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A Few Answers to Common Questions About Meat

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I've spent the past few years working in meat markets and the meat departments of specialty grocery stores, and have encountered a lot of confused people in that time. In a lot of cases, that confusion is understandable. There is a lot of bad information floating around about meat. Just searching online for info on meat reveals vastly different data, coming from both sides of the spectrum - Those who would convince you that eating meat is dangerous or evil, and those who believe it's a basic component of a healthy diet.

I'm not going to touch those debates. People are either going to eat meat or not, and I'm not trying to make that decision for anyone else.

However, there's a lot of ignorance among the meat-eating population out there. Here are a few of the types of questions I get asked daily.

What's a good steak to buy? I hear this question daily, and the answer is it depends on many factors. I ask customers how they plan to cook their steak, and often get bewildered deer-in-the-headlights looks in return. Then I'll usually ask if they're planning on grilling it in some fashion or have another plan.

Generally, my "go-to" steak suggestion is a rib eye, followed by a New York strip. The (usually) greater fat content in a rib eye makes it tasty, and rib eyes are hard to screw up by grilling or cooking in a pan. They're a basic steak that's moderately tender, and most people seem to like them. I personally don't enjoy New York strips as much, but a lot of people prefer them for some reason. So be it.

Sirloin is popular, and it's understandable. They pack a lot of flavor, and although they're not usually a really tender steak, if they're chosen and cooked right, they shouldn't be as tough as leather either. Some people grill them, and they can be delicious that way. I go the extreme route and grind them, making sirloin patties. Sirloin can be a little dry, but will remain juicy if it's not overcooked.

Then there is the beef tenderloin. That one is popular, and is one of the more expensive cuts of beef. It is a muscle from the cow's back that doesn't have much fat and is (guess that name came from somewhere) extremely tender. A lot of people like tenderloin, and I can understand the appeal. It's relatively small, and can almost be cut with a fork. A lot of people will wrap their filet mignon with bacon, and that's probably a good idea, as the bacon reintroduces fat to an extremely lean steak, which can be a bit dry and bland on its own. One of the reasons the tenderloin is so expensive is that it's labor intensive to remove the surrounding fat and tough membranes that encase it, and there is a lot of waste as a result.

As a rule of thumb, if a good meat cutter tells a customer something, he or she should listen. I can't count how many folks have insisted on buying a shoulder steak or shoulder roast, which are lean and tougher cuts of meat, to cook quickly, against my advice. Save that stuff for the slow cooker. I've also had idiot men argue with me about what a cut is. They usually do that because they're idiots trying to look knowledgeable in front of a girlfriend, but no, a flank steak is not the same thing as a flat iron, anymore than a Camry is the same thing as a GTO.

There are also misconceptions about the various USDA grades of meats. People seem to recognize the labels "Prime," "Choice" and "Select," but a lot of customers don't seem to know what they really mean.

The three grades I just mentioned are generally the only ones a consumer will see for sale at the grocery store, although there are five lower grades that are used for other purposes. Of the three that will be found at stores, Choice and Select are the most common, and my experience is that Select is the one most places carry. Prime is usually seen only in specialty markets or high-end restaurants because it's pricey.

The grade given to beef is determined by two criteria -- the age of the animal at slaughter, and the amount of fat evident in the marbling of its meat. Prime has a lot of marbling, to the point that a lot of fat-phobic consumers would not naturally choose Prime cuts. Choice has a little less, and Select is fairly lean. Marbling is an indicator of probable tenderness, as is age, but neither is an absolute guarantee. But that's what those grades really mean. It's not like Prime is automatically great and Select is garbage. They don't work like that.

Other common questions concern how long meat will be good for after a customer buys it. The answer is "It depends." If your refrigerator's temperature is less than 40 degrees -- and it should be -- then beef and pork should be fine for three to five days (unless it was getting old at the store). Chicken gets less time at one to two days. I personally cook any meat I refrigerate within a day or two. If it's going to be around longer than that, then I freeze it, which gives you months to decide what to do with it.

A lot of people buy chicken thighs and then come back later freaking out because "they smell." Chicken thighs stink, they just do. Unless the smell is horrifying, it's probably normal. People who can't understand that should probably just avoid buying chicken thighs.

Another weird thing that a lot of customers ask often is how long their meat will last in the car, then they'll explain how they have some long series of errands to run after they shop. My answer is "I have no idea," as there are too many variables at play, but if a person isn't going straight back home from the grocery store, then they should buy perishable goods at some other time.

And these are but a few of many questions I get asked daily. I try to educate customers without sounding like a smart ass, but it's hard when you have someone insisting that they read some ridiculous thing you know is wrong. But I try. I smile and nod my head, and attempt to give them information that will keep them from accidentally poisoning their family.

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