Buying meat confounds even the best cook. In the good old days we had only to ask our butcher for "a nice roast" or "some juicy lamb chops," but nowadays we're on our own at the supermarket meat counter. Help!
1. What is the best way to make the right choice when buying meat?
Know what you want. Whether you plan to make a stew or broil a steak, go to the store with an idea of the right cut. Read recipes and books about meat for help.
2. Does price play a role in quality?
Price usually indicates a "better cut" of meat. For example, sirloin or shell steaks, loin lamb chops, and pork tenderloins are premium cuts. They can be grilled, broiled, or roasted with little fuss.
Less expensive cuts are best for marinating, stewing, and braising. These include top or bottom round beef, blade pork chops, and lamb shoulder. If you plan to make a pot roast, don't buy a rib roast. It is not as well suited to long, moist cooking as a top round or chuck roast.
3. How can I tell if the meat is fresh?
In general, if the meat looks tough or unnaturally dark, avoid it. Any water trapped in the plastic is not a good sign, either. Otherwise, follow these general tips:
Beef: Begin by looking for choice beef (or, if you can find it, prime beef). It should not have excessive fat but any marbling (streaks of fat) should be even. The fat should look creamy and moist - not dry and yellow. The meat should be cherry red, not deep red, and never two-toned. Pressed through the plastic, it should feel firm.
Ground beef: Ask the butcher to grind the beef for you rather than buying it already ground. This takes time and a cooperative butcher (even a supermarket butcher will do this if you ask), but it guarantees freshness. Otherwise, buy rosy colored meat evenly mixed with white fat. Do not buy ground beef that is browning.
Veal: Veal should show no signs of marbling and any exterior fat should be white. The meat should be white or very pale pink and look firm, moist, and smooth. Veal bones should be soft and red.
Lamb: Look for lean, firm pink meat. Any exterior fat should be white. Avoid dark red lamb, pure white bones, or yellowing fat - sure indications of older meat.
Pork: Pork should be lean and any fat should be firm and white. The meat should be pinkish-gray and the bones should have healthy looking streaks of red. Stay away from pork with deep red meat, coarse texture, or yellowing fat.
4. Should I buy meat in bulk and freeze it?
If you have room in your freezer, buying meat in quantity is a great idea. Unwrap the meat as soon as you get home and immediately rewrap it plastic and then freezer paper. Label and date the package and stow it in the freezer.
Most meat freezes well for up to six months, although eating it sooner is better than later.