Heading to the butcher can easily turn into the most daunting part of a trip to the grocery store. Oftentimes your friendly (yet slightly intimidating) butcher may bombard you with questions that may feel like a different language. Here are 10 essential tips to help you come confidently prepared for the next time you're looking to purchase a particular cut of meat for your special someone's birthday dinner.
How to Order at the Butcher
Before you freeze and head straight to the pre-packaged meat display, set yourself up for success by coming prepared and researching the dish you want to make ahead of time. This will help give your butcher a starting point to help find exactly what you need or make practical substitutions for the recipe you are making. Subsequently, your butcher may ask you if you’re looking for beef, poultry, lamb, or pork and which type of cooking method you’re intending to use (such as grilled, pan seared, sous vide, braised, or roasted) or the type of tenderness and meat flavor you want. Typically, if you let your butcher know these key points, they will easily be able to identify the items you will need.
Figure Out How Much You Really Need to Buy
Portion control is one of the trickiest things to perfect when it comes to ordering at the butcher. You don’t want to over-order and risk your food going to waste, or underestimate how much your family or guests will eat and leave them feeling hungry. When buying items like chicken breasts, sausages, or pork chops, you can simply order by number (e.g., five chicken breasts, two sausages, six pork chops). But when it comes to most other cuts of meat, you will need to order by ounces. Generally, the rule of thumb is to calculate about four ounces of meat per person. At this point you can also ask your butcher to pre-cut the meat to ensure you’ll make equal, uniform portions. Once you have a good idea of how much your family or guests actually eat, you can then make adjustments on your serving sizes and how much you order the next time around.
Learn How to Talk the Talk
Once your butcher knows exactly what you’re looking to make and how much of it you need, another critical point for success is knowing how to speak the butcher's language. Here are some essential terms that will make communicating with your butcher a breeze and ensure the item they pack up is actually what you had in mind. (These are especially handy for those without excellent knife skills.)
You may want to ask your butcher to:
Bone (remove the bones)
Spatchcock (method of cutting whole poultry to flatten it completely for quicker and more even cooking)
Butterfly (cut your thicker meat into a thinner portion leaving a hinge much like a book)
Truss (tie meat or poultry into a more compact shape)
Cube (pound with a meat tenderizer)
Trim (remove excess fat)
Be mindful it may take the butcher a few minutes to get this done, especially if they are busy with other customers!
Learn the Different Cuts of Beef
If you really want to feel like a pro, learning the different cuts of beef will give you an added confidence boost and help you easily identify what you’re looking for.
There are eight primal cuts of beef: Chuck, rib, loin, round, flank, short plate, brisket, and shank. Each of these have subsequent sub-primal and secondary cuts that include filet mignon, porterhouse, and ribeye. However, even if you don’t know all the cuts or don’t see the one you need, your butcher will be the best guide to suggest substitutions or equally appropriate cuts to use instead.
Key Indicators of Good Beef
When shopping for beef, key indicators of quality include marbling, color, lack of moisture, and temperature. Your beef should always be bright red or purplish in color––if it has brown spots, it signifies oxidation and the start of decay. Additionally, the fresher your beef is, the less moisture it will have. You’ll want to ensure your meat has been kept cold, and it should still be cold to the touch once you store it away at home. Lastly, one of the most important indicators of high-quality beef is the amount of marbling (fat streaking within the cut of meat). Marbling is especially important for tender cuts of beef such as ribeye that will intensify the umami, buttery richness of your steak when cooked.
Understand What the USDA Grades Mean
USDA grades refer to the quality and amount of marbling present in beef. The three levels are prime, choice, and select (in order from most to least). Prime beef is typically found at high-end restaurants and has the most abundant marbling. Select is leaner and typically better for marinating or braising to tenderize the beef further. Choice lands somewhere in between those two.
Choose the Correct Cut Depending on What You’re Making (Not Necessarily the Price)
Though you may want to treat yourself to a high-quality steak like Kobe or Wagyu every now and then, it does not mean it is the correct cut for every type of dish. Fortunately, you don’t necessarily need to pay a hefty price tag to make an equally delicious dish. Aside from freshness, you will also want to make sure you get the appropriate cut for the preparation technique it will undergo. Tender cuts of beef, such as porterhouse, ribeye, and New York strip, are best cooked at high temperatures and direct heat (if less than one inch in thickness). Cuts like flank or skirt should be marinated to help tenderize the meat before cooking at high temperatures. As for lean cuts like round, it is best to cook low and slow for a longer period of time to break down the tougher meat.
Choose a Recipe Appropriate for the Occasion
Whether you’re cooking for a party of one or 10, make sure you choose a recipe appropriate for the event. Some cuts of meat are very delicate and will require constant monitoring in order to not overcook. If you're hosting guests, spare yourself the headache and choose a cut that may not require as much babysitting so you can enjoy yourself, too. (And save the more attention-seeking cuts for a random Tuesday.)
Set a Budget That Works for You
Don’t hesitate to let your butcher know the budget you have for the recipe you are making. This will help you to not over-spend and may lead your butcher to suggest perfectly suitable (and cheaper) substitutions for your dish. Also, it's totally acceptable to shop from the markdowns. Simply try and cook the meat soon after purchasing, check the packing date, and freeze if you’re not going to use it immediately. This will help you get the most bang for your buck!
Don’t Be Shy to Ask Your Butcher Questions
Your butcher is there to help you and will likely appreciate your desire to learn more about their area of expertise. Forming a relationship with your butcher will benefit you in your subsequent visits, and will help you stay informed on the best deals and cuts to try next.