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10 tips for wise (and delicious) meat shopping

Meat is complicated, so we asked a team of experts to help us navigate the butcher shop.

Scott Gamm
by Scott Gamm, MainStreet contributor (@ScottGamm)

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Lessons from the recession tell us we can’t take anything for granted, not even groceries. More than ever, this is the time to examine your purchases closely and make sure you are getting the best bang for your buck. 

Meats in the grocery store or at the butcher are huge expenses — a common reason why your bill at the supermarket is higher than you may have expected. And most of us have had the frustrating experience of spending money on meat that tastes like cardboard.

READ: Savvy tips on grocery shopping for one

But knowing we're also coming up on grilling season, we asked a team of experts to help us all navigate the butcher shop to get the best cuts of the freshest meat at the best possible price. Read on to pump up your protein intake without pumping out your bank account.

Don’t be afraid. Butchers can be intimidating  but Kari Underly, author of The Art of Beef Cutting, encourages consumers to not be afraid of the butcher: “Think of him/her as your meat concierge who can guide you,” she says.

After all, the butcher is the one who can offer tips and inside secrets on how to cook the meat, too.

Bring questions. Remember: the butcher is the expert, so ask questions. Make sure the butcher is completely aware of your budget — otherwise he or she may recommend filet mignon. Kornblut also encourages consumers to use the supermarket’s meat department if you don't see anything pre-wrapped that appeals to you.

“Let's say you want fresh ground beef and don't see any that looks appealing," he says. "Pick out your own piece of chuck (not too lean or it will be dry) and ask them to grind it for you. They'll do it.”

He also suggests asking if there are any overstocked items to save money:  “Even if there aren’t, most meat purveyors will say yes just because they’re conditioned to sell. They don’t want you to leave. They’re happier if you get a good deal and they make less than if you leave empty-handed and they make nothing.”

“The only time not to ask is during a major holiday or other busy period. Busy stores don’t need to offer giveaways,” Kornblut says.

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It’s also up to you to find the best meats! “Don’t settle for what’s in the case — if you don’t see something, ask your butcher. You’d be surprised how many butchers are happy to custom cut pieces of meat that they have in the back,” says Justin Rosberg, Co-Founder and CEO of national butcher shop The Meat House.

Learn what to ask for. Try to study up on all of the different types of meat — especially the lesser-known kinds, which according to Whole Foods Market Global Meat Coordinator Theo Weening will “avoid waste and get a great beef dinner without breaking the bank.” Here are some different types of meats, courtesy of Weening:

  • Skirt steak: Cut from the underbelly, this long and lean steak is famous for its beefy flavor and juicy, toothsome texture. It can be dry if cooked past medium, so keep the heat high and the cooking time short — grill, cast-iron pan or broiler all work well.
  • Denver cut/beef chuck blade center steak: Chuck steaks aren’t known for being tender and juicy, but this chuck blade is. That’s because the butcher cuts it from a particularly tender muscle found in the chuck roll area of the animal. Decent marbling means it can be marinated and grilled or pan-seared; or savor its superbly rich flavor with very minimal cooking.
  • Beef short ribs (English style): These flavorful ribs come from the ends of the rib roast. There’s lots of meat here, although much of it is layered between fat.  Braising is a classic treatment for short ribs.
  • Tri-tip steak: Lean tri-tip comes from the sirloin, that meaty area between the loin (midsection) and round (hindquarters) of the animal. Like other sirloin cuts, it is very flavorful and remains tender if not overcooked. A grill or screaming-hot cast-iron skillet on the stovetop will sear the outside and leave the center a juicy medium-rare.
  • Flat iron steak: Good marbling and full beef flavor means it’s tender enough for grilling but robust enough for long, slow braising or roasting. A line of sinew sometimes runs horizontally through the cut; it will melt during slow-cooking, but should be cut out by your butcher if you want to grill the steak.

Use your smartphone. It’s a sign of the times — there is an app for just about everything. Among our favorite butcher-related apps is the Ask the Butcher app for the iPhone, which gives info on all the types of meat and has tons of recipes. And check out the Grill It! iPhone app, which features even more recipes on how to make a great barbecue meal. 

Look for marbling. The butcher counter can be intimidating when you see tons of different types of meat and they all look the same.

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Hank Kornblut of Mister Brisket recommends looking for marbling in the meat: “A grocery store may have 20 steaks in the showcase, but the ones that taste the best will have the most interior fat. Fat and flavor are synonymous. If you see beef tenderloin filets on display, and you need two, purchase the ones that have the best marbling. Ignore the ones that look very lean. They'll have less taste.”

Cutting costs money. Buying pre-cut meats from the butcher in many cases is more expensive than buying the raw option.

“If you buy pre-cut meat for kabobs it is going to cost you more than if you just buy a nice piece of top sirloin and cut it yourself at home,” Underly says.

And here’s one more expert tip from Underly: “A bone-in rib eye is pricey, but you can ask your butcher to cut a chuck eye steak, which is sliced from the area right next to where the rib eye is found, but is more affordable.”

There's no real bad time to buy. When buying meat, is there a good time of the week to start shopping? Ray Venezia, master butcher at Fairway Markets, says the time of day or week is not an issue: “When you shop in a store that cuts all of its own meat and poultry you stand a great chance of getting fresh product any day of the week.”

But what about in large grocery store chains?  “In those huge stores, where 60 percent of the products show up to the store already in a package, it also does not matter which day of the week you purchase it,” he adds. “These meats have a 10- to 14-day shelf life.”

Be wary of discounts. Those “too good to be true” deals even exist when it comes to meat. According to Kornblut, beware: “Discounted items usually have age. If a special is being run on a particular item, ask someone in the meat department whether the item is old or if the price simply dropped. Old meat is to be avoided. If you see ground beef products that look brownish in the cooler, stay away.”

But on the flip side, discounts are obviously a benefit to anyone on a tight budget. If you’re in the store and forgot to look for coupons but have your iPhone handy, download the free Grocery IQ app to find tons of coupons for grocery store items.

READ: 5 delicious budget-friendly recipes

You can also buy meat from the farmer. The butcher shop or supermarket isn’t the only place to buy meat. Cutting out the middleman by buying directly from a farmer will cut costs and improve taste, according to Wendy Knight, co-owner of Sleepy Panton Farms. “It’s still sliced up and butchered just like it is when you buy in a store,” she says, adding that “with a farmer you are buying it in bulk — so you are ordering a whole or half pig/cow which you can pick up or have it delivered to you. You may need a large freezer, but some farmers have options to deliver a certain amount of meat each week.”

Knight reminds consumers that buying in bulk doesn’t mean you will have an entire carcass delivered to your doorstep: “It’s butchered, wrapped and cut into slices — just as you would find at the grocery store.”

Give the meat special sizzle. So you spent money on meat — now what?

Rosberg suggests the following before cooking the meat: “Don’t simply throw the steak you’ve chosen on the grill. Butchers will recommend pan frying the meat with a little butter on each side and then cooking it in the oven. This complete contact with a pan caramelizes the steak with a burned butter coating.”