Whether you’re a carnivore, pescatarian, flexitarian or someone who only indulges in an annual hamburger at the Fourth of July cookout, there’s one thing you can do to exponentially improve your meat cooking (and eating) experience this year.
Find a local butcher or meat supplier whom you like and trust. Then ask for some help in making your selections and cooking them right. Follow that advice, keep visiting the shop, and you’ll be a better cook by the end of this year, guaranteed.
Why it’s worth it
Yes, you’re busy. And yes, it’s fun to race through a big-box grocer that offers you everything from diamond necklaces to sets of snow tires, in addition to packages of skinless chicken breasts. It’s true that deciding to buy your meat locally will reduce your overall shopping efficiency, because you’ll have to stop at one more place when you’re out. But these extra few minutes can go a long way toward improving your cooking game.
You’ll begin to enjoy the utter deliciousness that comes out of your braising pot, cast iron skillet or grill. And the compliments won’t hurt, either. “Oh this?,” you’ll say modestly. “Just some beef cheeks; glad you like them. The secret ingredient in that ragu is a lamb neck; thanks for noticing.”
The best thing about getting to know your butcher is that your butcher will get to know you, too. As if you’re backed by the culinary equivalent of a Netflix recommendation screen, you’ll soon be discovering little-known cuts that deliver maximum value and flavor, often at a fraction of the price of standard cuts like porterhouse or rib-eye. Your butcher can make recommendations tailored to your level of expertise, the amount of time you have and even the equipment in your kitchen.
The allure of ‘local’
In the early days of the pandemic, outbreaks and shutdowns at meat processing facilities highlighted the perilousness of the long, long journey that meat can take to reach the case in your grocery store. Now, more consumers are thinking “close to home,” especially when it comes to meat.
“Interest in local foods in all forms was growing before the pandemic, and continued to grow through it,” Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, a food industry consultancy, told HuffPost. “Purchasing local, more than anything, gives consumers a sense of control. They feel like they have a better understanding of where the product comes from, like a farm or a farmer they can identify rather than a faceless mega farm in an unknown location. Consumers can have the sense that the money they’re spending is going to better use, benefiting a family rather than a corporation. Consumers also often equate local with healthier, cleaner and more responsible in terms of farming practices.”
Still, the dream of everything you eat coming from nearby is not a reality for most of us. “The media and chefs love to talk about buying local, but it can be an unattainable ideal,” Suzy Badaracco, president of food industry trend consultant Culinary Tides, told HuffPost. “Eating locally presents challenges of geography and seasonality. For example, I live in Florida, so mahi-mahi is plentiful, as are oranges. But if I want to buy beef, that’s not going to be local. The nearest cow is pretty far away.”
Shopping locally will force you to try new things
Badaracco’s caution about the lack of consistent availability is well-founded. That’s one reason why, if you’re shopping locally for meat, the first thing to do is think less about ingredients and to approach things more situationally. Instead of going into a butcher shop and saying, “I need four rib-eyes for a special dinner,” say, “I’m having some friends over and I want to make something that won’t need a lot of tending when they arrive, so it could be something that does a long-and-slow braise all day in my new Dutch oven. I think they’re pretty adventurous eaters, so I’d love to try something new. What do you have that might work?”
If you can keep an open mind and let go of that locked-in image of the four rib-eyes, you might be surprised with a new cut of meat that’s just incredible. And don’t worry — even if you’ve never cooked beef shin, lamb sirloin roast or pork collar, your butcher will be happy to share helpful cooking suggestions.
Jennie Schutte-Patrick is a co-owner of small, independent Pilaroc Farms in Fayetteville, Tennessee, which raises, processes and sells dry-aged beef, heritage pork and lamb. She knows how to help customers open their minds to a variety of “whole animal” possibilities. “We respect the animal by using seam butchery to get every cut possible,” she said. “That’s why we say, ‘There’s more to life than a rib-eye.’”
She explained: “Rib-eyes are our customers’ favorite cut. We can’t keep them on the shelves. So when we run out, we encourage people to think beyond those fancy steaks. We educate them on other cuts, like rib-eye’s first cousin, the chuck eye steak, which is from the same muscle as rib-eye and has the same marbling. Yes, it’s a little fattier and just a touch tougher, but it’s also half the price of a rib-eye. For most of our customers, a little extra chewing really isn’t all that bad, especially if you’re a family on a budget.”
‘All food is about relationships’
According to Yia Vang, chef and owner at Minneapolis restaurant Vinai, having a relationship with your butcher is one of those old-timey customs that’s worth taking up again. “I come from a small town, and our butcher was always someone that the whole community knew and loved,” he told HuffPost. Vang’s current local butcher is Erik Sather, owner of Lowry Hill Meats. “I believe that all food is about relationships, and he has such strong relationships with his producers,” Vang said.
“I do think people are wanting to know more about their food and where it comes from,” Sather told HuffPost. “All our meat, for example, is sourced from right here in Minnesota. Because our animals don’t travel far, they have much less stress, and I believe you can taste that difference. Stressed animals release hormones that can make the meat tougher and mealy. When you eat the meat we source and sell, you can taste the quality.”
Yes, it will probably cost more, but here’s why that’s OK (if you can afford it)
Buying from a small local business, no matter what it’s selling, will almost always cost more than that big-box store down by the interstate. Why? Alison Mountford, chef and founder of Ends and Stems, a digital meal planner platform that helps home cooks reduce food waste, told HuffPost: “Local producers are generally smaller and produce less, so there’s no economy of scale for a small farm vs. a giant Costco-sized farm. Those smaller local operations end up selling the smaller inventory for more per pound. It’s similar to rare works of art being more expensive than mass-produced canvases from Target.”
Schutte-Patrick mentioned the mass-scale discounts and government subsidies that larger producers enjoy. “The price you pay from a small-scale producer is what it actually costs to raise and finish that animal. I wish the mindset would change from, ‘Why is farm-fresh meat so expensive?’ to asking more questions about ‘Why is grocery store meat so cheap?’ I promise, us small guys aren’t out here making money hand over fist. It’s usually just a husband-and-wife team making it all work, and we’re working every day of the week, with no hired help. This is just what meat costs.”
We’ve often been conditioned to prefer massive, cheap quantities instead of smaller amounts of higher quality, costlier options. And while it’s hard to resist the lure of 99-cent chicken parts at a supersize grocery store, the benefits of buying locally — in taste, community support and environmental impact — can be well worth it, especially if you can manage your protein budget by purchasing a smaller volume of high-quality meat from a source you trust, and then cooking it the way your butcher recommends.
Find your perfect butcher match
Mountford had suggestions for finding a good local butcher. “Start by asking neighbors and local friends, and then check reviews online and Google them,” she said. “When you visit, be blunt. Ask what makes them a great local business. I’d say something like, ‘I’m trying to buy more meat locally and this shop kept coming up. Tell me more about why you do and why it’s a great place.’”
Schutte-Patrick suggested: “I’ve found social media really helps you find a good, local meat provider. You’re able to learn about their operation and understand their story. You’ll see what kind of passion they have for animals and their business. And if you like what you see, you can then ask them how you can support them and purchase their product.”
Mountford included a few specific questions that can get you cooking something great tonight: “Ask, ‘What do you have that’s affordable, or unusual, or interesting?’ or just say, ‘I’m looking to try something new. Do you have any ideas? How do I cook that?’ A great shop will be excited to help you.”