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How to Get the Most Out of Your Butcher

April 7, 2014

By: Oliver Strand

Rule No. 1: Talk to Your Butcher

The butcher wants to know what you’re planning on cooking and how much you want to spend, how many guests are coming for dinner, and whether you’re an experienced cook. This is true even of supermarket butchers, from Whole Foods to Winn-Dixie, who have started stepping up their game to meet the standards of more demanding carnivores. When dealing with a butcher, just follow the advice of Stanley Lobel, an owner of Lobel’s, on New York’s Upper East Side, a shop well-known for its exceptional service. “Ask questions,” says Lobel. “What should I get? Is there anything I should try? All these guys know what they’re talking about.”

Rule No. 2: Then Make Him Work For You

In a mysterious, precapitalist take on service, any trimming, trussing, boning, or other custom cutting you ask a butcher to do is included in the price of the meat. You can get anything cut to order (those steaks and roasts sitting in the display case are only a teaser—there’s plenty more in the back) at no extra cost. Request veal cutlets for schnitzel, for instance, and he’ll pound them paper-thin—some butchers will even season and bread them for you. Get a whole chicken and you can have it trussed or quartered or boned. (Note: At supermarkets like Whole Foods, the poultry’s usually in a refrigerated case separate from the meat counter; if you want yours prepped for dinner, just grab it and bring it over to the butcher.)

Like your porterhouse a hefty two and three-quarters inches thick? Just ask for it. Like your porterhouse a hefty two and three-quarters inches thick? Just ask for it. Or if you’re trying to impress your friends to the point of intimidation, request a couple of racks of pork. You can have the butcher crack the chine (that’s the backbone), section the loin, and cinch the whole thing with twine into a crown roast worthy of a nineteenth-century banquet. None of these bespoke preparations are extra, and none of the butchers I spoke with know why, exactly—it’s just what they do.

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Rule No. 3: Ask for Recipes

A good butcher has a few favorite recipes on hand. Sometimes his cooking tips are straightforward: the right way to make a pot roast, how to sear a steak. But if you give him the opportunity, he will completely alter (and dramatically improve) your dinner. I posed a scenario to Adam Tiberio, the head butcher atDickson’s Farmstand Meat in New York’s Chelsea Market: a get-together with a group of rowdy friends fueled by last year’s vintage of brawny Malbec.

“I’d steer you to big flavor,” he said, “like a whole plate of short ribs, what they call costela in Brazil.” Then he outlined a recipe as brief and pure as a haiku: short ribs (use a paring knife to poke holes all over), one can of beer (any lager), salt (about a teaspoon per pound), and pepper. Roast (covered tightly with foil at 375 degrees for twenty minutes, 275 degrees.

Rule No. 4: Buy Local Pork

A new generation of butchers do more than stand behind their meat counters; they stand behind their meat. The heritage pork sold at shops such as Dickson’s andMarlow & Daughters in Brooklyn, for instance, is sourced from Berkshire, Large Black, and Tamworth pigs raised on local farms—and more often than not, the butcher has a personal relationship with the farmer. (By comparison, most American beef and pork are processed and packaged in the Midwest and Texas, then shipped around the country.)

And if the butcher is getting the farm’s best animals, you’re getting the farm’s best meat. It’s a qualitative difference that’s superbly clear in heritage pork, genetically pure breeds that grow slower (they aren’t force-fed) than conventional hogs and yield meat far more savory. Once you’ve had a rack of Red Wattle, there’s no going back.

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Rule No. 5: Venture Beyond Strip Steak

A cow isn’t all steaks, or what Tiberio calls the “middle of the cow”: the strip, rib eye, and overpriced tenderloin. There are tougher cuts (chuck, brisket) that turn meltingly tender when braised; organ meat (heart, sweetbreads), which is easily grilled; and other off cuts (trotters, heads) that reward ambition in the kitchen.

And if it’s steak you want, you can experiment. “Certain cuts are popular because people want what they’ve seen on a menu,” said Melanie Eisemann, one of the owners of Avedano’s (www.avedanos.com), which opened in San Francisco in 2007. Try overlooked—and cheap—skirt steak, for instance, or one of the unsung cuts butchers are carving. Joshua Applestone, the co-owner of Fleisher’s in upstate New York (www.fleishers.com), trims sirloin flap and calls it “faux hanger.” Like skirt, it’s flavorful, affordable, and excellent grilled.

Rule No. 6: Don’t Forget the Bones

Sold for pennies a pound at the butcher, bones are where the serious flavor’s at. Buy a bag of chicken or veal bones, add water, some carrots, onion, and celery, and simmer for a couple of hours for a rich stock. Your risotto—or soup or pasta or anything that calls for stock—will never be the same again. Marrow bones, which you can also get for a couple of bucks, are a whole other story: Roasted in the oven at 450 degrees for about fifteen minutes and served with crusty toast and a parsley salad (splash of olive oil, squeeze of lemon, generous pinch of coarse salt)—they make for a transcendent appetizer. Have the bones cut into three-inch pieces and invest in some skinny forks (or if you’re really going for it, marrow knives). Some restaurants, like Minetta Tavern in New York, cut the bones lengthwise to create a trough that makes the marrow easy to scoop out—ask your butcher if his band-saw skills are up to it.

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Rule No. 7: Have Your Burger Meat Ground to Order

Hamburgers aren’t actually made with ground beef—the professional term is “chopped beef.” A good butcher uses fresh meat and sharp blades so that what comes out of the machine has body and a light texture and will retain moisture when cooked; he’ll also make a fresh batch daily. The standard is chuck, a tasty stewing cut. But you might take a cue from restaurants like Shake Shack in New York and Father’s Office in Santa Monica and ask for a custom blend. One couple I admire start their summer weekends with a few pounds of burger meat that’s a mixture of chuck, sirloin, and, the kicker, slab bacon.

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