Grocery Store Guru

All about the grocery industry, from a store level perspective.

Is “Meat-atarian” a word?

If it’s not, it should be.

I’m not saying I don’t like veggies – I really do. But I just can’t call it a meal unless there’s some meat involved. Right now, I’m on a diet plan that’s really meat heavy. If I don’t lose 40 pounds or so in short order, I think my doctor is going to flat out punch me and this diet has worked for other people that I know.

So, this morning I’m hanging around the meat counter at the grocery store, salivating, picking out meat to buy. As I’m drooling over a striploin, I overhear 2 customers beside me while they’re looking at some steaks. “Don’t buy those ones, they’re not red” is what one said to the other… the steaks went back to the shelf. What a pity, I thought, as I put those same steaks in my basket. They just put back what are most likely the most tender steaks on the shelf.

Thinking back to my time in the grocery stores, I remember very fondly stopping by the reduced meat section every night on my way out of the store. Some of the best cuts of meat (particularly beef) would be sitting on the shelf with a reduced sticker and I’d happily snap them up. They weren’t reduced because they were going bad, but because no one would buy them since they didn’t “look right”. The great majority of people that buy meat at the grocery store don’t really know how to tell if the steak in their hands is good or not.

Have you ever noticed that when you go to a good restaurant most steaks are graded “Prime”? And have you also noticed that you can’t get those steaks at the grocery store? Ask any meat manager why, and they’ll tell you – customers wouldn’t buy them. Has nothing to do with the price – it’s what a prime steak looks like before it’s cooked.

So here’s a couple of quick points on how to pick up a good steak (or chop, or fillet, etc.):

1.     Colour of the meat matters a whole lot less than you think.

True especially with beef and with pork. Pork chops can range in colour from a deep pink to almost beige, and it’s not a reflection on how that chop is going to taste when you cook it (as long as all the other signs are good). The deep red colour you see in your steak doesn’t have to do with the meat as much as it has to do with the blood. When you cut into beef, it exposes the red blood cells to oxygen, and the meat “blooms” that deep red colour. Once the steak is packaged, it will only keep that bright red colour as long as there is sufficient oxygen in the package with it.

Next time you’re at the store, take a look for the vacuum packed eye of round roasts (most stores have them now). You’ll see that the meat isn’t bright red – it’s a deep brown. Hold one up to the eye of round steaks on the meat counter… it’s the same cut of beef, but the difference in colour is striking. If you ever do take home one of the vacuum packed whole eye of rounds, try this out – cut it in half, and leave it on the cutting board for 5 minutes. When you come back, it will have taken on the red colour of the steaks that were on the meat counter.

Me, I look for the steaks that are brown. Chances are they’re a bit older, and the meat will have broken down a bit more, making the steak more tender than it’s bright red friends. This is especially true when I’m buying a tougher cut like outside round or flank.

2.      But the colour of the fat matters an awful lot.

As a general rule, meat spoils in this order: fat, bone, meat. I always look for the cuts of meat that have bright white fat on them – the exception being chicken, which occasionally has a yellow colour to the fat depending on the cut. I’m sure to avoid anything with a greenish tinge to it, unless I’m going to use it that day, the fat inside the meat is still bright white ( the off colour is only on the “fat cap”, where I can trim it), the meat is reduced, and the bone (if visible) is bright white. If the bone is starting to go off colour, I don’t think it’s worth the chance.

3.     I need a well cut piece, too.

This may sound silly, but as actual butchers fall by the wayside and are replaced by “journeyman meat cutters”, it’s become more of a problem. Your cut of meat has to be consistent, or it’s not going to cook properly. I can’t tell you how many top sirloin steaks I have seen that are cut like a wedge – thin on one side and thick on the other. When you try to cook it, part of your steak will be well done and part of it rare – medium. It seems that some of the boneless pork chops are suffering the same fate… I love my boneless rib chops, but not if they’re more like a lump of random pork than an actual chop. More than once I have bought a cheaper, tougher steak rather than spend the extra money on a poorly executed better cut that I know isn’t going to turn out right no matter how good I am on the BBQ.

4.     The fat on your cut matters, but not the way you may think.

This is the reason no grocery store carries prime beef steaks – there is so much marbling in the steak, most customers would never buy it. They see the fat and think it’s not a good piece of steak, and then will spend good money at the restaurant on the same thing. Fifteen years ago, eye of round steaks and the round steaks (Full, inside and outside) were really cheap… now they’re not that much cheaper than the better cuts. Why? Because people see steaks with little to no fat on them on the shelf, think that’s a good thing, and buy them. As the demand went up, so did the price. You want your steak to have as much marbling as possible – marbling are the thin streaks of fat that are in the meat. It’s this fat that breaks down while your steak is cooking and keeps the meat tender and moist.

The fat you don’t want is the “fat cap”. If it’s fat you’re just going to trim off before you cook it, you shouldn’t be paying for it – if there’s more than 1/4″ of fat it’s not an acceptable cut. This is a favourite trick of meat cutters when something’s on sale – I notice this a lot when the striploin steaks go on sale at the discount banners… all of a sudden, there’s WAY more fat cap than you would ever find on a regular priced striploin.

In part 2 of this post, I’ll show you how you can tell where your store brand meat products were made!


September 23, 2012 - Posted by | At the Store

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