A visit to my local butcher shop, Sweet Cheeks Meats, in Jackson, Wyoming, is something I look forward to every week. The atmosphere is friendly and pub-like, only conversations with owner Nick Phillips revolve around breaking down whole animals rather than long days at the office. “For muscles that are active, you should render down the fat so you get a soft, gelatinous flavor bomb,” Phillips advises on a recent visit. “This is what we do with a brisket when it smokes for fifteen to eighteen hours. With a pork chop, ribeye or coppa steak that has a good fat cap and nice marbling, render down the fat slowly in the beginning with a reverse sear, and you’ll be left with fat that melts in your mouth.”
Sweet Cheeks’ glass case is filled with user-friendly cuts like New York strip steaks, ribeyes, pork chops and more—but many more adventurous ones, too, like beef neck and pork shanks. Then there’s what they call the byproducts, or the “leftovers,” which is where the magic happens: think mac 'n' buco (macaroni and cheese with osso buco), take-away ramen broth and rillettes de pâté. “The byproducts create our prepared foods, stocks and broths and pâtés,” Phillips says. “This is what keeps our shop sustainable and our prices reasonable.”
In New York City’s Upper West Side, Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest head up White Gold Butchers—a butcher shop-meets-casual American eatery. Nakamura and Guest are introducing diners to uncommon cuts by way of creative small plates and offering up advice, as well. For example: Fatty muscles like the neck, shoulder, belly, brisket and short rib are exceptional when braised. “These [cuts] are always cheaper and take a little more time to cook, but they’re the most flavorful options,” says Guest. Confused about rendered fats? “Lard is always pork [and] tallow is always beef,” Nakamura adds. “Beef lard is not a thing. And ‘rendered’ means to melt fat by heating raw fat.”
The truth is, butchers around the country desperately want you to learn more about meats, and advising you is part of their jobs. “Please don't be intimidated by all the sharp steel and blood on our aprons; we are here to help,” says Chris Bolyard, the head owner and butcher of Bolyard's Meat & Provisions in St. Louis who personally hand-cuts meat based on preference. A dedicated butcher will prescribe you the perfect cut of meat based on a few guidelines, like how many people you’re cooking for, what type of method you’re interested in and how much time you have. “If someone is trying to buy meat at 3 p.m. for serving beef bourguignon at 6 p.m. that evening, we will stop them,” says Phillips. “A dish like this cannot be pulled off in that timeframe. We would rather suggest a delicious alternative that would work in their budgeted cooking time.”
Befriending and talking to your butcher is key. “We’re here because we believe in the product our local farmers and ranchers are producing, and because we love food,” says Phillips. Here, they share their knowledge on several unique cuts that they want you to know about.
“This is a tasty and versatile cut that is located near the hip in the hind quarter of the animal,” Bolyard says. It can be roasted, smoked and even cut into Newport steaks.
Chuck Eye Steak
These steaks are located in the forequarter of the cow where the ribeye meets the chuck, and they’re a fraction of the cost of a ribeye—“a good bang for your buck,” says Bolyard.
Beef neck is one of Bolyard’s favorite to cook. “More movement means more flavor,” he says, adding that these cuts require a bit more cooking time to break down tissue and tenderize. Cook it slow and low, like braising, or speed things up with a pressure cooker.
Pork Heel Steak
This uncommon cut, located between the ham and the hock on the hind leg of a hog, is flavorful and quick-cooking. Per Bolyard, pork heel steak is best eaten medium and seared on a hot grill or pan.
Zabuton (or “Denver steak”)
This cut has great marbling and is perfect for cutting into steaks. Phillips suggests cooking it “slow and low to rare with a hot sear finish to bring it to medium-rare.”
Typically found at high-end steakhouses, bavette is an oval-shaped extension of the outer skirt. Phillips recommends cooking it whole as you would a tri-tip for a dinner party.
A Brazilian term for a whole sirloin cap, picanha is great for cutting into Coulotte steaks—or slow-cooking whole via the reverse sear method (low and slow, then a quick sear.) Phillips likes to add chimichurri into the equation, or toss picanha into a salad with blue cheese and nuts.
All you need to know about this cut is that “it makes the best pork chop ever,” says Phillips. We’re sold.