We`ve been eating less and less meat lately. It will continue to be a part of our diet (including moose and deer) but we are choosing to balance our consumption of it with a lot more vegetables. We`re also trying to source far more ethical, local, grass-fed, extrinsic-farmed (outdoor) product and `we`ll share more on that journey later.
The single best tip I can share about improving the quality of meat is to get to know a butcher by name and ask lots of questions. A great butcher is part educator and a passionate teacher who knows their topic is irreplaceable. If a butcher isn`t willing to spend some time helping you understand what they are selling (partially excusable if there`s a line 5 people deep of course), consider going elsewhere.
My first experience engaging with a butcher was about 5 years ago from the St. Lawrence Market. I was third or fourth in line and I listened to the people in front of me. Most talked to him like he was a mechanical robot picking items off the assembly line. Each pointed, snapped and even snarled what they wanted at him. It was tough to watch.
When he greeted me I reached over the counter and offered my hand and introduced myself. I could tell the experience was a little jarring. We spoke for a few minutes as I learned a bit about him, his day and his excitement for meat. I informed him I`d be cooking for 2 people and asked him to pick something for me. His eyes lit up and he dove into the glass-fronted chest and emerged with the one rib eye that everyone vocally avoided; a grey gnarled mess sitting on a sea of bright red buts of meat.
When it comes to meat, fresh it not best.
Fresh meat is tougher than it`s aged counterpart. It contains more moisture which, ironically will make for a dried steak when cooked and freezing it will result in an undesirable pool of liquid on your plate (a good steak will defrost with almost no liquid loss at all).
An aged piece of meat (which is to say that it is hung in cold storage) has far less moisture content, will cook faster and, after resting, will actually be a juicy tasting meal for you and yours.
The second tip to a better steak is buying aged meat. Meat that is hung for 2-weeks is the sheer minimum, 3 weeks is desirable and more is a bonus. Ageing will allow the fibres to break down and moisture to evaporate from the meat. It is hung on the bone with all fat in tact and will lose a dramatic amount of weight in the process (up to 30% in 3 weeks) which is why many grocery stores and even small farmers don`t do this. Expect to pay more for less to account for this `loss.`
A well-aged steak will have a purplish tinge and be a lot darker than what you see at the average grocery store. These were aged (by the butcher) for almost 5 weeks:
I paid $13 a pound for these rib-eyes (this was about a pound-and-a-half). Assuming they lost 30% of their moisture (they likely lost more), the equivalent cost per pound before they lost the liquid is $9.45 per pound for grass-fed rib eye. I`ll gladly consume 30% less steak for the price of what I`d normally pay if it`s considerably more flavorful – and it was.
You will be very hard pressed (and I dare say it is likely impossible) to find this type of thing at a large chain. Many large retailers mark their meat as `wet-aged` which is not the same thing as dry-aged or hung. Wet-aged is arguably worse than not ageing the meat at all as it essentially sits in a sealed vacuum bag marinating in it`s own blood and lost liquid and does not allow air to break down the fibres of the meat to produce a more desireable texture. The advantage (to the retailer) is no weight loss and, therefore, higher sales price.
Also know that butchery and farming are two different things. There are a lot of great low-production farmers who deserve a tonne of credit for their work who make less-than-ideal choices for the preparation of their meat; generally this is through partnership with a mediocre butcher or doing the work themselves.
There are many more tips and I don`t want to seem flippant about my passion for consuming more ethically produced meat and more vegetables overall. But that`s not the purpose of this post and talking to your butcher and learning about their ageing process will open many more doors of discovery of what you are putting on your plate.
There are so many sources of education around meat, animal husbandry and butchery out there. The River Cottage Meat Book is a fascinating study of the topic including butchery, choosing a butcher, ethics, farming practice, hunting (and ethics), preparation, recipes, techniques and more. We`ll share more on it in a late post but it`s too good to be missed for those looking to learn more about any of this.