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How to Shop for Red Meat
Looking at the Meat Case
Many of my readers know that I am a veteran meat cutter. I first began cutting meat full time professionally in 1990 in a slaughterhouse in the Midwest. I butchered my first animals (hogs and cows) when I was 17, broke them down and wrapped them for freezing in my mom’s freezer. I worked for my Uncle part time as an apprentice butcher while going to school and when things got tough, I picked up my knives again and went to work. I began my work as a professional full time retail butcher in the Midwest in 1996. I have watched a lot of people come and go from the back side of a meat counter and have noticed that very few people really know how to choose a good piece of meat. Hopefully I can shed some light on this.
My meat counter at the Lulawissie Gas and Grocery is set up a certain way, categorized by cut, beginning with beef, then onto to pork and chicken. I will go down the order that my case is laid out to make sure I have covered mostly everything. But firstly, I must emphasize that everyone’s choices are different because people have different tastes. What I may like, you may not. What I think is a great cut, you may think it sucks. It is all personal preference.
Firstly, retail meat comes in three grades: Prime, Choice, and Select (there are other grades, but I'll focus on these three for this article). Prime is the most expensive, and the grading system is based on the amount of marbling or fat content the meat has. Prime has the most marbling which makes it the one with the best flavor, and the most expensive. It is also higher in fat. Most stores do not carry Prime unless it is by a special order. Prime meat is usually sold to restaurants.
Choice meats have less fat, but a fair amount of marbling. This is the most common grade found in grocery stores today. They are good and flavorful, and generally fairly priced. Your best bet is to shop around for sales. Select meat has the least fat, the least marbling and is generally the least expensive. The meat may seem beautiful red and solid, with very few streaks of fat. Select meats are usually leaner than the rest. You can get good deals on Select meats, but you can only find them in smaller stores such as IGA or similar independent chains.
Angus meats are generally higher in fat than their counterparts. Angus prime is very flavorful, but very high in fat. So if you can find a lower grade meat in Angus, the fat content would actually be the same as the next grade up in most cases.
These are what most people find as being “gross”. This includes the ears, snouts, tongues, livers, hearts, the tripes and kidneys, etc. You’re right, they suck. But I do like a good Menudo (Mexican tripe soup). You are on your own with these.
Most all stew meat is made from the chuck, or the shoulder of the beef. For a clue of what the stew meat may consist of, look and see what main cuts are on sale. If shoulder steaks and roasts or chuck products are on sale, then chances are it is chuck. If top or bottom round is on sale, the round trim will usually be used for the “extra lean stew beef”. In this case, go with the chuck, as round tends to get tough when stewed. Sirloin is sometimes used as stew meat, but it is generally cut up as lean stew, kabob meat or as stir fry. If you want extra lean but tender stew meat, then Top Sirloin is economical enough to have the butcher cut up a steak that you have chosen. Generally the lean stew meat made from the sirloin will be more expensive than the steak. You will save money by having it cut up. You can also have them cut your sirloin steak into stir fry as well.
Roasts can be tricky. The leaner ones are usually the top or bottom round roasts. The roast beef that you get sliced for you in the deli is usually top round. The London Broil is a thick slice of top round. It is lean and cooks very well on a grill or in the oven. The Eye of Round, Bottom Round, Sirloin Tip Roast and Rump Roast are very good oven roasts that slice cleanly and evenly. They are very lean and have a good flavor, and are great for sandwiches. The rump and bottom round are off of the same cut of beef (the “flat”, with the rump being the tip of the flat). All of these cuts can be sliced into excellent steaks ideal for broiling or grilling. The top round is frequently thin sliced for special recipes involving rolled or stuffed meat dishes.
The Standing Rib Roast is a crosscut section of the rib loin. It is actually a roast that if sliced, would produce ribeye steaks. The best cut is a midsection cut, about three ribs, one rib in from the large end. Ask the butcher to remove the rib bones and tie them back on. This will let you experience the full flavor of the bone, but will allow you to remove the bones for ease of cutting. It will also give you some delicious ribs! The standing rib roast has also been called “Prime Rib” in many restaurants.
The Chuck Roast is an excellent roast for a crock pot. This piece of meat can be found boneless or bone in. It is best to order this roast custom cut if you like them thick and heavy, especially if you want one bone in. A bone in Chuck roast cut cross ways from the norm is called a Cross Rib Roast, also a very good cut. Once cooked, the meat shreds apart easily. An excellent roast if you are on a budget! The Shoulder Roast is also part of the chuck and it is great slicing roast, they are great for sandwiches. The shoulder Blade Roast is a heavily marbled section of the shoulder that runs behind the shoulder blade. It is a coarsely grained cut, oval shaped at the cross section and about 12” long. It has a sinewy strap in the middle that if cut into steaks, will cook out fairly easily. The Blade roast can be purchased whole or in halves and makes for an excellent meal. If the roast is cut longitudinally along the sinewy strap, you end up with Flat Iron Steaks, one from each side of the roast. These are very tender and grill very well. The Chuck Eye is the narrow end of the chuck that connects to the rib loin. The chuck eye steaks are the last cuts of the chuck before the ribeye steaks. The chuck eye steak has been called the “poor man’s ribeye” because it captures all of the tenderness and flavor of the ribeye for about half the price.
The Tri-Tip Roast is a roast that is virtually unknown on the east coast, and there are just a few Eastern butchers that know how to cut it. Many cutters believe that the cap from the top butt (top sirloin) is the true tri-tip roast, but in actuality, the tri-tip comes from a flap of meat on the bottom sirloin. This is an excellent roast for grilling or in the oven. Ask your butcher to cut you one, but be sure he knows that it is not from the top sirloin.
The Brisket is every barbecue guru’s best buddy. It is a thick grained piece of meat that smokes or slow cooks very well. It can be fatty, but the fat adds to its sublime flavor. Make sure that you get a whole brisket with “the deckle on”. The deckle is the thick end of the brisket, and even though it is very fatty, like I said, it adds to the flavor. You can usually find the whole brisket still in the Cryovac wrapping that it comes in from the slaughterhouse. A trimmed brisket sold in a regular meat tray is usually sold as a “flat” or a “point”. These cuts may frequently have dark spots, but not to worry, the meat is still good. These cuts are often sold as “corned beef” in a packet suspended in a “pickling” solution. Some brands will even include some spices in a separate packet as well. These are your best bet. The corned beef frequently goes on sale in March for St. Patrick’s Day.
Flank and Skirts are very versatile and grill very well. The skirts are frequently cut up and used in Mexican and Chinese restaurants as the meat in the beef stir fry dishes, or beef and broccoli dishes. Once it is cut, it turns dark very quickly, but the meat is still good. The flank steaks are frequently used as a thin sliced meat in the carne asada dishes in many Mexican restaurants. It grills very nicely and a good thick piece can even be used as a London broil.
Ribeye Steaks or Delmonico Steaks come from the first section of the rib just past the shoulder (the chuck). The fatty end of the ribeye is called the chuck end, and the lean end of the rib is called the loin end. The loin end and the center cuts are usually the best cuts of the rib loin. There are 7 ribs in the rib loin and the ribs taper in length from the chuck end to the loin end, with the loin end having the longest ribs. Your best bone in and boneless steaks will come from the end with the longest ribs. This is also where you want your standing rib roast to be cut from.
The chuck end of the rib has a tremendous amount fat, and depending on your tastes, you will get a fattier piece of meat here. The meat is still very flavorful from either end, it’s your personal preference as to how much fat you care to ingest. These cuts do very well as thick cuts (2” thick) or as thin sliced (1/2” thick).
Strip Steaks , T-Bone/Porterhouse Steaks and Tenderloin (Filet Mignon) are all part of the same cut of meat coming from the short loin, or the end of the rib loin. The T-Bone/Porterhouse is the keeper of the strip steak and the tenderloin. On a good Porterhouse, the large side of the steak is actually the strip steak separated by a rib bone from the smaller side, the Tenderloin (or Filet Mignon). The strip side of a porterhouse end will be heavily marbled with white streaks or veins of fat. This is my personal favorite. It may be an “uglier” looking cut, but never judge a book by its cover. This is an excellent cut. The Filet side will be large and round, about 3” across and very lean. There may be some fat on the sides or in the V-shaped notch at the bone (a good butcher will cut this out). As you cut farther down the loin, the size of the filet diminishes. When it is less than 2” across, the cut becomes a T-Bone. Once the tenderloin is completely diminished, the butcher may just bone out the end of the loin and cut the remaining steaks up as boneless strips, or leave the bone in, trim it up and sell them as bone in strips (Kansas City Strips).
The tenderloin is frequently sold as a whole piece in a Cryovac. The whole tenderloin can resemble a large catfish or salamander in its shape. It has a thick, flat head tapering down to a slender tail. Buying the tenderloin whole will generally save you about $6 or more per pound, and you can have it cut up for you by the butcher. Make sure to ask for all of the trimmings (minus the fat) so you can get your money’s worth on this expensive meat. This piece of meat can yield about 6-10 Filet Mignon steaks depending on the thickness of the cuts and the overall size of the tenderloin. The head of the tenderloin can also be tied into a Chateau Briand roast.
Top Sirloin or Top Butt is the end cap of the entire beef loin. This is a large steak that will cover your plate. The center part of the large end of the top butt is where the tenderloin head ends, and is the most tender part of the top sirloin steak. These center sections are what some restaurants frequently serve as their top sirloin “sizzlers”, and are frequently bacon wrapped. Overall, the Top Sirloin steak is generally the best steak for your money at its regular price of around $5.99-$6.99 lb. Frequently you will find a sale where they can be as low as $4.99lb and my store has recently had them on sale for $3.49lb. Look for a steak that is uniform in color, with very little gristle or sinew across the middle. A steak with a lot of gristle will be chewy and unpleasant. The top sirloin is frequently used as kabob meat, but the price is usually jacked up.
Cube Steaks are steaks that are run two or more times through a meat tenderizer. They are generally the pieces of meat that aren’t good looking enough to put out as a better cut. Cube steak is generally made of what is on sale at the time in the roast section. The trimmings of the round and shoulder are usually made into cube steak to avoid selling it for a lower price as ground beef or stew meat. Many people choose to have a steak of their choice cubed for better flavor and satisfaction. Keep in mind that if you choose to cube a better cut, you will pay the price of the better cut of meat rather than the price of the cube steak itself.
Most likely, the ground beef you are buying was ground in the slaughterhouse a thousand miles away, packed into 10lb cellophane tubes and shipped to your local grocer. The tubes are run through the store’s grinder one more time to give it that “fresh ground” appearance. Honestly, no one really ever knows what goes into these tubes of ground beef. The Solution: Have your meat ground especially for you. Pick a roast or a cut from the case and ask the butcher to grind it for you, at least two times. Three times is the optimum. Look for the “Market Ground Beef”. It is the beef that is ground daily from the fresh trimmings and the meat from the case. Even though it is against the law to grind and sell out of date meat, some unscrupulous markets to so anyway. If this is the case, the Market Ground Beef may appear unusually dark. Market Ground Beef doesn’t always appear bright red like the other grinds, which is because there are no color enhancers added to the meat like there may be in the slaughterhouse grinds.
Save Money by having a roast cut into steaks, or just buy what you need. A good meat department will break open packages for you and sell you only one steak if that is all you need. Frequently the butchers will package one bad looking steak with a good looking one as a merchandising ploy. You don’t have to buy what you don’t want. You should hand pick your packages and have the butcher give you the cuts of your choosing.
Shop Around for the best quality meats. Here in the Southeastern U.S., the best places to buy freshly cut meats at a reasonable price would be Ingles Grocery or independently owned IGA grocery stores. Publix markets has an excellent selection, but the meat prices are generally a tad higher than most . Check the ads weekly as they do have good deals once in a while. Whole Foods Markets is another good choice, though sometimes pricey. Avoid the Kroger chain of stores as well as Wal-Mart and Target. Their meat is prepackaged at the slaughterhouse in a non oxygen environment (as a preservative), and is often dyed red to hold the color. I personally observed a Wal-Mart meat clerk putting out meat that had a 21 day shelf life from the packaging date to “sell by” date (it was printed on the side of the box). Even the ground meats in the Styrofoam trays are prepackaged.
Independent meat shops are a good choice, even though they may be higher. Make sure that they have a health department inspection report posted in plain sight with a score of 90 or better.
There is so much more to tell, but so little time. If you have any questions, you may email me or leave a comment.
Next time I will write about pork. You will be shocked and may never eat pork again!
I bid you peace.
The entire contents of this writing, and all writings previous to this one, including the name “Lulawissie”, are the original work of Delbert Banks and are protected by the copyright laws of the United States of America. © 2010 By Delbert Banks.