10 Tips to Keep in Mind When Shopping for Meat, According to Local Butchers

updated Mar 23, 2021
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Credit: Christine Han

Shopping for meat in the grocery store can churn up lots of questions: Does this look right? Where did it come from? Has it been frozen? Do I have to cook it right away? Um, how do I cook it?

Most of the time, I’m too intimidated to ask the pros in the white lab coats for the answers, so I usually just go with my gut and get out. Or, at least, that used to be my strategy — until I visited a local butcher in New York City for the first time last year. Jen Prezioso, co-owner of Albanese Meats and Poultry, was so knowledgeable and warm (all while wielding a giant cleaver!) and she helped me to feel like less of a meat newbie. (We should all feel so empowered while buying meat!)

Ever since, I’ve made it a point to support local butcher shops in my neighborhood. Feeling inspired by my meat-shopping adventures, I reached out to seven butchers across the country for their expert tips. Here’s how to make sure you’re picking out the very best meat — and getting the most bang for your buck.

Credit: Christine Han

1. Check the pack date.

This might sound obvious, but that’s why it’s on the top of the list. “When choosing between packages of meat, look for the most recent date on the label (the fresher, the better). Just make sure the tray isn’t filled with juices.” says Monica Rocchino, owner of The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, CA. If you do purchase meat that’s a little older (it’s not ideal if everyone is buying the new stuff and leaving the older stuff!), freeze it as soon as you get home to lock in freshness. This will also buy you more time to figure out how you want to prepare it.

2. Shop somewhere that sources their meat locally.

To source the best meat, most butchers I talked to recommend seeking out local businesses that partner with nearby farms. “The shorter the distance between the butcher shop and the farm, the better the meat, generally,” says Corrie Cook of Smoking Goose in Indianapolis.

A general rule of thumb: “It’s better to buy meat that has traveled maybe 100 miles versus 1000 miles. This also keeps the money in the local economy and supports local farms and slaughter houses,” says Jamie Johnson of Bluescreek Farm Meats in Plain City, Ohio.

If you ever question the importance of being extra choosy about the meat you buy, just know it has a bigger impact than you may think. Shannon Hill, the co-owner of Maine Meat in Kittery, Maine, says, “Whether it’s at a farm stand, local farmers market, or a locally sourced butcher shop, your purchase means a lot. Not just for the local farmers, of course, but also for the overall health of our ever-stretched food supply.”

3. Ask your butcher questions!

“If your butcher can’t answer questions such as, ‘Where is this meat from?’ or ‘How would you cook this?’ you should probably go to a different butcher,” says Rocchino. And it’s not just like you’re testing them — asking questions also helps you get all the goods the shop has to offer, which includes knowledge.

Don’t see everything you’re looking for? Ask questions! “What may be in the display case might not be all that a shop has to offer! Organs? Bone broth? Lard? Chances are a butcher will have them, but simply doesn’t put them on display,” says Hill. Simply ask and you shall receive.

4. Check for store cleanliness.

What you see is just as important as what you don’t see — especially when cleanliness is concerned. According to Chad and Terri Knight of The Knight Butcher in Laurel, Mississippi, “Most meat markets are inspected only a few times a year. If you can see dirty, messy, things with your own eyes, don’t buy meat there. There’s simply no telling what you aren’t seeing in that case.”

5. Brighter meat doesn’t always mean better meat.

“Some people think that the brighter or redder your beef is, the better it is, but that’s not true. When meat starts to oxidize, it turns bright red first before it turns brown. When I’m picking out beef, I try not to buy anything that’s too light pink or too dark,” says Jen Prezioso of Albanese Meats and Poultry in New York City.

The Knights had this one caveat to add: “Just because you see dark colored/deep red meat doesn’t mean it’s bad, though. That could mean that it has been aging, which is what makes meat tender over time. Ask your butcher if you’re unsure.”

6. Avoid slimy meat at all costs.

“If the meat (beef or pork) you’re looking at is really shiny or looks very wet, I would not recommend it. Sliminess or wetness is a sign that the meat is on its way out. Having an honest butcher is a good thing. I’ll tell people the truth so they come back for the fresher stuff the next day,” says Prezioso.

7. “80/20” is a way for grocery stores to make more money on chopped meat.

You’ve probably been conditioned to seek out ground beef that’s either 80/20 or 90/10 (the meat-to-fat ratio), but here’s why that’s not a thing at some butcher shops: “When I make fresh chopped meat, I use the whole muscle. A lot of people come into the shop asking for 80/20, but I don’t put any extra fat in my fresh ground beef or chopped meat,” says Prezioso. It’s actually a marketing trick that grocery stores use to make money off the trimmings. If you’re going to a butcher shop, you’ll likely just get regular ground beef.

8. You don’t always have to get the most expensive cut of meat.

“The most expensive cut isn’t always what you may actually need for a recipe,” says Hill. “Would beef Stroganoff be delicious with a cut of tenderloin as the star of the show? Sure! But you could save yourself nearly $30 per pound by purchasing a crosscut beef shank instead. Yup!”

9. Organic certifications can be misleading.

If you’re only shopping for meats exclusively labeled “certified organic” at the grocery store, do a bit more research: “Factory farms can obtain Certified Organic certificates while still raising livestock in unethical and inhumane ways,” says Hill.

Hill made another great point: “A USDA Organic Certification is extremely expensive to obtain and many small, local farms still operate under organic practices, but simply can’t shell out that kind of money. ” That’s why you should always ask your butcher for all the details on the meat you’re buying.

10. Seek out butchers who sell more than raw meat.

If your butcher also sells cured meats, smoked meats, meatloaf, meatballs, stuffed roasts, marinated meats, and more (in addition to the raw stuff), they likely really know what they’re doing. “A meat shop that knows how to do more than cut is a good sign of a well-trained crew who like to cook (and eat) as much as you do,” says Cook.

Do you have any tips to add? Leave them in the comments below.