The Questions the Meat Marketer or Butcher will Ask

We are taking a small departure from our normal schedule writing about vegetarianism… but we will still post that this week.  This week, just in time for the unofficial start to summer we present you with the questions a good butcher will ask – a set of questions a reputable butcher, farmer’s market seller, or meat professional to make sure you get what you need – no more, no less!

First off… since this list is being written because of the upcoming holiday (a week from today), we hope that everyone has a safe and happy Memorial Day.  Please, while taking the time to celebrate, please remember what it is this day is about, and be sure to offer a moment of silence for the fallen and those who serve or have served.

            Having said that, and meaning it sincerely, let’s just jump right into the information that you are here for –

Questions from your Butcher!

            I know that I have been there… I have been the typical New Yorker buying a steak at a supermarket, and all I want to do is get my meat, get out of the store, and hand it over to a friend, family member, or SO for it to be cooked.

            Hey, I buy, they cook… it is a fair deal!

            Now, here is the thing – I always liked that at the grocery store.  I want to have something, they give it to me without a lot of questions.  Easy, fast, convenient. 

            Then there was a time when I went over to the farmer’s market.  I saw that there was someone there that was selling these massive chunks of meat… these were the most glorious steaks I had ever seen.

            I walked right up to the guy, he started making small talk, and within a couple minutes we were on to meat.

            I pointed to a large cut of (what I recall) was chuck roast and basically said “give me that”.

            He looked at it, looked at me, saw that I was alone, and a string of questions started to come to me.

            I got annoyed by the string of questions.  At least, I did at first…

            By the time he was done with the questions, we both knew that I did not want that massive hunk of chuck steak… I ended up leaving with something else… I think it was center cut or the like.

            It was a few years ago, so my memory might be a little foggy… but I know that this guy actually got me to spend less, I got less meat than I would have if I got the chuck, and I ended up getting something that was perfect for me.

            Looking back on it, it was because of the questions that he asked me that I actually got what it was that I wanted and needed for myself.

            I asked the professional butchers that we work with at Wayside Market, and they put together a list of questions for me that they often ask to make sure that they are giving the right person the right product, and I have to respect this… while you can sell the wrong thing to the wrong person to make a buck, its just like selling ice to Eskimos (as the saying goes)…

            You can only screw them once!

That being said, let’s jump into the questions that you will likely be asked by your own butcher when you are making a purchase:

How many people are your feeding?  This is an important piece of information… if you think about my incident with the chuck steak, that thing was probably about 4-5 lbs. of solid meat.  While that would have been great, I was just feeding myself at the time, and I just approached with the typical American “bigger is better” mindset (don’t believe this is an American thing?  Go to Europe!)

Now, this butcher could have done himself a favor and me a disservice by not asking the appropriate questions.  If I had bought that just for me, it might have fed me for a week… but most of us want something different at some point throughout the week.

Consider also that cooked, then frozen, then reheated meat just never tastes as good, he actually helped me out. 

The general rule is, from what he told me, 3-4 ounces of beef per person per meal that is to be served.  This does not sound like much, but your typical quarter-pound burger (which most people consider pretty massive) is only 4 ounces of meat!

Bearing this in mind, that the 5-lb. cut of chuck was going to be good for 20 or so meals for me… much longer than a week. 

That being said, this question is clearly important to make sure that you do not over buy or under buy!

What types of eaters are there?  Are there vegetarians?  This is important, and this only scratches the surface of this question.  In all reality, the question is asking what “types of eaters” are going to be present.  While there might be vegetarians, there also might be people ascribing themselves to the carnivore or paleo diets, each of which will typically require more than the standard 3-4 ounces of meat per person.

However, we also know that the vegetarian will not eat any meat… so does it balance out?  Maybe… but you will only find out by thinking through this as you speak with your butcher about these things.  Remember that one vegetarian and one carnivore may not simply cancel out each other, and that know the number of people being fed and the number of people that have different tastes will be crucial to ensuring you get the right meat! 

It is also important to consider the following thoughts:

·       How many members of the party are children?

·       How many people are big eaters?

·       How many people eat like a bird or are dieting?

What else are your serving?  This matters significantly… while in our e-book we talk about the typical American five-course meal (which is different than an actual multi-course meal in numerous ways), you typically have half of your plate as your protein source when you are serving your main course.  However, if you are doing a classic European or five-star quality presentation of a multi-course meal, this looks very different.

This being said, it is not only the “what” you are serving, but “how” you are serving it that should be considered.  If you are doing a meal for a carnivore and you are serving steak, a vegetable, and water, then you probably need more meat than if you are serving an American Five-course with soup, salad, appetizer, entrée, and a dessert. 

You would likely need even less if you are going to serve a European-style meal where you have sometimes a dozen small courses, but each is quite small.

The butcher wanting to know what else you are serving is your assurance that you are buying what it is that you need.

How thick do you want your cut?  This might seem a strange question, as most people just assume that they want the thickest cut possible.

Trust me, you don’t.

Maybe, though we think that this is a waste meat at Wayside (unless you are making trail rations), you are making homemade beef jerky.  That requires a very thin cut.

Stew meat?  Usually a pretty thick cut.

But it gets more complicated than that… your higher-fat steaks, such as ribeye and prime rib will often be thicker, as this helps prevent overcooking.  Tougher cuts of meat are often cut then to allow the heat to slowly permeate through the meat and produce a more tender finished product.

Normally, if your butcher asks you what type of a cut you want, you may want to reply with what you are doing with the meat and ask their opinion.  We guaranteed that you will not regret this decision, as they can help you think about meat in ways that you may not have!

Which cut are you looking for?  Is your cut a higher-quality cut, or is it a lower-quality cut of meat?  Is it tough, is it naturally soft and tender?

            They are asking because each cut of meat can serve a different purpose – I have had excellent meat that is a lower-quality cut of meat.  However, it is marinated, and it is slow-cooked, and in the end, it still comes out to be quite tender.  In the same vein, think about schnitzel… this came about in Germany because the quality of pork was so poor at one point this was the only way to make it edible.

            The cut you are looking for will likely be largely dependent upon how you prepare and cook the meat in question.  If you are frying, slow-cooking, or stewing meat, then you might be just as well with lesser cuts of meat.  However, if your goal is presentation, high-quality taste, and a melt-in-your-mouth texture, then you will want a higher quality cut.

            Again, in this case tell your meat professional what you will be doing with the meat so that they may steer you in the right direction.

How comfortable are you with preparation?  This is another question our friend with the chuck steak asked me – and my answer was basically “what do you mean?”  Yeah… he grinned at me and shook his head at that point.

I can hear what he was probably thinking now… “stupid bachelor”.  He might have been right… but moving on!

Preparation is important.  There are some cuts and qualities of meat that require no preparation, and there are those that require a huge amount of preparation to be edible.  I think about my first experience with lower-quality meat after I had been spoiled on good steak, and I was baffled at the difference. 

Tougher meats require more preparation – you can have the toughest piece of meat in the world, but if you are comfortable tenderizing it, and then marinating it (then possible tenderizing it again), and then slow cooking it, you can still get a wonderful meal. 

Make sure that you let your butcher know what you are doing with the meat and let him or her know how you feel about prep work – this can save your dinner!

That is about it!

            At least, for now that is all we have.

            If your butcher starts asking a lot of questions, remember that this person is trying to do you a favor.  They are not trying to sell you on the highest-cost product by default.  Rather, he or she is trying to find out what your needs are based on your cooking skill, the size of your party, and the desired results of your preparation and presentation.

            When your butcher starts asking these questions, smile!  Answer the questions honestly and be sure to get what it is that they know that you need, not what you think you want.  After all, they are professionals, and this is what they do…

            Provide the best quality, the best value, and the best service to you, their customer.

            Thanks for joining us today!  Check out our posts on the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed meat and be sure to look into our most recent post about vegetarianism! 

            Please leave all comments below – let’s have a great conversation – ask any questions that you have, and we will work to provide you with answers.

            Until next time – eat well, live well, and be well!

Stephen Hull