By Lindsay Chichester, Nebraska Extension Educator
Raising animals for meat can be a great way to stock your freezer. However, there are often questions or concerns about how to start a conversation with the butcher/meat processor, what questions to ask, and other things to take into consideration when determining meat processing needs for your family. This article is meant to be a guide to make your conversation with the butcher easier and to provide you with some tips when you visit with your butcher.
**Note - This article will focus on things to ask your butcher or meat processor, and not focus on the retail level. At a local University meat lab or meat locker you will have many more decisions to make and more control over how you want the meat processed/packaged.
1. WHAT DO BUTCHERS DO? In some cases the butcher may be doing the actual harvesting (taking the animal's life for the benefit of humans) of the animal themselves, sometimes they may get the meat in wholesale cuts in which they break into smaller retail cuts, or they may be doing both. Generally a University meat lab or a local meat locker will do the entire process themselves. Retailers will just get the wholesale meat from a packer and cut it into retail friendly cuts.
2. IDENTIFY THE NEEDS OF YOUR FAMILY FIRST. Do you like to grill out? Do you like a Sunday roast? Are you a family on the go that requires convenience? Do you want all of the above? You can have it! But knowing what your end goals are will help the butcher guide you through the process.
3. FAMILY SIZE. A larger family will need their meat packaged differently than a small family or an individual. It is not uncommon for a butcher to ask how many do you want them to package the meat for.
4. THICKNESS. How thick do you want your steaks or chops to be cut? Take into consideration how you will be cooking them and the degree of doneness that you prefer them to be cooked to. One inch is usually standard. Your butcher will cut these to any size you want.
5. AGING. Letting meat age increases the tenderness and flavor. This may take 2-3 weeks for a beef carcass, but the wait is well worth the final product. There are two types of aging: dry (the carcass hangs in a temperature controlled room for a certain time period) or wet aging (usually a certain wholesale cut (i.e. loin, rib) is put in cryovac plastic bags and left to age, a.k.a. in the bag).
6. LEAN TO FAT. If you have a ground product made you can specify how lean you want it. The lean to fat ratio is often shown as 80/20 - meaning the lean number is first and the second number is the fat. The leaner you make it, the less fat it will have in it. This may sound ideal, but it can become problematic as there will be less fat to flavor your meat and keep things moist while you are cooking.
7. EXPLORE AND EXPERIMENT. You may not know that some cuts even exist, as they are not common in some retail markets. For example, shanks (the forearm) are excellent when cooked over slow, moist heat; tri-tip is a California favorite; Denver steak is a fairly new cut from the shoulder region; ox-tail for soups or stews; and the variety meats. Ask your butcher about trying some new (to you) cuts of meat, or meats that they may process differently than you are accustomed to.
8. VARIETY MEATS, a.k.a. OFFAL. These are the organ meats - liver, tongue, heart, kidneys, etc. And yes, they are perfectly safe and healthy for consumption, and they are delicious. The butcher may or may not ask you about these, as most people do not want them. However, if you are a foodie and enjoy trying new things, variety meat may interest you. You may also ask the butcher to include the variety meats in the trim to be made into ground product. Variety meats are usually exported because we don't consume them as much in America, however, their consumption is becoming more common.
9. PACKAGING. Butchers vary on how they will package your meat. It may be in the white butcher paper or it may be in the transparent cryovac bags. While both methods are completely normal and acceptable, keep in mind that meat can go bad in the freezer, it is subject to freezer burn over time. When purchasing meat in a large quantity it is tempting to try some of the new stuff, but moving the older stuff to the front and using it up first will result in less food waste.
10. GET A VARIETY OF CUTS. You may love hamburgers, but you may not want to eat hamburgers everyday. You may have thought that 20 packages of tenderized steaks was a good idea and now you have a whole bunch left. By knowing the eating patterns of your family you will be able to adjust/build your order so that there is a better balance of product, giving you the ability to try a few new things, as well as keep some of the family favorites.
11. HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR SAUSAGE? When you process an animal and you want sausage, you will need to decide how you want your sausage made. First, you do not have to have it all made into sausage, you can have some just ground. Your butcher may offer you several different sausage flavors (mild, medium, spicy, maple, etc.). If you cannot choose or are worried the spicy may be too much for your family, see if you can purchase a small sample of sausage they have in their retail cabinet and take it home for a taste test. There is nothing worse than getting home and being disappointed in what you chose.
12. SMOKING. Getting meat smoked is a great option, especially ribs or brisket. You do not have to have anything smoked, you can leave them unsmoked, which is generally a good option for people who like to smoke their own food.
13. OTHER PROCESSED GOODS. Your butcher may give you the option to make some of your meat into meat sticks, bratwurst, jerky, etc. This is a great option if you want flexibility or are a family on the go. More processed meats will mean less packages of other meat cuts. You will need to determine what is best for you.
14. IDENTIFY YOUR FAVORITE CUTS AS NON-NEGOTIABLES. Sometimes placing an order with the butcher can be overwhelming, by deciding what cuts you must have first then building the rest of your order around that will help make things easier.
15. SOUP BONES. As a carcass is processed and cut to meet your specifications, there may be some large bones that are left. These large bones are perfect for soup bones or as bones for your dog. Some butchers can also smoke these bones for you, adding a great smoky flavor to your favorite dish. And ask them to cut the bones into 1-3 inch segments for you. Throwing an entire femur bone into the soup pot is not an option, but throwing in 3-4 smaller bone pieces is a better option.
16. TENDERIZED. Do you love chicken fry steak/chicken/pork? You can have that! Often times your butcher will take a lean cut, like a round roast and run them through a tenderizer to give you the perfect cut for a chicken fry experience. If this appeals to you, just ask!
17. WRITE IT DOWN. After going through the whole process of making the perfect meat order for you and your family, write down what you ordered and how much of everything you ordered. It may be a long period of time before you need more meat after making a big purchase, and in between those visits you will forget. But if you write down what you did last time, it gives you an idea of what to do next time or where to make adjustments, if needed.
18. WHAT WILL IT COST? If you bring an animal in to be harvested, you will be charged a fee. You may be charged a minimal daily fee for the time the carcass hangs. Depending on the butcher you will usually be charged a per pound fee for the processing. If you get anything smoked, made into sausage, or further processed (meat sticks, bratwurst, etc.), there is usually another fee. Be sure to have your butcher walk through these fees with you, as it may determine what you do and do not have done. Initially, it may seem like a lot of money, but if you average it over the months you consume the product it becomes very cost effective.
19. WHAT IF I DON'T LIKE SOMETHING WHEN I GET HOME? Call the butcher and let them know. Chances are there was either a rare mistake made somewhere or your taste buds and the flavoring aren’t compatible. While the butcher's hands may be tied on what they can do, they may be able to give you a credit on your next order, or they may even offer to exchange what you have for product out of their retail case. If you know you are sensitive to an ingredient or a flavoring, it is always a good idea to ask for a small sample you can take home before committing to a large batch of something. Butchers don't make money with unhappy customers.
20. USDA INSPECTION. All facilities that harvest, process, and sell meat must be federally or state inspected by the USDA. The USDA ensures that animals are harvested humanely and that the meat they produce is wholesome and safe for human consumption.
Butchers are great people to know. They can make meat recommendations, provide cooking tips, and may even have a sample or two for you to try when you stop to visit. They want to make you happy and ensure your meat processing process goes as smooth as possible. Don't be afraid to ask 100 questions or to admit you are a meat novice, they are there to help.
By Lindsay Chichester, Nebraska Extension Educator