4 Questions to Ask at the Grocery Store Butcher Counter
Knowing the answers to these questions will help you purchase the best quality meat.
Independent, artisanal butcher shops can be found throughout the United States, but the fact remains that many more American shoppers get their cuts of beef, chicken, pork, and lamb from the counters at their local supermarkets. The good news is that plenty of mainstream grocery stores carry high-quality fresh meat, and they employ talented butchers with extensive knowledge of their products.
That's why, when you head to the supermarket to make a meat purchase, you shouldn't hesitate to ask the butcher to guide you in the right direction. We asked a group of professional butchers to share the meat-related questions that every grocery store customer should have in their back pocket, and these four queries topped the list.
1. Where does the meat come from?
If you want to ensure that you're getting the best possible meat from your grocery store butcher, you should ask for information about where the meat comes from. For example: "How was the animal raised, and on which farm?" or "What was the animal fed?"
"It's very important to understand the supply chain to [determine] that you're getting the freshest and the best quality cuts of meat. It's always nice to know the story and exactly where your meat is coming from [to get a sense of the journey] from the farm to your dinner table," explains president and professional butcher Ray Rastelli, Jr. of Rastelli Foods Group in New Jersey.
Hunter, chef, and butchery blogger Brian Casey of KnifeGeeky views questions about the meat's provenance as a good way to ascertain the knowledge base of the butcher, telling us that "not only is it important to know where your meat is coming from for ethical and sustainability reasons, [but] you also want to know that your grocery store butcher is knowledgeable. [Speaking] as a chef, if my suppliers don't know where the food [that they're selling] is from, how can I trust the quality?"
However, Casey cautions against judging too harshly if a butcher-counter employee doesn't have all of the answers. "Sometimes, the butcher department will have a clerk working the counter after the butcher themselves has finished their shift. If that person is unable to answer, be kind. They aren't paid a ton and are likely still learning. Instead, look at the wrapped meats in the case and see if the label lists where the animal is from. Most American beef, for example, will be marked as made in the USA."
2. What's the grade of the meat?
When buying beef, it's important to take the "grade" of the meat into account, and a good grocery store butcher will be able to give you those details. "There are different grades of beef, and not all of them are made equal! If you are a connoisseur of quality meats, you will want to know the grade," Rastelli says. "[Options include] Prime, Choice, and Select, among others. Most quality markets will offer nothing of a lower grade than Choice, with some selections of Prime. The difference [between the grades involves] the marbling within the meat, which adds flavor and tenderness."
3. Do you freshly grind your meat daily and cut the meat to-order?
The freshness of the meat offered at the grocery store should be a top priority for shoppers. When you're scoping out the offerings at the butcher counter, take a moment to ask the butcher whether they cut meat to-order in addition to putting pre-cut pieces in the refrigerated meat case.
To explain why he deems to-order cuts of meat such a crucial responsibility of a butcher, chef/instructor and trained butcher Christopher Arturo of the Institute of Culinary Education tells us that "some supermarkets fabricate most of their on-hand product to make sure everything is [already] weighed and priced to streamline operations. My butcher has a few cuts to show, but always has a full strip, ribeye, or Porterhouse ready to go. The size of a steak greatly affects the end result. For example, searing a one-inch Porterhouse properly on both sides, combined with rendering the fat in the sirloin side, might yield you a medium steak. That's fine if that's what you desire, but with carry-over cooking, you might get into the medium-plus, medium-well range."
Need to buy some ground meat? Ask the butcher whether the grinding process happened that day on-site, advises meat supervisor Peter Pernal of Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace in New York and New Jersey: "It's important to ask this question because ground meat sold in most grocery stores is not produced within the store [and is instead] produced in large quantities in large factories, then shipped to the supermarket. At Uncle Giuseppe's, we do not subscribe to this process."
4. Can you recommend a cut of meat for a particular dish?
As professional meat experts, butchers — including those at the grocery store — can give you guidance if you're excited to whip up boeuf bourguignon or steak tartare or ragù Bolognese, but have no idea which cut of meat works best in the context of that dish.
"Customers should look for overall knowledge and education [from their butchers], not only [knowledge] about the meat and the animals themselves, but also knowledge of options. If you give the butcher your general preferences — lean versus fatty, certain cuts you prefer, and so on — or tell them which dish you're cooking, they should give you [specific] recommendations," insists owner/executive chef Sam Marvin of Echo & Rig steakhouse and butcher shop in Las Vegas, Nev.