Shopping the meat counter can be intimidating if you don’t know what to look for. What’s the best cut to use for a given recipe? How do you know you’re getting the freshest product? What’s a reasonable price to pay?
First things first. Shop locally whenever possible.
“Generally speaking, the shorter the distance between the butcher and the farm, the better,” says Corrie Cook, narration director for Indianapolis-based Goose the Market and Smoking Goose. “Shopping local shouldn’t be the only consideration when buying meat, but it’s often a good sign of a personal relationship between butcher and farmer, which can mean a better-quality product, not to mention the ripple benefits of supporting your local economy, local jobs and the local environment.”
Here are some other items to consider when you’re shopping for meat:
Most butchers won’t let customers smell products before they buy due to health code concerns, meaning the best indicator of freshness is usually the appearance of the meat. With fresh beef, for example, customers should look for a fairly bright red color with white or yellow marbling.
“If you’re in a shop that ages beef, the cut is going to be darker, the marbling is more defined and the exterior of the meat may look a little dried out,” adds Goose the Market’s head butcher Kevin Fruth.
Fresh pork should be light pink with white fat; the color will be darker with heritage breeds.
“Heritage pork many times will have skin still attached; don’t be worried if there’s a hair or two left on it,” Fruth points out. “It will cook off and it won’t hurt you, and the skin should add beautiful crackling to the exterior of your roast or chop.”
If there’s any question, customers can always ask about delivery schedules to find out exactly when the meat arrived and where it came from.
A meat counter that offers a variety of products may turn you on to a new favorite item. And, it may even add value to your overall shopping experience by offering time-saving prepared items or less-expensive alternatives to your traditional purchases.
“Sausages, cured meats, smoked meats, stuffed roasts and marinated meats all fall under the umbrella of old-school, full-service butchery,” Cook attests. “A shop that knows how to do more than just cut meat can indicate a well-trained crew who likes to cook — and eat — just as much as you do.”
Customers can learn something by asking about cooking tips or substitutions for the cuts and products they usually buy.
In any butcher shop worth its salt, the old adage applies: You get what you pay for. If you're just looking for basic hamburger meat that you plan to season up for a spaghetti sauce or chili, quality may not be as much of an issue as with a good steak or tenderloin that allows the natural flavor and texture of the meat to really shine through.
There’s a reason that small-farm products aren’t typically sold at big-box grocery stores and often carry a higher price than their factory-farmed counterparts, appearing instead at gourmet markets and specialty meat shops like Smoking Goose.
“The quality and the effort absolutely show in what we offer,” Fruth mentions. “The way the animals are processed in large facilities absolutely affects the texture, flavor and color of the meat, and you’ll be able to tell that when you cook it and eat it at home.”
“When it comes to sausages and charcuterie especially, look for producers who don’t cut corners,” Cook suggests. “Curing without compound nitrates, working by hand in small batches, smoking over real wood and other traditional techniques take more time, more patience and more expertise, but there’s no substitute for the exceptional flavor and texture they produce.”
Other questions to ask
Butchers work with meat all day, every day, and they know their stuff. Think of them as a resource that can help guide you to the best purchases.
“Questions I recommend asking usually address alternatives to different cuts, portioning and packaging, and special orders,” Fruth says. “If you don’t see what you want, there’s no harm in seeing if your butcher can order it in or cut something differently to accommodate your request.”
When in doubt, just ask. Fruth urges shy customers to speak up.
“We’ve heard it all,” he laughs. “In the end, we’re here to help serve you and answer your questions to the best of our ability.”