You probably visit the meat counter every time you go to the grocery store, but have you ever wondered about what goes on behind it? To learn the tricks of the butchery trade, we spoke with butchers from grocery-store chains, gourmet supermarkets and specialty shops. Read on to get the inside scoop on freezing, preparing, shopping and saving money on meats so you can carve out some savings next time you hit the counter.
1. Unconventional cuts can save you money.
While you’re probably most familiar with traditional cuts like filet mignon, porterhouse and rib eye, those high-end pieces will cost you; as an alternative, look to other cuts that are just as delicious but much more affordable. “Skirt steak is a fabulous piece of meat. It’s super flavorful and economical,” says JoAnn Witherell, culinary vice president at Allen Brothers steaks. “The tips of the tenderloin are also an excellent cut of meat. They’re wonderful, and there’s nothing wrong with it. True, it’s technically a ‘leftover,’ but it’s fantastic,” she adds. At Marlow & Daughters butcher shop in Brooklyn, New York, an innovative "oyster steak" has become a shop favorite, says head butcher T.J. Burnham. “It’s a pretty unique cut that comes from the pelvic area, the top of the leg. It’s not utilized much, and is an inexpensive option.” Other flavorful cuts that can save you cash: brisket, flat iron and shoulder.
2. You can request specific preparations.
Prepackaged meat is convenient, but it’s at the mercy of your culinary skills. If you don't know how to trim the fat off a chuck eye roast or debone a leg of lamb, your recipe will not turn out as it should. The good news is that you can head to the meat counter and have your order trimmed and portioned to your preference or as specified in the recipe. “We’re happy to debone it for you, pound it out, butterfly it; whatever you need, it’s free,” says Nicolo Ottomanelli, chairman of Ottomanelli's butcher shop in Manhattan. Burnham says he's asked to do an array of extra services particularly by regular customers, including “cutting strips of beef for shabu-shabu [a Japanese hot-pot dish], dressing a brisket to be roasted, tying hams, tying roast beefs and breaking down poultry.” And no need to worry if you don't have a specialty meat shop in your town, since many grocery chains also offer these kinds of specialty services—however, depending on what store you're at and what needs to be done, the cost can vary. Keoni Chang, corporate executive chef at Foodland Supermarkets, a popular franchise throughout Hawaii, says the sky's the limit when it comes to requests at the meat counter, noting that "the butcher cutter is there to do anything that you can’t get from the regular self-service case."
3. Questions are welcome—and encouraged.
Though they don't walk the store aisles fielding questions, butchers love to talk shop and troubleshoot to the benefit of their customers. At Marlow & Daughters, Burnham says all of the staff has a culinary background, and are eager to discuss details. “We enjoy helping people, and seeing people expand their culinary horizons and be happy with what they’ve bought from us,” he says. Chang notes that butchers can give suggestions based on specific recipes (which customers will often bring to the store with them), prep recommendations for cuts you're not familiar with and even advise you on how much to purchase for your next 20-person dinner party. "We’re there to provide an actual service of cutting meat for you, but we’re also there to provide ourselves as a resource for you. I think it’s important to demystify this whole 'I’m unprepared to speak to the butcher' mentality. That’s what you don’t have to be; come unprepared. Our job is to help you navigate the cuts and methodologies, ultimately helping you achieve what you’re trying to do," he says.
4. Discounted meat is not about to go bad.
Contrary to what you may think, special sale items aren’t about moving product that’s on the verge of spoilage. For the butchers we spoke with, it’s about the market, not a sell-by date. “I can see why someone would think that, but that’s not the case,” Ottomanelli says. “If we offer something on sale, it’s because we were able to get a deal [with the vendor] and we want to pass those savings on to our customers.” Burnham agrees: “It all depends on the prices that I can get. Never at any time are we trying to pawn off a subpar product to our customers.” The same principle of letting the customer get in on the savings is what dictates the sale prices advertised in your grocery store's flyer. "It’s important to shop the ads because that’s where you’re going to get the best pricing," says Chang.
5. There's no difference in taste between fresh and previously frozen meat.
Ideally, you’ll want to “buy meat as close to when you’re going to cook it as possible,” says Cliff Crooks, executive chef at BLT Steak in Manhattan. “The day of is best, but it can keep in the refrigerator for a few days.” However, Crooks and the other experts we spoke with realize the freezer is a busy cook’s best friend. “Freezing is fine,” Ottomanelli says, and Witherell agrees: “You won’t be able to tell the difference,” she says. “Once we had a taste test and a nationally renowned chef—I’m not going to say who, but someone quite famous—could not tell the difference between meat of ours that had been previously frozen and fresh.” Before freezing preportioned meat, remove it from the butcher paper and wrap it in plastic wrap, followed by aluminum foil. For safety and the sake of flavor, use frozen meat within a month, and defrost it on a plate in the refrigerator. However, once thawed, it's not recommended that you refreeze the meat unless it has been cooked.
6. Regular customers do get special treatment.
Chang extols the benefits of becoming friendly with the employee behind your grocery store's meat counter: "If you know your butcher, he can alert you to neat products at any given time. He also gets a chance to know your preferences and tailor the meats he has available to what you’re looking for." Meanwhile, Theo Weening, global meat buyer for Whole Foods Market, says you can "definitely" call ahead if you’re a regular customer and have the butcher set aside what you want. “People want to make sure they get what they want, like New York strips,” he says. For someone like Crooks, who works in a kitchen for a living, having a go-to local butcher not only means the shop knows his preferences, they will also save things they think Crooks might want to try as well as go the extra mile to acquire not-so-common orders, like veal feet for making stock or extra meat for a party.
7. If meat is expensive, there’s a reason.
Aging, marbling, grade—it all makes a difference in price. For retail, beef is graded, starting with standard and select (which you’ll commonly find at a supermarket), then choice and prime. Prime is the most expensive type of meat; Witherell says only 2% of beef in the U.S. is considered prime. (Veal, lamb and poultry are also graded; pork is not.) The more marbling (i.e., fat) meat has, the more succulent it is—and costly. Aging, which also helps intensify the flavor and tenderness, adds expense. However, aside from those variations, there is one principal that determines cost: supply. Aside from organ meats, “things of limited supply on the animal, like the tenderloins [there are only two] or ribs, will be more expensive,” Witherell says.
8. Tipping is appreciated, but not expected.
For most specialty butchers, tipping is inherently awkward. “It’s not expected, especially during the year,” Ottomanelli says. However, “all of my guys do get tips on Christmas.” Burnham says he and the owner decided early on that a tip jar would be "tacky," though Christmas and Valentine’s Day—when customers tend to buy custom cuts—are a very popular time for tips. “It’s definitely not customary and not asked or suggested by us, but if the recognition is there and if they feel the need to, then it’s very welcomed.” However, when it comes to larger supermarket chains, tipping is usually considered a no-no. "People try but we usually don’t take tips. Sometimes you get a card at Christmas time, but in general, no tipping needed, at all," says Weening.