11 Things a Whole Foods Butcher Wants You to Know About Buying Meat
The inside scoop on everything from cleanliness to cost savings to cuts.
The meat industry is changing, with a large percentage of product arriving to stores prepacked and precut these days. That leaves not much for the actual workers behind the butcher counter to do—but not everywhere. When it comes to butcher counters, Whole Foods Market sets the bar high. The chain of more than 500 stores offers a rigorous 18-month apprenticeship program for team members who want to become butchers.
Besides being paired with a seasoned butcher to learn all about meat and how to cut it, participants in the program undergo intensive training on meat standards, including where and how animals are raised. The company is also committed to buying the whole animal, meaning they offer a greater variety of cuts than you'll find at other stores. So what does this all mean to you as a shopper? You should be using your butcher as a resource way more than you probably are. Theo Weening, vice president of meat and poultry at Whole Foods Market, who grew up working in his father's butcher shop in Europe, explains.
11 Things Whole Foods Butchers Want You to Know About Meat
If it looks off, it probably is.
When it comes to assessing whether meat is fresh, always start with your eyes, says Weening. "You can tell pretty quickly if the case is dirty, if the product doesn't look good or if it's discolored," he adds. If a butcher is cleaning his or her cutting blocks as they should, meat such as a steak will retain its color; however, if the meat picks up bacteria from this surface, it will turn darker or even grayish quickly.
Watch for gloves.
The proper protocol for a butcher making your order is to grab the raw meat using a piece of paper, wearing gloves, and then wrap it in butcher paper. "The less handling of the meat, the better," says Weening. (By the way, if you notice a butcher not following these protocols, it's OK to change your mind about buying the meat.) It's also a good idea to slip the paper-wrapped meat into one of the plastic bags you'll often see near butcher counters, as it's cleaner for transporting and going into your fridge, he adds.
Ask for ice.
If you have a bit of a drive home after the grocery store, you can always ask a butcher to specially package your meat by adding your paper-wrapped order to a plastic bag filled with ice. This helps to keep it chilled and safe until you can get it into your fridge or freezer.
Use within two days.
With chicken especially, you should plan to use fresh meat within 48 hours of buying it from a butcher counter—or else stick it in the freezer. Beef can stay fresh a day or two longer in the fridge, but it may begin to discolor (this won't be unsafe, but may be a little unappetizing). Before you freeze meat, take it out of the butcher paper and put it in a tightly sealed plastic bag, says Weening. You can also ask a butcher to do this for you if you're planning to freeze it right away.
Ask about bones.
Want to make your own bone broth? While you can save your own bones from cooking at home, you can also ask your butcher if they have any marrow bones behind the counter for purchase. They're usually very affordably priced.
Not all chicken breasts are created equal.
A few pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts may be a staple on your weekly grocery list. But before you pluck any from the cooler, understand what you're paying for by looking closely at the label as well as the price tag. "Some chicken breasts may contain 8% water (or more)," says Weening. "They might look cheaper, but in the end, you're buying water—it cooks off, but you'll pay for it." Instead, look for chicken breasts labeled "air chilled," which means that no water has been added. These will likely have a higher price tag, but you're getting 100% chicken this way, so you'll come out ahead.
Venture outside your comfort zone.
We all fall into routines of buying the same cuts of meat, which can lead cooking at home to feel stale. To prevent this, ask your butcher about alternative cuts that might be similar in flavor, more affordable or just something different to shake up your dinner routine. For example, one of Weening's favorites is a chuck eye steak, which is a cross between a chuck steak and a rib-eye—and half the price of the latter. "It's really tender, has a lot of marbling, and a lot of times, you don't find it in the case because butchers will buy it for themselves," he adds. (Need some recipe inspo? This tasty Mexican-inspired soup uses chuck eye steak.)
You can spend less money.
It might sound surprising coming from a butcher, but there are plenty of top-quality meat options that won't break the bank, yet taste delicious. For example: A petite sirloin is an excellent swap for filet mignon, and skirt steak, grilled and cut into slices, is a perfect way to serve steak to a larger group. If you're looking for something a little fancier, try a butterflied leg of lamb, which is easy to do but not super expensive.
Try a different kind of roast chicken.
This summer, Whole Foods introduced a spatchcocked chicken into its meat cases. This means the backbone is removed, so you can roast or grill the whole chicken flat—and it will cook much faster this way. Any butcher should know how to do this, however, so feel free to ask if they'll spatchcock an entire chicken for you before packaging it.
Don't shy away from sausages.
Whole Foods is known for making all its own sausage. How you cook it matters, however. When you cook sausage inside the casing, it helps to keep the flavor (and fat) inside the meat, Weening says. He prefers to leave it in the casing for this reason, but you don't have to. For breakfast, for example, you can make a tiny cut in one end of the casing and run it under lukewarm water, and the meat will slide right out. Then you can cook it in a pan, drain off the fat and add the sausage crumbles to an omelet, for example.
Use your butcher as a resource.
The next time you're looking to buy meat, leave it up to your butcher to help guide your purchase. Weening says he advises shoppers to ask butchers, "What would you buy today?" This way, they can direct you to quality picks of the day, such as pork with a lot of marbling (unique for pork), or a sale on a tomahawk steak. You can also ask questions about how to cook any type or cut of meat you see, or how much to buy for a particular group. "We want the butcher to give the customer ideas and help them out," Weening says.