During a recent trip to Pete’s (the sexy, kind of overpriced, grocery store with all the cute produce people, and all the specialty items you can never find at the supermarket), I decided to make use of the expertise that can be found in the grocery store. I love cooking, and can usually turn any piece of meat into something decently mouthwatering, but, I won’t pretend I know even an inkling of the knowledge necessary to pick out cuts of meat I’ve never heard of in the meat display.
My goal that day was to get a cut of meat for cheaper, but make it taste like it was fillet mignon, or whatever. So, in meat-speak, I wanted a choice or select piece of meat that would taste like a prime. In essence, I needed help, because it’s all kind of confusing. If the person working at said counter or butcher shop can’t answer your question there’s usually a person close-by, or a reference, that can.
When I actually asked the smiling guy behind the counter at Pete’s what I should buy if pressed for time and on a budget, his face lit up a bit. It’s probably nice to get a few questions instead of just wrapping things up all day. So, using his expertise, I took home a few beef Teres Majors-long, lean and thick-which he said could be treated like beef tenderloin, and would taste similar, but for less than half the price.
So, next time you’re buying meat, tell your butcher what you’re wanting by asking yourself these questions in order to pay less, save time and keep your stomach happy.
- What are you willing to pay? Even if you’re rolling in dough, buying a less known cut of meat is more cost effective and sustainable. Prime cuts like tenderloin only make up a small fraction of the animal. So, whether or not you need the money, saving can’t hurt. While looking at the meat display case, compare the cost per pound of the cuts you would usually buy to the less pricey. Decide on your price range.
- How much time do you have to prepare the meat? How are you cooking it? If your family is famished when you get home, and you need to have supper on the table in 30, then you won’t be able to buy a meat that would ideally be slow-roasted to tenderize. If you’re buying for a Sunday afternoon of cooking, then there isn’t any haste and you needn’t get a cut ideal for quick frying. Some cuts are cheaper because they demand that extra time, and care, and if you’re willing to put that in you can get flavorful and tender results.
- Which flavors and textures do you like? There are many meats that you shouldn’t cook to well-done. Some meats have more fat. Some meats will taste more gamey. Some meats will be more flavourful. If you have major likes, or dislikes, communicate those to the person at the meat counter, and use the examples you know. If you don’t like the consistency and tender fattiness of chicken thighs, it’s a good thing to convey.
- What will you be putting on, or around, the meat? If you already have a sauce, a dry-spice, or a bed of vegetables in mind this might influence what the butcher would suggest.
- To sear or not to sear? The answer is usually yes, but there are exceptions. Cuts that are meant for frying are obviously better with a nicely-browned, crunchy exterior, but people often forget that roast, or tenderloins, that will be cooked in the oven should start by making a trip to a hot, buttery pan. Pan searing not only adds flavor, but can also prevent the meat from losing its juices and drying out. Ask the butcher if you should sear your meat. To sear, get a frying pan hot (a few minutes at a heat of about 6.5 out of 10) add butter to the pan, then the seasoned meat. You should hear the searing sound of the meat. Let the meat sit for at least 20 seconds before checking to see if the side in contact with the pan is crispy and dark, then turn and repeat until all sides are sealed. Think of searing as creating a protective flavor-shell for the meat. If the meat is intended for frying turn down the heat after searing and cook to the doneness you prefer, if you’re going to roast it, transfer it to the oven after the sear.
- Am I open to information and trying new things? Don’t be a know-it-all. Trust your butcher. It’s easy to stick to your guns and go with something known and safe, but there’s no fun in that either. Oh, and be nice, and patient. Duh.
Also, for the love of God, please season your meat. There is no point in labouring over meat, or even buying a nice cut, if you forego seasoning; meat should at least have salt. Salt amplifies the meaty, savoury, wild, umami flavor of meat. If you want the science, look it up. Or watch the Mind of a Chef episode in season two on salt.
A few great places to start are Highland Drive Storehouse, Getaway Farms Meatmongers, Pete’s, or try a local supermarket. Or just walk around the farmers market and there will be lots of local offerings.
Happy roasting, frying, searing, sautéing, flashing, grilling and barbecuing! And if you have any questions… well, just ask your butcher.