If you eat meat, you know it is expensive. Many of us could probably cut back on our meat consumption for health reasons, but finances play a large role in meat purchases. Fortunately, there are a group of people uniquely suited to help you make good decisions about purchasing meat. Most of us have never spoken to the butcher at our grocery store or commissary. Big mistake! These professionals know all sorts of tips to help produce the most tasty meals at the best prices, and they can make sure you understand the nutritional choices as well.
First, you have to actually talk to the butcher. It might require ringing a bell, or waiting at a counter, but that is OK. Most butchers are friendly folks, and they don't get a lot of social interaction in their work. They are almost always glad to help you. If you are old enough, you might remember Sam the Butcher from the Brady Bunch. Pretty nice guy, that Sam. One thing that is markedly different from the Brady Bunch days is that your meat counter may have a variety of butchers, or you may shop at many different stores. You don't have to develop a personal relationship in order to benefit from the expertise of a butcher.
There is a warning, however: in a commercial grocery store, you might find yourself dealing with a butcher, or you might find yourself dealing with a meat cutter. For me, the distinction is big. A butcher serves many more roles than a meat cutter, which is why they are valuable. If the person with whom you are working can't help you with your questions, ask if there is someone else who can help.
Here are the five ways a butcher can help you:
1. A butcher can cut or prepare meat in pretty much any way that you can imagine. Whether it is pre-ordering a special cut, or having a pork roast cut into chops, or trimming and tying a roast, the butcher can do it, and probably better than you can. Plus, these services are usually free. Depending on the current prices, you can save a lot of money by chopping up a roast for steak, or a large loin for smaller roasts.
2. A butcher knows the various names of each cut of meat, including regional and country differences. This is thrilling for me. I hate buying meat to begin with, because I find it overwhelming, but buying meat in a new location really pushes me over the edge. I might have just figured out that I liked a boneless club steak, and then we move and there is nothing with that name. The butcher can tell me that it is called a Kansas City steak in their area. Brilliant! This prevents me from buying meat that my family won't enjoy, and this is a good thing all around.
3. They can recommend the least expensive cut of meat that will work in your recipe. This will change with the supply and demand of the different seasons. Unless you are a meat and math whiz, the butcher is much better at knowing which similar cut will produce the same results for the lowest cost.
4. They can suggest the best way to cook each type of meat. See a really good price on a tri-tip, but don't know what to do with it? Ask the butcher. Have a limited budget for meat? The butcher can help you fill out the menu with the money you have available.
5. The butcher can answer questions about the meat's preparation, packaging, processing, and ingredient details. Have you been turned off by recent news reports regarding various meat processing methods? Your butcher can tell you which products are cut in-store, what sort of treatments have been used on the meat, and if there are any potential allergens or issues.
As I said before, the quality of your store's meat department staff can vary dramatically. Ideally, we'd all patronize local butcher shops staffed by professionals who care about their customer's happiness. In reality, convenience and cost mean most of us buy our meat at the commissary or grocery store. Considering the value added by a good butcher, seeking out a store or shop who provides complete service might save you money in the long run even if their meat prices are a bit higher.
Now that I've written all this good stuff, I should go out and investigate the butcher options in my new home. Who knows? Maybe the big box store down the road has a fantastic butcher on the staff, or I might find a convenient shop that still fits my budget. That way I can have the benefit of good meat and good prices. Yeah!