Get to Know Your Butcher
Patti Cook, BA, MS, Ed.D., Culinary Grad and B & P Student
When people find out that I recently finished culinary school, they often ask me what my favorite part was. I always say the meat unit. Meat to me is one of the most delicious, wonderful, amazing foods we humans get to cook and eat. I like it all: cow, pig, lamb, goat, bison, deer (I make a to-die-for Venison Balls recipe that I’m taking to my friends’ Oscar party this year), and I love all poultry too. Current culinary trends support my love of meat and point to our increasing interest in meat quality, local meat products and butchery.
Before the cooking even begins, it’s critical to get the right cut of meat for the cooking method you plan to use. A general rule of thumb is that the closer to the horns and feet, the tougher the meat is and it needs a low, slow cooking process (like braising) to tenderize and soften it. The farther from the horns and feet, the tenderer the meat is and it needs a quicker, high-heat cooking process (like grilling).
One of the most important lessons for a cook who eats meat is to talk to and ask questions of the people in the meat department. Most of the time, they know a lot, including the different names that the same cut of meat can have in different parts of the country and the world. When you’re looking for a particular cut of meat and the store doesn’t seem to have it—the meat department people can tell you what it is called there and/or what a good substitute is. And when you say “I want to make a pot roast” or “I want a steak to put on the grill”—they’ll direct you. And likely after you get to know them, they’ll give you their favorite recipes. And the more they get to know you, they’ll direct you to great meat on sale as well as tell you the best cooking method to produce the most flavor.
In my world—as a meat lover—the butchers in the meat market are right up there with the angels. Get to know your butcher (fancy name for a person who knows how to cut up meat animals). You may find it hard at first, but keep at it… sometimes one person in your store’s meat department might not know anything about meat, but another one knows a lot. And (one must remember): these are mostly people who like to cut up bloody animals with big sharp knives and table saws and I have found them happy to share their knowledge of their craft.
Picture caption: Cole Ward. Author of “The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat”