Oscar's Smokehouse in Upstate NY

How to be a more informed meat buyer

Going to the butcher shop can be intimidating.  If all you’ve known is pre-packaged big box supermarket whatever, the sheer sensory overload of a full meat case can leave even the strongest person catatonic.  But the good news is that just by going into your local butcher’s place you’ve already made the biggest step towards getting great meat, the trick is just to avoid being paralyzed by choice.  Here’s five-ish tips that I think can help anyone become a more clued-in meat buyer.

See how the sausage is made, literally.
1.  Find out where it came from.  This, for me, is the number one factor that will determine whether or not I’m buying your product.  Any halfway decent shop will be willing and able to tell you exactly where they’re getting their meat from.  This doesn’t apply solely to shops getting in whole animals; these days even many supermarket meat counters are carrying lines of pastured, humanely raised meat and they should be chomping at the bit to tell you all about it.  If the guy behind the counter can’t/won’t tell you where the meat is from, leave.

Hogs at Stone Barns on finishing rations. These guys are eating well.
2.  Ask what it was fed.  Feed has such a huge impact on not just the welfare of the animal, but also on the flavor of the finished product.  Beef is easy – it should spend the majority of it’s life eating grass.  Fully grassfed animals (called grass finished) receive no supplements other than vitamins and the end taste is deeper and more mineral-y than beef that has been finished on a ration of grain.  Pork, as an omnivore can be more complicated to get the feed right.  The best pork I’ve ever eaten was raised in an old apple orchard where the pigs could forage for juicy grubs along with whatever apples happened to come their way.  A good farmer knows what feed works best for his animals, and a good butcher will specialize in sourcing those animals.

Caul fat wrapped bottom round that I made to order for a customer.
3.  Don’t see something you’re looking for? Ask.  A lot of times someone will walk into the shop looking for a specific cut named in a recipe, which we may sell under a slightly different name.  Plus, any butcher worth his knives will happily cut something to order if they don’t have it readily available.  I’ve had customers for whom I’ve literally pulled out a side of pig and told them to point at the part they wanted.  A butcher’s job is to make sure you go home with exactly what you came in looking for – give them enough information to go on and you’ll be set.

I’ve got plenty of cooking tips, especially as they relate to dry aged ribeyes.
4.  Don’t be afraid to ask for cooking tips.  Back in college I used to love going to the butcher shop in town, but being too intimidated to ask very many questions I always got the same thing: top round London Broil.  It was the one steak I (sort of) knew how to cook, and I figured that anything else I might get I wouldn’t be able to cook as well.  I had some great London Broils, but I wasted a great opportunity to expand my culinary horizons.  That’s where asking for tips pays off: a good butcher is going to have plenty experience cooking their meat, and can give you all sorts of advice on the best way to prepare each cut.  I don’t spend my free time reading dorky meat books for no reason – hit me with whatever questions you have.

Seeing a slaughter is an intense way to get connected with your food.
5.  Get involved.  Lots of shops are starting to offer classes for customers to come in and get some one-on-one time with their meat.  From cutting up a whole chicken to breaking down an entire side of pig and making sausage, there’s a ton of different possibilities to check out. Yeah, you may never become the next Le Bourdonnec, but it is a really cool way to spend a Saturday night, and getting a better perspective on your food and what it takes to get it to you is a huge eye opener.

Lots of bubbles in the dish pit.
**Bonus tip**  Bring booze.  Seriously.  Customers bring us in beer not infrequently, and I don’t want to say that they get better treatment – but yeah, they’re definitely our favorites.

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