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Buying Meat

This page describes the buying of meat alone. Meat needs to be treated and cooked correctly to make sure that it is safe to eat. See food hygiene for details.

The following advice refers to England. It may be true elsewhere, but I don't guarantee it!

Buying meat from a butcher

Most people who buy meat in the UK get it from a supermarket. The advantages of a supermarket are that you can buy meat without knowing its name, and you can select the pack that you like the look of. But supermarket packs are fixed sizes, and the quality and choice may be inferior to a good butcher. If there is no butcher close enough, then the supermarket it is. But if you have the choice, and never dared use a butcher, here is some advice.

Some meat is bought by number rather than weight, such as sausages or chops, and this is probably easiest to start with. Work out how many you want before you go into the shop, point to what you want, ask for 3 of them (or whatever) and that's that. Once you have successfully bought something, it will give you more confidence for next time. To buy meat by weight, I usually estimate 250 grams for 2 people, 400 grams for 3 people and 500 grammes for 4 people. This is approximately 4 oz per person, or a bit more. If these amounts are too small or big for you, then work out your own amounts and remember them. If you want, you can buy all meat by weight, or you can ask the butcher to weigh something like kebabs so you can see if you want one or two per person. You can always ask how much something costs, as well. Remember that anything with a bone in, the weight of the bone is included, so you will get less meat. If the butcher weighs something and it's the wrong weight (somehow, it's usually too much!), he may ask you if that's OK. You are perfectly entitled to say Yes or No. It's not worth arguing over ten grammes or so, but if he regularly gives you twice as much as you asked for - well, you're paying for it! Remember, it doesn't matter if you find that you've bought too much (or even too little). Eat it, and you'll know better next time. You can also ask a butcher for a type of meat or cut of meat that isn't displayed. However, then you must be prepared for them to say that they haven't got it. Or sometimes they disappear into the back of the shop for ages!

The butcher may ask you questions, and this may frighten you if you think you ought to know the answer. But this isn't Mastermind. The truth is that you can look blank and say "I have the foggiest idea! What difference does it make?" That requires a certain amount of confidence, though. Why is it that the most confident people are those who don't mind looking a fool? However, there are few WRONG answers that you can give. You are going to cook the meat for a number of people, so you could buy too much (keep it for another day) or not enough (go hungry). You are going to cook the meat in a particular way, and that could be a problem if you intend to fry a steak and get stewing steak by mistake (it will be very hard work to chew). The cut of meat may have an unexpected bone, or lack of bone, in. But apart from that, if you get venison sausages rather than ordinary ones, or lamb mince rather than beef, it will taste a bit strange and that's all. You may even prefer it! Remember that you can always say "It's for three people" or "I want to grill it" and the butcher should give something appropriate.

Buying meat from a supermarket

It would seem easier to buy meat from a supermarket. You can certainly browse as long as you want, and choose a pack you like, without the butcher tapping his feet while you make up your mind (but please don't block the way with your trolley!) Still, if you go in looking for a cut of meat, you may just find that they don't stock it. Most people seem to shop in a supermarket in a complete daze, picking up stuff that looks interesting, which can be an expensive way to shop. If you shop regularly at the same place, you get a feel for their regular range. Make a shopping list before you go. You can write something like "3 x meat" or even "3 x protein" meaning you are buying for three meals. This way you buy what you need, and anything extra you know IS extra. Hopefully the till receipt will be less of a shock.

Beef

The thing to remember about beef is that cheap cuts can be tough, so think about how you're going to cook it before buying. The following are in rough order of increasing price.

Mince: This is cheap. It is not tough, as the mincing process has already done the chewing for you. Mince contains fat and very cheap mince has a lot of fat. It is cheap and quick to cook. "The good news is that there are a hundred ways to cook mince. The bad news is that I'm fed up with all of them!"
You can buy hamburgers. The quality varies. Buy one, cook it, eat it, then if necessary avoid it in future.

Oxtail: This is a specialised cut of meat, used in stews. Yes - it's the tail of the cow, cut up into vertebrae. I must admit that I don't like it myself, but many people love it. It has more bone than meat, so although it is very cheap, it's not quite as cheap as it looks.

Stewing steak: You see the word 'steak' and you might think of a lovely sizzling grilled steak. Don't. The word steak is used of the complete range of beef, from the cheapest to the most expensive. Stewing steak is cheap, and very tough. It needs long and slow cooking, possibly in something acid like tomato or alcohol. Stewing steak may also have gristle or fat. You can always cut the nasty bits off if you wish. Personally I don't mind fat and hate gristle, but other people feel the other way round. Removing nasty bits takes time but doesn't waste much meat. Sometimes stewing steak is sold by different names, such as shin or chuck steak. If you don't recognise the type of beef, ask if it's for stewing or grilling, although the price should give a clue. You buy stewing steak by weight. It may come as a single slab of meat or cut up into small pieces. If it's a slab, the butcher won't mind cutting off the amount you want.
Braising steak: Think of this as posh stewing steak. It is more expensive than stewing steak and should have less nasty bits in. It doesn't need as much cooking as stewing steak, but don't grill it. If you're counting the pennies, then buy stewing steak and cut the nasty bits out (or eat them if you're not fastidious about such things). If you've enough money and don't want to mess around with the raw meat too much, buy braising steak.

Grilling or frying steaks: You should notice a sharp price jump. Generally speaking, these steaks are already cut into portions and the butcher will prefer not to cut up them up any further, as they won't be able to sell a small bit of one. So you buy them by number. You may think that one portion is too much for one person (if you're mean, like me!). You can always buy a big slab, then cut it in two yourself when you get home. These type of steaks are cooked for a short length of time, usually so they are still pink in the middle. Rump steak is a round shape, with some fat on. Sirloin is longer and thinner with a strip of fat along one edge. Fillet is the most expensive cut of all. It has no fat on the edge, although there may be marbling (threads of fat within the meat). It is very tender. However, many people feel that the taste of fillet is not as good as the other cuts. I have a memory of the dreadful time when BSE had infected British cows. The price of all beef fell through the floor. In my local supermarket, there was all this lovely fillet steak going incredibly cheap, completely ignored by everyone except elderly pensioners gleefully stocking up their baskets. After all, they said, it took some time to die from BSE, and so they would die of something else first!
I should point out that you can stew good quality beef like rump if you want to. It's just rather a waste of money.

Roasts: The previous cuts of beef have individual portions. If you want a roast, you need a single hunk of beef for several people. There are several cuts which are used for roasts. My favourite is rib of beef. This is similar to a pork or lamb chop, but a cow is a bigger animal, so it feeds several people. The butcher may ask "How many ribs?" - I advise just one for a medium sized joint. The meat is looser textured than other beef joints, but it seems to have flavour even if slightly overcooked. It has a lot more fat on it than a normal beef joint, and this fat is part of the joint, not added. It's very nice fat, so you can render it down afterwards (melt it slowly in a frying pan), and use for cooking, or as dripping on bread. If the bone gets in the way when carving, cut it off the meat before you start (but after it's been cooked). Remember that the bone counts as part of the weight, so there will be less meat than a similarly sized boneless joint. You may find rib joints which have been boned, rolled and tied.
Perhaps the most common joint is Topside, a small joint of good quality meat, with a layer of fat round the outside, added by the butcher. It is easy to overcook small joints of beef. This is a problem as it makes them rather tough and flavourless (and grey!)

Chicken

The first decisions you must make is the type of chicken. Frozen chicken can be incredibly cheap, but you don't know which country it's come from, and anyway it doesn't taste of much. I prefer to pay more (but not that much more) and get fresh chicken, which tastes better. There are various categories of chicken according to how they are treated. Battery chickens are kept their whole life in narrow cages. Barn chickens are kept in barns. Free range chickens must have access to outside. You may see a label saying "Freedom Food". This is awarded by RSPCA to improve animal welfare. It is not necessarily the highest level. For example, Freedom Food chickens don't have to be free range.

Modern chicken is never tough, so you don't need to worry about that. The next choice is how much, which bit of chicken, with or without bones, with or without skin.

A whole chicken feeds about 4 people and if you don't finish it, it's good for left-overs. If the butcher asks you how big a chicken, ask for a medium one, and then if it's too big or small, next time you'll be able to give the right answer. If he wants you to choose one, point to one at random!

Recipes may specify chicken pieces. You can buy a whole chicken and cut it into pieces yourself. This is good value, but you need a decent knife. Chicken pieces may be described as quarters, which will either be a leg and a bit of breast, or wing and most of breast. These are quite big. One quarter is generous for one person. You can buy smaller pieces, such as drumsticks, thighs or wings. Wings are very cheap but have hardly any meat on. All these pieces comes with bones and skin.

If you want to cut chicken into pieces, do it at the joints (it's hard and rather messy to chop through a bone). Pull a leg or wing, so you can see where the joint is. Cut through the skin round the joint. Then work the joint back and forwards until it 'pops'. Finally chop through the remaning bit with the knife. If the remaining skin causes problems, use scissors. If you want smaller pieces of chicken, then you can scrape the meat off the bone, cutting where necessary. When it's off, cut it into the pieces you want.

You can buy chicken breast without skin or bone. This tends to be the most expensive form of chicken, but chicken is a cheap meat, so it's still not too expensive. This is good for stir-fries, or indeed any sort of frying or grilling. You can also buy chicken breast with skin, usually cheaper. It's easy to remove the skin, and when fried, the skin makes an attractive snack.

Since chicken is such a cheap meat (especially poor quality chicken), it is used a lot in ready meals. Not always very nice!

Lamb

Lamb is not a tough eat, so your choice is how much bone and fat is present rather than what the meat is like.

Lamb roasting joints are leg or shoulder. The best joint is the leg, which has less fat. It's really half the back leg. It does often have one bone running up the centre. You can get a whole shoulder of lamb, or half a shoulder, either blade or leg (which is the front leg). They both have about the same amount of meat on. They each have an awkward bone, so are difficult to carve. They also have lots of fat - watch out for that while carving! The shoulder joints are both quite small.

There are two sorts of lamb chop, ordinary chops and chump chops. A chump chop is the lamb equivalent of rump steak. It has more meat, and no bone. A lamb chop (with bone) is slightly stingy for a person, but you can get a double chop.

Stewing lamb usually has the bone in, and it's very difficult to get it out again, although it is very cheap. It is sometimes called scrag end, which is a lovely name. I must admit that I usually get chump chops for stews and curries - extravagent of me!

Belly of lamb is very cheap and has lots of fat. It needs careful cooking.

You can get minced lamb, and it does taste different from beef mince.

Pork

Pork is not really tough either, although it's a firm meat. It gets tougher if you over-cook it.

The main pork roasting joint is leg. This usually has the bone removed and are rolled, with skin round which will turn to crackling (you hope!) Make sure that no skin has been rolled inside the joint, as it won't crisp up, and just stay chewy. There is another pork joint which is several pork chops still stuck together. It makes good crackling, but the bone will still be there.

Pork chops are larger than lamb chops. They may still have skin on. You might be able to make this slightly crackling-like, or you could cut it off, of course.

There are pork chump chops or pork steaks - good quality pieces of meat with no bone in. There may be pork tenderloin, which is the pork equivalent of fillet steak, and so expensive.

Since a pig has more meat than a lamb, there may be diced or cubed pork. This is cheap and good for stir-fries or stews.

You can get spare ribs. These might have more or less meat on the bone, so you may need to try them out to work out how many you need for one person. They need careful cooking.

Other meats

There are other types of meat. I never find that venison is as interesting as it sounds. Some butchers have game (such as pheasant) at certain times of the year. Duck has a more interesting flavour than chicken, but it is much more fatty, and has less meat (and is more expensive). Wild duck (which is a sort of game) has a stronger flavour than duck and even less meat. Wild boar on the other hand tastes similar to pork to me, at least in sausages. There may be ostrich. Turkey and goose are special Christmas fare, and the main question is "How big?".

Offal

Some people are disgusted by offal, but I like (some) offal. There are kidneys, and liver, and what's more they can come from different animals, lamb, pig and ox. I would suggest lamb. Then there are more esoteric organs, such as hearts or sweetbread (pancreas in the UK). There are also objects which aren't really offal, such as pig's trotters. Finally, we have tripe (or rather I don't!)

Other

Butchers now often do preparations of meat. They have always made sausages, but may now do kebabs, or hamburgers, or pieces of meat in special sauces, such as lamb chops already flavoured with mint. And then there's haggis! Remember you can always ask the butcher what things are, what they weigh and even how to cook them. If he doesn't know, then at least you can share your ignorance (it makes me feel better, anyway!)