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How To Talk To The Butcher

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Do you know the difference between a Tri-Tip and a Flatiron? We're guessing the answer is probably no, which means you should be consulting with a butcher. While talking to a butcher may seem like an antiquated notion, it's one that (for meat eaters, at least) should be part of our grocery shopping routine.

Since butcher shops are making a come back (in a really small sort of way), it's just the right time to refresh this skill. To put you at ease with the guy holding a big cleaver we talked to Jeffrey de Picciotto, Head Butcher at Dickson's Farmstand Meats and creator of FudeHouse.com. He equipped us with everything we need to know to walk into a butcher shop confidently -- and walk out with what will be an amazing dinner. Here's what he had to say:

Why do you think so few people go to the butcher for meat?

Unfortunately, I think intimidation is a big part of it. I've seen many people walk into the shop and clam up in front of the meat case. Some people just stare at a distance. Others speak in a meek voice. It's true, the meat can be intimidating (or awe-inspiring), but we're nice people and we're here to help. I think most people find the cognitive distance that pre-packaged meat provides comforting, more manageable and thusly more approachable.

I can't blame them, the physical distance between butchers and consumers has quite literally made butchers less approachable. We're stuck behind tall meat cases, or behind glass, or nowhere in sight. It's sad. Old-school mom-and-pop or father-and-son butcher shops have been on the decline for 40 years, and it's not until recently that some really fantastic butcher shops have revived the craft in a really important way. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a good butcher shop. But these mighty new shops are popping up around the country and doing wonders to help break down the walls between consumers, meat and butchers.

What's the biggest mistake people make when they order?

Mistake #1: Not asking questions.
Mistake #2: Not having an open mind. Those customers who are slaves to an ideology or slaves to a recipe only do themselves a disservice.

What if I don't know what I'm looking for? If I know absolutely nothing about cuts of meat, should I admit that to my butcher?

Yes, absolutely. I'll know if you don't know what you're talking about. Trying to fake it makes it awkward for you and me - I've seen this in everyone from chefs to vegetarians -- just admit it so we're all on the same page. It's ok if you don't know what you're looking for, or even if you just simply don't know, use us as a resource.

When people aren't sure about what they are looking for, there are a few questions I always ask that quickly narrow our options:

Do you want to eat beef, pork, lamb or poultry?
Do you want something bone-in or boneless?
How do you want to cook? Grill, pan sear, roast, braise, broil, boil, etc.?
Do you want something with big meat flavor or something more mild? This same question could also be phrased: Do you want something more toothsome or more tender?... but no matter what people really want, they will rarely select away from "tenderness." Everyone wants tender meat, but tenderness and flavor are usually, not always but usually, inversely proportional.

For those of us penny-pinchers, convince us why buying butcher-shop meat is better than the cheaper, pre-packaged stuff.

This is simple. Well-priced quality over cheap quantity. Eat less meat overall... and make it the good stuff. It's worth talking to you butcher about some of the lesser known cuts because he or she can most probably turn you on to some really tasty, tender cuts that are a hell of a lot cheaper than what you're thinking. There are literally hundreds of pounds of great steaks and roasts in a steer besides the expensive ribeye, strip and tenderloin. Going to your butcher shop doesn't have to be any more expensive than going to the supermarket. It's all about finding your favorites -- don't just like filet mignon because everyone says to, you should explore.

Going to your butcher provides you the freedom to get exactly what you want, exactly how you want it, and exactly how much of what you want. There's no freedom in the pre-packagaed stuff. No portion control. That's their trick; you're buying how much they want to give you. And, if you are at all conscious about the troubled state of the industrialized food system in the United States, I very seriously doubt the cheaper, pre-packaged stuff will align with your personal meat morality in any way.

What cuts of meat should people know about?

There are so many fantastic cuts of meat that are more flavorful and better-priced than the usual cuts with which everyone's familiar. Many cuts go by many different names, I encourage everyone to search out these beef cuts: zabuton/chuck flap, sirloin flap, sirloin filet and tri-tip/newport steak... to name a few.

It's important to realize that the grain a specific muscle along with the way the butcher cuts it is an indicator of how it should be cooked.

What should you look for in your meat?

Of course, marbling is the traditional marker of quality -- but remember marbling is a marker of one thing only: fat content. It tells you nothing about about breeding, rearing, feed, slaughter, freshness or sustainability, to name a few. You should pick which one of these many factors is important to you and choose your meat accordingly.

For me, the structure of the meat is most important, because it is a general indicator of overall integrity and a sign that that animal was well taken care of in every step of its life and death. Structure is how well the meat holds up to my knife, how it feels in my hands and reacts to my fingers, and how it looks to my eye. It should not be floppy. Yes, fat quality and abundance has something to do with structure, but even the most marbled piece of meat can lose structure if the slaughter wasn't clean, or if storage wasn't ideal. Structure is one of those things that can get messed up with unideal circumstances or a misstep at any point along the chain, so it's a great catchall. If your butcher won't let you get up close and personal with your hands, use your eyes. Ask yourself: Do I wanna eat that?

Otherwise, you should look out for the general cleanliness of the meat case. The smell of the shop environment should be clean and fresh. The meat itself should look vibrant and red with no excess blood pooling, dripping or hardening! Don't get nervous if you see some brown coloring on your meat; it's a natural oxidation reaction and is completely safe. So a little brown is ok as long as the meat still has a good, clean scent. Sometimes people ask, "How do I know if it's spoiled?" Don't worry, you'd know.

In an era where we hope to minimize our impact on the environment, what is the most sustainable meat choice people can make?

Buying directly from local farms or from butcher shops who deal directly with farmers and slaughterhouses is really the best way to go.

Buying whole animals is a very sustainable approach as well. We raise the whole animal and slaughter the whole animal, so wouldn't the most sustainable approach be to buy the whole animal? Get a bunch of friends together, buy a whole steer or pig, divide the cuts among the group (your farmer or butcher can help you), and pack your freezer with meat for a year!

Is it appropriate to ask your butcher for cooking tips with the cut of meat you're buying?

Yes. We work with this stuff all day and we take it home at night. You know, I once asked a chef-friend of mine the trick to cooking a perfect steak, and he told me that the reason he's able to so effortlessly cook a steak is not because he read about how to do it some cookbook, but because he's cooked 10,000 steaks in his life. Chances are your butcher has an idea or two on how to cook (and slice) what you're buying. And I always want to hear a customer's ideas on how he or she plans to prepare it. It's fun, and expands my horizons.

In terms of asking a butcher for extra favors, how far is too far? Ex: Cubing the meat, trimming, trussing, boning, etc. And does it cost extra?

Cubing, trussing, tying, boning and butterflying should not cost extra. If a butcher tries to charge you extra, don't allow it. It's part of the job -- that's what we're there for. As far as trimming goes, I have a picture in my mind of what each and every cut should look like -- the ideal, the standard, the "spec" -- and I strive to achieve that standard every time I cut. You often find customers who desire you to do some unconventional things with their meat, like completely de-fatting (or "denuding") it. That's fine. All I ask is that you allow me to weigh the cut at my spec, pay that price, and then I will do with it whatever it is you want.

Listen to your butcher. If he or she dissuades you from cutting a piece of meat in a certain manner it is probably for good reason. We want you to have a great eating experience around a table with family and friends, and I wouldn't want to do something to the meat with my knife that would interfere with that.

Another point of note is that some butcher shops have some house rules. That is, the way they do things, or the way they cut, or the way they don't cut, or the way they won't cut. These rules are not in place to create obstacles or frustrations, but trust that they are in place to sustain the viability of the meat case and the business. In truth, from my perspective, it's really about finding the balance between making the customer extremely happy and not allowing the flow of inventory to grow wasteful.

Don't worry about asking your butcher for these "extra favors," but be conscious of if the shop is especially busy or if it's dangerously close to closing time. I'm not always the most excited to laboriously clean and cube a tenderloin at closing time only to find out you're going to mash it up for your cat. There is nothing wrong with calling ahead of your visit and placing an order. I find I plan my day each morning for efficiency, and the sooner I know exactly what you want and how you want it, the faster you're going to get it.

Is it customary to tip the butcher?

A tip is never expected, but appreciated. You should tip your butcher if you feel he or she has gone above and beyond. Some cuts are far more labor intensive than others to fabricate and the most meaningful tips have been those I've received from customers who also recognize: "Hey man, that was a lot of work for you, fun for me to watch, and it looks beautiful. Thanks." It's more about the relationship you forge with your butcher, and at the end of the day it's behooves you to become friends with your butcher. Tipping does not give you license to be difficult, but just like with any service industry gig, a great relationship may get the you inside track to some killer steaks.

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