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Supermarket steaks vs. Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe


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Do you find any difference between meat you buy at the supermarket vs. meat you buy at a local butcher shop?

The other day I bought a Porterhouse Steak at a local supermarket. My first sign that I shouldn't have put the steak in my cart was the fact that it was more 'pink' than 'red' in color. (The redder the meat tends to mean it is fresher).

The second clue that I failed to take seriously was that the steak had been injected with 'a 10% solution.' Markets and meat distributors regularly inject their meats with solutions so that they will have more staying power while sitting in a meat case.

I was so crazy about having a charred porterhouse off the grill that I lowered my standards for a great steak and bought this hapless piece of meat.

Well-I built the perfect charcoal fire in my Weber and slapped the steak on the grill. The end result was awful. I only grilled the steak a few minutes on each side, hoping for a medium-rare finished piece of meat. It didn't get the classic black char I want on grilled steaks, it was rubbery and the color of the meat was grey. Grey in part because it was over-cooked. But I often find that supermarket meats that are low grade and injected with a 'solution' tend to be grey when cooked. It seems that the 'grey' color comes from the injected solution. My guess is because the solution has a lot of salt in it. Oversalted raw meats tend to turn grey when cooked.

But like everyone I don't always have the time, money or even think to stop at the butcher shop. I tend to go straight to the meat case in the supermarket and put a steak in my cart without really taking the time to look it over first.

On occasion I will buy a whole tenderloin or strip loin and butcher it myself. I can buy the whole cuts as choice grade and cut the steaks to my own personal preference-that means thick as in a 2" New York cut from the strip loin. I don't do it much because it is a bit hard to swallow paying upwards of $75 bucks for a huge piece of meat. Actually, if you buy a whole tenderloin and cut it yourself it is much cheaper than buying individual steaks. I can find a whole tenderloin at Costco for about $8.99 a pound versus $12.99 a pound for individually cut steaks. But two steaks for $18 bucks is still easier to handle than a huge tenderloin for $75. I know, stupid reasoning. While the whole cuts are packaged in plastic and still have the dreaded 'solution' added, they seem to produce a finished steak with better results than the aforementioned lone Porterhouse I bought.

The ultimate steak experience for me is to drive about an hour East to North Idaho to an old fashioned butcher shop in Couer d'Alene. 'Tim' the butcher actually offers both choice and prime cuts of steak. And he only buys local beef that is raised naturally. Tim's steaks give me the results that I am looking for when they are grilled-charred black on the outside, medium-rare on the inside and incredibly juicy and tender. It is certainly worth the drive and the cost.

Do you buy steaks at your supermarket? Do your supermarket steaks grill up the way you want them to? Do you ever buy steaks at an old fashioned butcher shop? Are they better than supermarket steaks? Is it worth the extra cost to buy a naturally raised steak from a local butcher?

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I buy the vast majority of my steaks at the super market and have no problems with them at all. Only when I want a really special steak do I go to a butcher. I find that by just stopping for a minute to look at and feel the meat I can get consistently good steaks with no problems.

Rocky

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I go to a local Mennonite butcher because it is both local and easy and better than most of what I can buy in the store.

If you pick the right grocery store, though, meat can be pretty good. You can find "choice" at Costco, sometimes, and even Giant/Martin's has some pretty good stuff.

“Don't kid yourself, Jimmy. If a cow ever got the chance, he'd eat you and everyone you care about!”
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I don't eat a lot of meat anymore, so when I do I want it to taste like something. And I want it free of antibiotics and hormones. So nowadays I either get my meat from a butcher who has such meat or, at least from Whole Foods. I am also picky about it, choosing exactly the steak that has the marbling I like. I'd rather eat well marbled beef less often than unsatisfactory beef often.

I dislike meat that has been frozen. It seems to me that alters the texture. This is a disadvantage for me as I'd like to use the organic, grassfed meat that is now available. However, it usually comes prepackaged in amounts to large for singles and/or frozen. :angry:

"Half of cooking is thinking about cooking." ---Michael Roberts

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I'd never been terribly upset with a supermarket steak since around here they're never packed with a "solution." Almost all the pork in my supermarket are, however.

Recently, I decided only to eat pastured, humane, natural, etc., meat from local producers that I buy at my farmer's market or co-op. I agree with Mottmott that I'd rather have unfrozen meat, but then again I think this meat has better flavor even after being frozen and I've never noticed any glaring texture issues. Sometimes, if I talk to them well enough in advance, I can get local pork and beef suppliers to hook me up with unfrozen product, but its rare that that happens. Then, I do notice a slight difference, especially with the beef, but I'm not really troubled by it.

Locally produced and naturally raised meat, though, for me, beats supermarket hands down, even when frozen. Also, I'm not so sure that some supermarket meat hasn't been previously frozen anyway. Locally produced meat, whether from a butcher shop or from the producer, seems to me to be a better product with a lot more thought and care put into it.

josh

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Butcher shops are a better place to buy meats, but unfortunately they can be hard to find at times. The big Red Meat Scare years ago caused many to close. At least around here, and this is cattle country (Oklahoma). We are fortunate to have a family owned mini-chain supermarket nearby that has a butcher shop in their meat department. It is attended by butchers who will gladly do special cuts if you would like. The beef in their case is only prime certified Angus that they have cut from the sides of beef. If you'd like,say, a porterhouse, they will put the tray of them on the top of the counter for you to choose one. No surprises like when you get the plastic and styro wrapped meat home to only turn it over and find out that the other side doesn't look too swift, hidden fat that should have been trimmed, etc. However the wrapped beef that their stores sell in the usual meat cases nearby is all choice Angus and is good as well, depending on what you're doing with it. For a good grilled steak I always go with the prime. The family/company raises their own Angus locally so it's not beef that has traveled for weeks in transport. They even have U.S. raised wagyu occasionally and I have broken down and spent the $40.00 a pound a couple of times.

To me, even if you have to drive a ways to get good cuts of beef it is worth it. I also wonder if the porterhouse you bought was a select grade as opposed to choice?

Of course, now I'm hungry for beef and luckily have all I need to make some individual beef wellies tonight. Yum.

"Beef - it's what's for dinner"

Edited by mrsteak (log)
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Butcher shops are a better place to buy meats, but unfortunately they can be hard to find at times. The big Red Meat Scare years ago caused many to close. At least around here, and this is cattle country (Oklahoma).

The situation is similar here in Madison, Wisconsin. There are only two butcher shops I know of and they don't seem to get enough business. Luckily, some meat producers make monthly deliveries or sell at the year round farmers market. Their meat is better and it's easy enough to get here so I don't really have much of an excuse not to buy it. I'd rather support local businesses committed to their craft anyway.

josh

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I recently switched to buying most of our meat directly from farmers. Although they are not certified organic, their farming practices are humane (lots of pasture space) and old-school (feeding animals what they're supposed to eat, like grass for beef), they only medicate when absolutely necessary (animals do get sick sometimes), and they try to use organic products as much as they can. We have been very happy with the product, and I love that my money is going directly to them and their kids!

We are getting lamb, beef, chicken, and pork from them (we did have an unusual issue with the pork--see my spotted pork topic in the cooking forum--but it was resolved in a most appropriate manner). As for the cost, it ends up being a lot cheaper than supermarket meat. The one downside for most people (an upside to me) to buying whole or half animals is that you end up with a lot of cuts that you might not normally buy. So your menu planning is a bit less-flexible (because it depends on what's in the freezer), but encourages much more creativity! Plus you need to leave time for defrosting (I find most cuts will defrost within four hours in a sink full of cold water--a bit longer for giant roasts, although if you want to refreeze the final product, you should always thaw in the fridge).

At this point we have not one, but two upright freezers in the basement. My husband also hunts, so we usually have venison in the freezers as well.

I do take on the task of doing most of the butchering myself, although I could get the animals fully butchered to my specifications if I wanted to (all of their other customers do this--I'm the exception, and it does take having a very open schedule to be able to pick the carcass up fresh when it's ready).

I carefully vacuum seal all cuts, and then freeze them in a way so that they freeze quickly (lots of air circulation around each piece). I'm actually thinking of trying to find a used flash freezer, so they can freeze even more quickly (the quicker the cuts freeze, the less damage to the meat).

I have found little difference between the cuts when they're fresh and the cuts after having been frozen. I think most people's experience with frozen meat is meat they stuffed into an already full freezer (so it froze slowly without proper air circulation) or frozen products from the supermarket (which often get partially thawed and then refrozen, and thus somewhat freezer-burned, with the freezer doors opening and closing all the time, customers leaving them open, things coming off the truck and sitting in the loading dock for too long before being put in the freezer, the time in the shopping cart and car on the way home, etc.).

If you do purchase farm-raised meat already frozen, be sure that it's getting transported to you in a cooler, and bring a cooler to transport it from your pickup location to your home to ensure that it stays fully frozen the whole time. Also, when you get home, I would recommend unwrapping it from the butcher paper, and repackaging via a vacuum sealer.

But in response to your original question, I do think there *can* be a huge difference between supermarket meat and that from a butcher, but not all local butchers are getting meat much different from the supermarkets, and some supermarkets actually have fairly decent meat (before my switch to the farmers, I was fairly happy with the meat at Costco, for example). The *enormous*l difference is between meat raised by large corporations and that raised by family farmers. So support your local farmers and either buy direct from them or buy from a butcher that gets whole animals from small, local sources! Try eatwild.com to find a farmer near you.

Basically my long rant about buying direct from farmers is to encourage those who want better quality meat, but who might not be able to afford the high-end grocers or butchers who carry the stuff, to know that with space for an extra freezer or two, a vacuum sealer, and some extra time for packaging and planning, you can get spectacular meat for a reasonable price (but it does take some getting used to shelling out, for example $600 for half a cow or $500 for a whole pig). And also that properly frozen, there should not be much of a difference between fresh and frozen meat.

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I recently switched to buying most of our meat directly from farmers. Although they are not certified organic, their farming practices are humane (lots of pasture space) and old-school (feeding animals what they're supposed to eat, like grass for beef), they only medicate when absolutely necessary (animals do get sick sometimes), and they try to use organic products as much as they can. We have been very happy with the product, and I love that my money is going directly to them and their kids!

We are getting lamb, beef, chicken, and pork from them (we did have an unusual issue with the pork--see my spotted pork topic in the cooking forum--but it was resolved in a most appropriate manner). As for the cost, it ends up being a lot cheaper than supermarket meat. The one downside for most people (an upside to me) to buying whole or half animals is that you end up with a lot of cuts that you might not normally buy. So your menu planning is a bit less-flexible (because it depends on what's in the freezer), but encourages much more creativity! Plus you need to leave time for defrosting (I find most cuts will defrost within four hours in a sink full of cold water--a bit longer for giant roasts, although if you want to refreeze the final product, you should always thaw in the fridge).

At this point we have not one, but two upright freezers in the basement. My husband also hunts, so we usually have venison in the freezers as well.

I do take on the task of doing most of the butchering myself, although I could get the animals fully butchered to my specifications if I wanted to (all of their other customers do this--I'm the exception, and it does take having a very open schedule to be able to pick the carcass up fresh when it's ready).

I carefully vacuum seal all cuts, and then freeze them in a way so that they freeze quickly (lots of air circulation around each piece). I'm actually thinking of trying to find a used flash freezer, so they can freeze even more quickly (the quicker the cuts freeze, the less damage to the meat).

I have found little difference between the cuts when they're fresh and the cuts after having been frozen. I think most people's experience with frozen meat is meat they stuffed into an already full freezer (so it froze slowly without proper air circulation) or frozen products from the supermarket (which often get partially thawed and then refrozen, and thus somewhat freezer-burned, with the freezer doors opening and closing all the time, customers leaving them open, things coming off the truck and sitting in the loading dock for too long before being put in the freezer, the time in the shopping cart and car on the way home, etc.).

If you do purchase farm-raised meat already frozen, be sure that it's getting transported to you in a cooler, and bring a cooler to transport it from your pickup location to your home to ensure that it stays fully frozen the whole time. Also, when you get home, I would recommend unwrapping it from the butcher paper, and repackaging via a vacuum sealer.

But in response to your original question, I do think there *can* be a huge difference between supermarket meat and that from a butcher, but not all local butchers are getting meat much different from the supermarkets, and some supermarkets actually have fairly decent meat (before my switch to the farmers, I was fairly happy with the meat at Costco, for example). The *enormous*l difference is between meat raised by large corporations and that raised by family farmers. So support your local farmers and either buy direct from them or buy from a butcher that gets whole animals from small, local sources! Try eatwild.com to find a farmer near you.

Basically my long rant about buying direct from farmers is to encourage those who want better quality meat, but who might not be able to afford the high-end grocers or butchers who carry the stuff, to know that with space for an extra freezer or two, a vacuum sealer, and some extra time for packaging and planning, you can get spectacular meat for a reasonable price (but it does take some getting used to shelling out, for example $600 for half a cow or $500 for a whole pig). And also that properly frozen, there should not be much of a difference between fresh and frozen meat.

Anna-thank you so much for the info. I totally agree with all of your points and I really appreciate your insight. I've often thought of doing my own butchering.

I consider myself a pretty informed foodie and knowledgeable about a lot of products, including beef. My family has a history in the cattle business and I know how to cook meat. But I had not really devoted the time and energy I should have in the past when buying steaks. I have heard all of the press that locally raised, grass-fed beef raised naturally results in better a better steak. i just never took the time I should have to see if that was true. Now I know it is.

The bad porterhouse I cooked was due to rushing to fast through the meat case at a supermarket that didn't have a meat counter staffed with a human being. I selected a poor steak that was more pink than red, I didn't examine the fat marbling to insure there was a good ratio of fat in the meat, and I didn't examine the label closely enough to check on the grade of the steak.

After opening up the garbage sack in 102 heat yesterday afternoon and examing the label from the porterhouse package, I realized it was a poor grade-select and the steak was at its 'best before this date' age. So I rushed to buy a porterhouse without making sure it was really fresh, thick, marbled and at least 'choice' grade. The 10% added solution injected into the steak didn't help.

I think I answered my original question of 'supermarket beef vs. ye olde butcher shoppe' with a little test I did yesterday.

I still bought a steak at a supermarket, but this market has a butcher counter with trained butchers. They buy local beef and cut the steaks by hand. They only sell choice grade and will order prime grade on request. Their steaks are as thick or thin as you would like them, and the meat is not injected with preservative solutions.

So I learned my lesson and in the future I will always buy steaks from this particular store or buy it at the source from a local farmer and cut the meat myself.

Don't stop commenting here even though I think I solved my steak dilemma. I'm still interested in your thoughts.

Here are a few photos:

This is the Strip Loin Steak I bought from the meat counter. Thick and with plenty of marbling, graded USDA 'Choice.'

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The steak is seasoned with olive oil, cracked black pepper and a dusting of Cajun seasoning just before searing in a cast iron skillet.

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This is the steak after cooking. I seared it on high heat in the cast iron skillet for 4 minutes per side, then into a 550 degree oven for another 2 minutes per side. I let it rest on a wire rack for about 3-4 minutes before serving.

gallery_41580_4407_39176.jpg

The finished Strip Loin Steak.

gallery_41580_4407_13209.jpg

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Just to digress on the whole freezing thing. When my Dad was in the wholesale meatpacking biz I often heard heated discussion about current versus projected market price of beef and that they were going to buy extra loads and freeze the sides of beef (buy low sell high)- so I wonder if alot of end packaged product we take home may have been frozen, de-frosted to break down, etc. and also how much taste is affected by the levels of care in all the interim handling. Never having had grass-fed and minimally handled beef, I am thinking I need to explore. Thanks for the discussion.

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One other thing to remember about grass-fed beef is that it is leaner than grain-fed beef. So if you are looking for the perfectly marbled steak, you are probably not going to find it with grass-fed, grass-finished beef (you will if the grass-fed beef is grain-finished, which a lot of farmers offer, but you don't get the same health benefits in the meat).

I prefer the fully grass-fed (both for taste and for health issues), but it does require some adjustments in cooking. Mainly careful attention to cooking temperature depending on the cut, and be very careful of overcooking steaks. Treat grass-fed beef as you would venison or bison, as it dries out and overcooks similarly to both of those meats. I don't think grass-fed steaks would be good for someone who likes their meat medium or above (however slow-cooked, braised cuts would be fine).

For some of the leaner roasts (like top round), I often lie slices of salt pork on top of the roast as it cooks so it doesn't dry out (I also do this with venison roasts). You can also lard the cuts if you have a larding needle. Marinating overnight or using a wet rub for many of the cuts also helps retain moisture. And sous-vide cooking works awesome for grass-fed beef (remember you can slightly undercook and then sear for a nice brown crust after the sous-vide process).

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I think this is a good discussion. While I started with the topic of supermarket steak vs. old-fashioned butcher shop steak, certainly the issue of the breed of cattle and the way the cattle are fed comes into play in this discussion.

I've heard a lot of talk lately about the grass-fed/grass-finished issue as opposed to the old method of grass-fed/corn-finished cattle. It all seems to be a part of a move on the part of ranchers, retailers and the general public to take back some control of our beef supply from the mega-factory beef production companies. And it seems to be paying off in the availability of better quality steaks in the market.

The porterhouse I cooked that turned out so bad was an example of beef from the mass-market distributor. I think it was a steak that came from a mixed-breed steer that wasn't given a proper diet, probably processed before the steer was finished fattening up-or after the steer was past his prime. The steak was probably cut, gassed, packaged and transported miles from where the animal was born. That isn't to say that this type of processing doesn't deliver a good steak, but I think it is more susceptible to giving consumers poorer quality beef than the old-fashioned way of raising cattle.

The delicious strip steak I showed in the photo above is an example of a local producer selling beef to a market that cuts choice quality steaks from whole strip loins. That's the old-fashioned way.

When I was a kid my Grandfather and Great Uncle raised both Shorthorns and Hereford cattle in Prineville, Oregon in the central part of the state. They had small operations and those were the days when many ranchers had small feedlots on their own farms. The cattle spent the winter feasting on the alfalfa we had baled the previous summer.

In spring the cattle fed on a fresh crop of alfalfa in lowland pastures on the ranch. and then spent the summer's high up in the mountains of Eastern Oregon grazing on federal lands.

They didn't take the cattle off their pasture lands and ship them to a huge feedlot miles away. Many of the ranchers had their own small feedlots where they fattened their cattle before they were shipped off for processing.

As ranching moved into the 70's, my Great Uncle could no longer afford to run his own feedlot so that is when he started to ship his cattle to a commerical feedlot and the feedlot then sent the finished cattle on to a processing plant. From what I remember that is about the time we saw the mega-feedlot/production houses take over.

Fast forward to today and here we are, cattle ranching is coming back to its roots. Many small operations are getting back to the methods of raising and feeding cattle that my family used decades ago.

And so it seems to go with our beef today, and our spinach, our radishes and our chickens. If we buy quality products that are raised properly and fed a proper diet, we should have a tasty New York Strip Loin on our dinner plate.

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I wonder about the colour test – meat packaging can be flushed out with gas to keep the oxygen away from the meat and has the effect of slowing oxidation (fresher meat). Also, the lights used in the supermarket counters stop the meat from going dark. Don’t know if someone has some technical explanation for this, but both these treatments keep the meet pink, so the colour of meat is a probably a poor indication of quality.

I was interested in the comment on grey meat. In the UK, apart from a few specialist wet-aged packs, there is no ‘liquid’ added (at least to beef), but supermarket beef often cooks out grey, even when correctly cooked for thickness. I wondered if this might be related to the steaks having been frozen before selling.

What does confuse me (or maybe its part of the explanation) is that a rib-eye cut with two different muscles can produce one that is pink after cooking and the other part, grey and grainy tasting.

As there are so few traditional butchers left in the hinterland of London, it’s hard to comment on differences with supermarket cuts.

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I wonder about the colour test – meat packaging can be flushed out with gas to keep the oxygen away from the meat and has the effect of slowing oxidation (fresher meat).  Also, the lights used in the supermarket counters stop the meat from going dark.  Don’t know if someone has some technical explanation for this, but both these treatments keep the meet pink, so the colour of meat is a probably a poor indication of quality.

I was interested in the comment on grey meat.  In the UK, apart from a few specialist wet-aged packs, there is no ‘liquid’ added (at least to beef), but supermarket beef often cooks out grey, even when correctly cooked for thickness.  I wondered if this might be related to the steaks having been frozen before selling.

What does confuse me (or maybe its part of the explanation) is that a rib-eye cut with two different muscles can produce one that is pink after cooking and the other part, grey and grainy tasting.

As there are so few traditional butchers left in the hinterland of London, it’s hard to comment on differences with supermarket cuts.

I haven't been to London for about 15 years, but when I was there I seem to remember many small traditional butcher shops. Are you finding the tradition of English butchers is withering away? It is getting harder and harder for us to find traditional butchers in America. Also, is Lidgate butchers still in London? I remember that was one of the butcher shops I visited and they had a large selection of traditional meat pies.

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Fast forward to today and here we are, cattle ranching is coming back to its roots.  Many small operations are getting back to the methods of raising and feeding cattle that my family used decades ago. 

And so it seems to go with our beef today, and our spinach, our radishes and our chickens.  If we buy quality products that are raised properly and fed a proper diet, we should have a tasty New York Strip Loin on our dinner plate.

This is what I am so hopeful about! I think we are approaching a new seed change in the agriculture business, that will bring greater health back to our population and environment. I think there is no mystery behind the coincidence between the rise of heavily commercialized, huge-scale farming/the increased chemicalization of food and the obesity epidemic, increase in diseases like cancer, early onset of puberty, etc. in America and some other Western nations.

The beef I get now from my farmers tastes like the beef I remember from my very earliest years (in the early 70s, when we still had family farms in suburban Boston where I grew up--they are gone and replaced with tract homes now, so sad). I would gnaw every bit of tasty meat off of the bones, reveling in the beefiness! I had completely lost this habit until just a couple months ago with the first steaks we cooked from the half a cow we purchased from the farmers (Dexter, by the way--an heirloom breed well-suited to being exclusively grass-fed--I think it is far superior to the usually seen Angus). Needless to say the dogs are not as happy with their bones anymore because we pick them so clean before handing them over!

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This is what I am so hopeful about! I think we are approaching a new seed change in the agriculture business, that will bring greater health back to our population and environment. I think there is no mystery behind the  coincidence between the rise of heavily commercialized, huge-scale farming/the increased chemicalization of food and the obesity epidemic, increase in diseases like cancer, early onset of puberty, etc. in America and some other Western nations.

The beef I get now from my farmers tastes like the beef I remember from my very earliest years (in the early 70s, when we still had family farms in suburban Boston where I grew up--they are gone and replaced with tract homes now, so sad). I would gnaw every bit of tasty meat off of the bones, reveling in the beefiness! I had completely lost this habit until just a couple months ago with the first steaks we cooked from the half a cow we purchased from the farmers (Dexter, by the way--an heirloom breed well-suited to being exclusively grass-fed--I think it is far superior to the usually seen Angus). Needless to say the dogs are not as happy with their bones anymore because we pick them so clean before handing them over!

I so agree with you. I also believe that we are moving back to raising animals and fruits and vegetables like our forefathers did in the days before the mega-producers.

I have some distant cousins who have continued the cattle ranching tradition in our family. They own and operate one of the largest feedlot operations in Eastern Oregon and Washington. Earlier this year my Mother and Father visited them and my 3rd cousin mentioned that at the time they had 80,000 head of cattle in their feedlots. Imagine that many cattle feeding at one time.

While they are mass-producers of beef, I give my cousins kudos for preserving a measure of integrity in terms of the ranchers they work with who supply their feedlots with cattle and for the care they take to insure the animals come to them healthy and properly fed and raised humanely. They carry that ethic into the feedlot. To their credit, they have a large contract with Whole Foods Markets and as you know, Whole Foods has stringent standards for the beef that they sell in the market. Whole Foods wouldn't even think about signing a contract with a meat distributor who didn't provide them with the high-quality beef that their customers demand. While not all the cattle that are in the feedlot are fed to the standards of Whole Foods, they are all treated and fed properly.

I so miss my Maternal Grandfather's favorite meat-roast pork with a thick layer of cracklin fat. The only thing close to that pork roast today is the pork belly that I have to go to the Asian market for. It's the only pork I can get with that extra thick layer of fat.

I do think we are moving toward getting back to our roots in agriculture. It has unfortunately taken scares, and deaths, over tainted spinach and undercooked and infectious hamburger to force many to realize that.

I sure won't be buying anymore pre-packaged individual steaks anymore I can guarantee you that. Everytime I think about that bad Porterhouse I realize how important it is to stop and take a few moments to consider the food one is buying. The hand-cut Strip Loin steak was so much better.

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I like to buy my meat at a local Mexican Butcher Shop.

When I do buy my meat in a super market, I like Publix. They are happy to custom cut any thing I want and the meat is very good.

Chicks dig wheelguns.

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I think it also really helps to develop a relationship with the purveyor, be it a butcher shop or the supermarket. I am very lucky in that I have a great local supermarket, and more local butcher shops close by than I can count on one hand.

We had lived in our new neighborhood but for a week, and I wanted to smoke a butt so I went up to the local supermarket and procured one. The following Monday, I dropped off a plate of smoked butt for the guys in the meat department. I get wonderful service!

I did the same thing with the local butcher shop after my first batch of smoked brisket here.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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Thanks to all. Awesome thread! A few comments.

For all those people who are buying meat local and for all those considering it, kudos to you! I think our whole food distribution system has evolved into something where ability to transport and ability to keep something 'looking good' has won out over true freshness and flavor. Slight tangent, on the fruits and vegetable side, if you haven't read THIS BOOK I highly recommend it.

For those who just can't find the time to visit multiple stores for stuff, when I'm forced to buy at the supermarket, I get them to cut something for me while I'm in the store (to avoid buying something in the case). It could be just hours fresher, but hey, I take what I can get.

Most decent sized towns do have access to some kind of meat market and often they're not the places you'd think of. For example, you can sometimes find a good meat market within an ethnic neighborhood (i.e. a real Italian grocer or even a kosher meat market in a Jewish area).

-Mark-

---------------------------------------------------------

"If you don't want to use butter, add cream."

Julia Child

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David Ross, your experience of Lidgate (still open) and other similar areas is probably still generally true – there are butchers, but almost all are situated in the more wealthy residential areas that circle the centre of London (Notting Hill, Hampstead, Holland Park, Dulwich etc). I have lived in central London for a long time and the traditional butchers have been disappearing along with greengrocers. Fishmongers haven’t existed for even longer.

I have the impression that this started some time before the major supermarket chains ‘invented’ their smaller format stores. Most owners seemed just to retire and with no family member wishing to take on the business, have given up their tenancy. I can also think of numerous economic reasons that tip the balance against small food retailers.

It is true that I know where to go to buy meat as I have access to Smithfield, can root out a newly-invented traditional butcher at Borough market or can go to Waitrose (fresh meat counter). But this requires a special trip and doesn’t fit with the usual too-many-things-to-do-in-a-limited-amount-of-time, offers limited choice (still difficult to buy any offal except liver and kidney), generally the quality is poor/unreliable (especially at Borough market), and it’s noticeably more expensive!

Have there always been good butchers and bad? Of course, and the major issue seems to be a lack of choice. I don’t bemoan the rise of the supermarkets, but I do object when I have no alternative option, although this has changed over the past few years as supermarket deliveries have become standard. Is all supermarket meat bad – no, but is there choice? No, generally a very limited range of cuts.

Conclusion: no (fewer) traditional butchers because of (a) lack of demand and (b) the cost of doing business.

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David Ross, your experience of Lidgate (still open) and other similar areas is probably still generally true – there are butchers, but almost all are situated in the more wealthy residential areas that circle the centre of London (Notting Hill, Hampstead, Holland Park, Dulwich etc).  I have lived in central London for a long time and the traditional butchers have been disappearing along with greengrocers.  Fishmongers haven’t existed for even longer.

I have the impression that this started some time before the major supermarket chains ‘invented’ their smaller format stores.  Most owners seemed just to retire and with no family member wishing to take on the business, have given up their tenancy.  I can also think of numerous economic reasons that tip the balance against small food retailers.

It is true that I know where to go to buy meat as I have access to Smithfield, can root out a newly-invented traditional butcher at Borough market or can go to Waitrose (fresh meat counter).  But this requires a special trip and doesn’t fit with the usual too-many-things-to-do-in-a-limited-amount-of-time, offers limited choice (still difficult to buy any offal except liver and kidney), generally the quality is poor/unreliable (especially at Borough market), and it’s noticeably more expensive! 

Have there always been good butchers and bad?  Of course, and the major issue seems to be a lack of choice.  I don’t bemoan the rise of the supermarkets, but I do object when I have no alternative option, although this has changed over the past few years as supermarket deliveries have become standard.  Is all supermarket meat bad – no, but is there choice?  No, generally a very limited range of cuts.

Conclusion:  no (fewer) traditional butchers because of (a) lack of demand and (b) the cost of doing business.

Thanks for the insight.

It is interesting to me to note that while we are thousands of miles apart, many of the issues that we face in America regarding the issue of Supermarket Beef vs. Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe beef are the same issues you mention are happening in London.

Yes, certain pockets of the US have good ethnic markets who have good meat counters. Some areas of our country may have many good local butchers, and yes, we do have cities that have good meat counters within the supermarket. A few lucky cities have upscale markets selling prime beef.

But I think overall, there are far fewer butcher shops in America than there were say 50 years ago, and probably even 10 years ago. I don't have facts to back it up, but from what I read and see in the media, the old-fashioned butcher shop trade continues to shrink away.

Sadly, I think that the trend of family-owned butcher shops and seafood markets closing has been felt the most in mid-size and smaller American cities.

I agree with you that two of the main factors are the cost of doing business and the lack of demand. Another factor is that younger generations of the families who owned these businesses are not interested in continuing in the family tradition of cutting meat. This is exactly the same scenario facing many traditional family farms-younger generations are leaving the farm for college and not returning after they graduate. They can make more money in a professional position than baling hay.

The metro area of Spokane where I live is upwards of 300,000 people but we only have 1, count it 1, fresh seafood market. This is an old-fashioned seafood market. The man who owned the market and ran it with his wife for many years retired last year. Their kids and grandkids had no interest in continuing in the family business. Thankfully, a young man stepped in and saved the market and he has actually expanded the business. But the business probably wouldn't survive on its own by just selling seafood. A large percentage of the revenue from the shop come from the sale of wine because the markup on wine is greater than the margin of profit on seafood.

We do have a very good Mexican market in Spokane that has a fresh meat counter that I just discovered. I'll be visiting them often in the future.

But we only have 1 traditional butcher shop. And remember, this is Eastern Washington and cattle are one of our biggest sources of revenue. This is the West where beef is supposed to be king.

The butcher shops has three locations in the area. What is interesting is that one of their shops is attached to the seafood market I mentioned above. The location is not great. The shops are located in an old strip mall that is tucked back behind some fast food restaurants off a main street. If you didn't know they were there you'd drive right by and you'd be in the parking lot of a large supermarket.

I guess that is the trend in my area-the old-fashioned way of life and how we used to shop for food has faded into the past. The butcher, the fishmonger and the baker have morphed into a one-stop shopping center under one roof.

My original argument about Supermarket Beef vs. Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe Beef is really more than a disccussion about a bad Porterhouse and a good New York Strip Loin. For me it's also about a loss of a way of life and the old days of shopping at small, family-owned shops for the fixins for dinner.

But what is also interesting in this discussion about supermarket beef and butcher shop beef is that I have found that there is a trend in America to get back to our roots in terms of our food and how it is raised, marketed and bought by consumers. I think that is a good thing.

Farmer's markets seem to be much more popular than they were 20 years ago and have actually boomed in my area. And if the meat counter at one of our supermarkets is selling pure-bred Angus beef steaks cut by hand, good.

I won't buy steaks in a plastic package that have been transported 2,500 miles anymore. I'll take the time to see the one butcher shop in town and work on really building a personal relationship with them. They are only about 5 miles from my home so I have been stupid not to visit them more.

I still have some questions though.

Do any of you have a preference for meat from a certain breed of cattle? Is it just a ploy of the Beef Marketing Council to trick consumers into thinking Angus beef is the best? Is it justification to raise the price of certified Angus beef by a couple of dollars per pound over the average per pound price of beef?

The main breed of choice of ranchers years ago in the Northwest was the Hereford because they were suited to grazing on the vast, dry rangelands in the Eastern part of Oregon and Washington. My Grandfather raised mainly Herefords and then a few Black Angus. My Great Uncle only raised Shorthorns. We always called them Shorthorns for 'beef' because in those days, a lot of Shorthorns were raised as dairy cows. My cousins raised a mix of different breeds-Hereford, Black and Red Angus and shorthorns.

I think most of the beef in the basic supermarket case are cross-bred steers to keep the per pound price down. You can find pure-bred Angus beef in the supermarket, but I think most consumers pass it by since it is more expensive. Another downfall for supermarket beef vs. butcher shop beef. What do you think?

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I think most of the beef in the basic supermarket case are cross-bred steers to keep the per pound price down. You can find pure-bred Angus beef in the supermarket, but I think most consumers pass it by since it is more expensive.  Another downfall for supermarket beef vs. butcher shop beef. What do you think?

(emphasis added)

I wonder whether that is truly the case, as "Certified Angus" beef seems to be spreading throughout supermarket meat cases here on the East Coast.

Of course, it's not necessary for the majority of supermarket shoppers to buy a more expensive product in order for it to be worthwhile for the store to carry it; the higher margins on the pricier stuff means the store doesn't need to sell as much of it to come out ahead. So a majority of consumers may still buy the doctored USDA Select beef while enough buy the Angus to keep it on the shelves. Given that there's now Angus beef where there wasn't before, I'd consider that an improvement for the supermarket.

Still, there's room for confusion even here, as the folks who are promoting the "Certified Angus Beef" brand won't sell to all the supermarket chains in a given market. (I suspect that they probably go into exclusive deals with just one area chain.) That means that rivals would have to introduce their own premium line to compete. But how do I know what breed of cattle go into the "Lancaster Brand Steakhouse Choice" that Acme sells in answer to the "Certified Angus" at the Super Fresh? (Edited to add historical trivia: "Lancaster Brand" meats have been sold at Acme stores since 1927; the company claims it's the oldest branded line of meats in the country. As far as I know, very little of the beef Acme sells, if any, is raised, butchered or packaged in Lancaster County.)

Better to patronize a butcher you trust still.

Edited by MarketStEl (log)

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Re: cattle breeds--I'm not a big fan of Angus. At the very rare state that I like my steaks, despite the hype, I find it to be tough, unless really properly aged (which you are certainly not going to find at the supermarket). When I did buy supermarket meat on occasion, I actually preferred the non-specific steaks (for what was available at my local supermarket and Costco).

The farmers that I buy meat from, who raise Angus along with their Dexters, prefer the Dexter (but most consumers want/recognize Angus, so they must raise some to satisfy the market). There's a different heirloom breed that another farmer I was talking to at this year's Family Farmed expo in Chicago similarly prefers over Angus (this farmer was from Wisconsin). I wish I could remember the name, but it is also about 2/3 the size of a regular cow and furry, and he also thought it was far superior to Angus for fully grass fed beef.

BTW--while I was trying to find out what this mystery breed of cattle is, I found this interesting article on slate that gives an overview of the Angus explosion (perhaps mainly due to the fact that they fatten up quickly), exposes the myth of the well-marbled steak, and compares various steaks bought from various sources, and determines that the best tasting one was grass-fed and the least marbled: http://www.slate.com/id/2152674/

Thanks again David, for starting an interesting topic for discussion!

Edited to add: I think the other breed was Scottish Highland. There's also a Highland/Dexter crossbreed out there called High-Dex.

Edited by Anna Friedman Herlihy (log)
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Confusing yes.

Another part of the confusing issue of supermarket beef vs. butcher shop beef is the side issue of which breed of cattle produces better beef.

Where I live one of the supermarkets sells only 'Certified Hereford Beef.' About 5 years ago they ran an ad campaign with a cowboy on a horse herding some herefords in a pasture North of Spokane. They claimed that all the beef sold in their local supermarkets came from "their own ranch of hereford cattle."

Well the 20 or 30 hereford's in the commercial probably didn't supply them with a fraction of the beef needed to supply their stores because a few months later, the slogan was changed to remove the 'home-grown' claim and now stands as "we only sell Certified Hereford Beef." But they only sell the Certified Hereford at the meat and seafood counter. The stuff that is pre-packaged in the meat cases isn't 'Certified Hereford.'

There is an Albertson's supermarket a block away that sells the regular meat case stuff, 'organic' beef from Colorado and then a small corner of the meat case sells 'Pure-Bred Certified Black Angus' beef. The Angus is only graded choice, nothing further down on the chain of meat grades.

Last Fall I was the emcee for a wild game and beef cooking event in Portland, Oregon. I worked with a new beef production company in Eastern Oregon and a chef in Portland who only cooks with their meat. The gentleman representing the beef producers told me that it wasn't so much the breed of the cattle-they run a mix of Angus and Hereford-but how the animals are raised. In their case the animals graze on grass and alfalfa pastures and are kept on the pastures longer than most cattle. They want the cattle to fatten up on pastures as long as possible before they send them off to finish up in the feedlot.

Right now most of their beef is going straight to the restaurant trade and isn't offered in supermarkets.

You are right, the best tack on this discussion is to find a reliable butcher or meat counter and if what you put on the plate is to your tastes, keep going back to that person for your meat.

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