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Somewhere between vegetarians and meat-eaters, a third category is emerging represented by those who choose to eat meat in smaller quantities but in a more responsible manner, by selecting farmers who respect their animals and safeguard the environment, to the consequent advantage of public health. So, how should we approach the question of buying meat? First, we must decide whether to go to butcher’s shop or a supermarket counter for our purchases, but in either case we must be certain that the quality of the animal feed is certified and that the meat contains no additives, hormones, toxic residues or medicaments. At least in theory, the ideal meat would exist if we were able to know what the animal has eaten for the past two generations. Nonetheless, we are fully entitled to demand transparency from our butcher, a right that has been legally sanctioned in many countries in the world.
What to buy depends on the dish we intend to prepare: since the names applied to various meat cuts not only depend on the language of the country but may even undergo the influence of local dialects, so the simplest way to deal with this is to say: “I want to do a roast" or "I would like some meat for the barbecue”.
For a truly well-informed choice, it is useful to revise the three basic cuts of beef: without forgetting that the more knowing you appear to be, the more you will earn the storekeeper’s respect. So, let’s start from the most expensive cuts: “prime” cuts all come from the hindquarter of the animal and require rapid cooking (sirloin, fillet, rump etcetera). The “secondary” cuts come from the forequarter, whilst the “third” best cuts are taken from the neck, belly and shoulders. Finally, there are offal and the other less expensive parts such as head, feet, liver and stomach.
Another important element to bear in mind is the amount of time the meat has hung to mature. In large-scale retail distribution no more than one week goes by between butchering and over the counter sale, but quality butchers will extend this time by 20 to 40 days. The longer the meat is hung, the more tender and tasty it will be. Another visual indication is marbling, the name given to the veins of fat running through the meat: white streaks within the piece of meat will guarantee tenderness once cooked but if the fat is only on the outside, it can be removed without impacting the flavour. Marbling is most evident in the Japanese meat farmed in the Kobe province.
To summarize, here are some questions you can put to your butcher to show just how well informed you are.
- What breeds do you sell and where does your meat come from?
- What cut do you recommend for boiling or stewing?
- How long has this cut been hung to mature?
And furthermore, here are some useful tips to bear in mind when choosing meat.
- Choose organically farmed meat, from animals bred in the open air.
- Prefer meat from non-intensive farms that are as close as possible to where you live.
- Choose beef rather than veal since it contains more protein.
- Choose a butcher’s shop with its own slaughter house: this ensures a shorter supply chain and greater quality control.
- Look out for very dark bits on the edges of the meat which indicate poor storage and refrigeration. The dark red colour of a cut, however, is not a bad sign since it indicates the presence of myoglobin, a substance that abounds in the more active muscles.
- Beware of the presence of pink-coloured water in the bottom of refrigerated trays used for storing meat: this means that the meat has been pumped with water.