What should I look for when buying steak in a butcher's or supermarket?

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13 February
16:57
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17 February
09:24

“The first thing to do would be to speak to a butcher. If they can’t tell you where their meat has come, walk straight out of the door. You’re not prying, and it’s a completely normal question to ask. You want to know how the animal has been reared, and whether they enjoyed their life.

“Details should include, what have they eaten? And, how old were they? Our beef is all from native breed cattle, which is reared in the UK naturally and slowly. They won’t be killed until they’re 35 months old. In a supermarket they could be killed at 17 months, but that’s because they rear a different breed.

“In what way? Supermarkets use continental breeds and they’re quick growers. They build muscle fast, so you can essentially kill them earlier for the same yield, but the taste will be completely different. We only sell native breed cattle – Longhorns, Aberdeen Angus, Herefords - which are reared on a natural diet: grass fed and finished on a mix of grains in the last four to six weeks of their life (which hardens their fat so they can be dry aged). Those animals won’t be any good before the 25-month mark. They don’t grow quickly.

"Always explain what the steak is for, such as a dinner party. So many people go into a butcher’s and they become overwhelmed."

“They’re also naturally very good at turning grass into fat. It’s laid down down over months, which gives a really good steak that “marbling”, or intramuscular strands of fat. Decent marbling, which is even throughout the meat, indicates a naturally slow grown life. With supermarket meat you don’t tend to get too much fat. That’s because of the breed but also because of the early killing. Customers are still quite afraid of fat and they go for the leaner type of cow.

“Think of this way: in the gym you have really big guys pushing huge weights. They’re the continental cows used by supermarkets. And the other end of the scale are the really skinny types - that’s a dairy cow at the end of its life; it’s gone into the food chain as really cheap beef. In the middle is the gym goer with really good muscles, a healthy layer of fat, and good definition – that’s the native breed. And fat is what gives it the flavour. However that doesn’t mean to say that all fat means flavour. If your animal has got fat from eating too much grain, that’s an unnatural amount of fat to have for a cow and it might taste pretty bland, compared to a grass fed, 30 month old Hereford, which has then been dry-aged.

“You also want your steak to be dry-aged. That’s where a butcher hangs the meat in a big fridge, with air circulating throughout.. The longer it stays there, the more water is extracted, which intensifies the flavour. Naturally the meat will start to break down a little bit – it won’t go mouldy – but it will become tender. Our customers like their beef at different ages. We have aged meat for 100 days for a restaurant in Paris and it’s pretty strong. Generally, we tend to do 28 days, with a little bit longer for the rump cuts of the cattle which gives it a little more flavour.

“Supermarket meat tends to be wet aged, where, quite literally, the meat is taken off the bone, put into much smaller cuts and then vac-packed and left to sit there. The yields won’t go down, it won’t lose any moisture but it will become a little more tender. You can’t eat beef fresh by the way, it’s too tough. You need a little time to soften it a bit. Beef should never be wet. If you see it being cut on the counter, it shouldn’t have a wet sheen to it.

  • Cattle should always be well cared for and respected by men in sturdy wellies.

“Don’t fear meat with a darker colour, beef tends to darken as it age because it’s oxidising. But if you see a dark, purple patch on a steak don’t buy it! If an animal hasn’t been treated particularly nicely at the time of slaughter then there will be a rush of adrenaline, which is what those patches are. And like a human, when cows are stressed, they tense up. If they’re in that state at the time of death then their muscles will be very tight and it will not eat well at all. This all goes back to talking to your butcher. Find out where the meat has come from and how the animal has been raised. Make sure it’s had a nice comfortable life and been slaughtered appropriately, and with respect.

“Always explain what the steak is for. So many people go into a butcher’s and they become overwhelmed. They see fillet, ribeye and sirloin, and that’s what they go for. But if they were to explain what they wanted to spend, what style they like, they’ll be given some decent alternative options which might surprise them, like rump, which has loads of flavour if aged longer than the middle and the ribs, which is where the sirloin, fillet and ribeye come from. There’s also flatiron, which comes from the shoulder of the animal; onglet is popular, which is also called hangar steak. So speak to your butcher, and if they do nose to tail butchery – which is the whole carcass – they’ll be able to give you an option or two.”

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