "acceptable."

(7) Freshness? Ask the right questions. Some items in a butcher shop should be as fresh as possible.  Poultry, especially, goes into this category.

But ask a butcher for the freshest steaks and you may get a disbelieving look, because some red meat is meant to be aged. "The better question is: 'Is this aged and how long have you aged it?' rather than 'When did this come in?'" Claycamp says.

Aging allows beef and lamb to soften as the tissue breaks down a bit.  It makes meat more tender and usually more flavorful. Many stores pride themselves on aging.

There's one big catch.

The most valued process is dry-aging: A side of meat is hung in a locker at temperatures just above freezing, sometimes for up to a month. But for decades, most U.S. meat has been "wet-aged." Meat sits in its juices — usually in a sealed plastic package — for a week or two.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, if a restaurant or butcher shop or supermarket says, 'We sell aged beef,' chances are it's wet-aged," says Lobel, who specializes in dry-aging.

If dry aging makes better meat, why not do it?  For one thing, cost.  Dry-aged beef develops a hard, often moldy rind that must be cut away before the meat is sold. The meat also loses a good share of its water weight, which heightens flavor but shrinks the meat.

Since butchers and restaurants pay by the pound for fresh meat, every ounce lost in aging is money down the drain.

If you want dry-aged, it should be aged between 20 and 30 days. And it will be more expensive.

(8) Get beyond labels. Increasingly, consumers are drawn to marketing terms like "natural," which can be useful but often require more probing to understand just what they mean.

"Natural" is the biggest fudge word around. Under USDA regulations, it simply means that no colorings, and generally no other additives, are used in meat. It says nothing about animal health or feeding.

The key is to get detailed descriptions about animal-handling regimens. This is the moment when that trust factor often looms largest. Ask nicely. If someone doesn't know, ask which firms supplied the meat; suppliers should be able to answer.

"You want to be able to get specifics," says Urvashi Rangan, director of Consumer Union's Eco-labels.org project. "If they say things are natural or environmentally friendly, don't take vague terms at face value."

Be especially mindful of terms that highlight a specific practice, like "no growth hormones." Conventional beef may have been raised using hormones and antibiotics, but pork and poultry by law cannot be given hormones — so a no-hormone label on pork is irrelevant.

If you're not getting the answers you want, you might politely remind the counterperson that you and your family are eating their products, that certain farming practices may be important to you and that you want to make sure you're buying food you're comfortable with.

"Hopefully, your butcher is responsive to that," Rangan says.

(9) What your meat ate. The meat industry has a whole range of marketing terms to describe animal feeding regimens. But here, too, fudge words have crept in.

"Organic" indicates rigorous standards, but has more to do with the quality of animal feed than what that feed consists of. Grass-fed doesn't indicate whether an animal was fed grass all the way to slaughter; many are finished on grain or corn. ("Grass finished" is more useful.)

Vegetarian-fed simply indicates a farmer didn't use feed containing animal protein or byproducts.

Again, a useful strategy is to ask about suppliers. That said, many butchers have learned to quote chapter and verse about feeding habits as customers become more exacting. As concerns linger about mad cow disease and foodborne illnesses, Kuzaro says, "We've had to educate ourselves a little bit more."

(10) The joys of ground meat. A special treat of buying from butchers is that most sell freshly ground meat made right in their stores.

Freshness isn't the only issue.  Most butchers use cuts from just a few animals when they grind.

"When you buy prepackaged ground beef, up to 100 different cows could be in that," Rangan says. "When you think about the potential for contamination in that, it's quite high."

Moreover, she notes, federal regulations offer more leeway for pathogens in prepackaged ground beef than in whole meat.

If you're still concerned, butchers will be happy to sell you hunks of beef chuck or round to grind at home.

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