Canadians are curious shoppers. According to 2018 Dalhousie study, over a third of respondents say they’ve bought a food product before without knowing exactly what it is. Canucks are also more likely than their American counterparts to shop at multiple stores, and they prefer to shop at places where they know people.
Which inevitably brings them to the hallowed institution: the butcher shop. Unlike major superstores, butcher shops are an intimate space where you can browse goods and get advice from a trusted expert. After all, a butcher isn’t just someone who can cut and sell you meat. They’re culinary connoisseurs and leaders in their craft. This also means they’re happy to speak with anyone who cares about their products as much as they do.
Next time you visit your local butcher, bring these six questions with you to ensure you’re getting the choicest cut for whatever you’re cooking up that day.
- How did you source your farmers and learn about their practices?
All conscientious butchers should know (and take pride in) where they source their meat from. Knowing where and how it’s raised will not only help them make recommendations to customers, but allow them to feel confident in the products they’re selling to the people in their community. Bringing this up in conversation isn’t being fussy or pretentious — in fact, it shows them you value their expertise and the care they take in sourcing their products. You can start by asking if the product is local or shipped in from far away, how often they receive shipments, and what type of farm (feedlot or free-range) the animals are raised on.
Butchers will also often have relationships with specific farms, so you can ask them why they partner with certain providers and not others. For example, Meatme works with a carefully curated group of local family farmers who raise their animals on natural pasture using only natural feed. You’ll get a sense pretty quickly if they choose their partners based on sustainability and quality instead of access and price.
- How would you describe the living conditions of this chicken/pork/beef/etc.?
Once you’ve established how your butcher sources their products, it’s fair to ask how the animal lived during its full life cycle. Unfortunately, many of the terms we associate with health and ethical standards don’t actually tell the full story. For example, the label “free-range” only notes that the animal had an outdoor access point. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the animals were encouraged to spend time outside or given freedom to roam in natural outdoor space.
For these reasons and more, you’ll want to ask your butcher how the animals were raised and finished. Not only is choosing meat that’s been raised naturally more ethical, it’s often more flavourful.
- What has this animal been fed over its lifetime?
A high-quality diet is essential to an animal’s well-being, and it translates into healthier, more delicious food for you, too. Keep your ears open for words like antibiotics, hormones and GMO feed — these are all warning signs that the animals might have been raised in accelerated feeding programs, which are both unethical and result in lower quality products. To contrast, if your butcher explains that the animal has been raised on nuts, overflow produce, hay and alfalfa, seeds and plants, or grass, you know you’re in good hands.
- Is your beef grass-fed and -finished?
Knowing whether the beef is grass- or grain-fed is about more than just buzzwords. It’s about understanding the conditions that the cows are raised in and the effect that has on the quality of the final product.
If beef is grass-fed, that means that the cows eat grass (and only grass!). They roam freely on green fields, grow naturally and are killed when they reach maturity. The resulting meat is lower in overall fat and in saturated fat and contains essential omega-3 fats, which is associated with lower risks of heart disease and stroke. Compare this to grain-fed beef, which is raised on feed such as corn and protein supplements. These cows often ingest hormones, antibiotics and other drugs that cause them to grow rapidly, and they’re often killed at a young age. The distinction between grain- and grass-finished is similarly important. Even if beef is raised on a pasture, it might have been finished in a feedlot, where the animals are given as much corn and grains as they can eat to fatten them up. This often results in a more bland, fatty meat, whereas free range meat is leaner and higher in nutrients.
All cows raised by Meatme’s partners are grass-fed and -finished, so they never see a feedlot. Asking your butcher which products are grain-fed and -finished and which are grass-fed and -finished will allow you to choose better-for-you cuts — and support conditions that are better for the cows, too.
- When do you receive shipments?
Butchers receive shipments on various days of the week, compared to supermarkets which often receive bulk deliveries only once a week. By asking the schedule of deliveries, you can pinpoint which products have newly arrived or plan your shopping days to have your pick of the choicest cuts!
Asking this question will also tell you information about when and where the meat was processed. Some butchers will grind and case their sausages on site, for example, whereas other products may be handled by another supplier. If you’re really interested, they may even let you peek behind the curtain to see where all the magic happens.
- How would you cook this?
Often, I’ll go shopping at the local market without a recipe at all. It’s a wonderful exercise, as you can find the freshest products available and not feel stuck to an ingredients list. It can also inspire you to create dishes you never would have conceptualized on your own. If you find yourself in this situation, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask your butcher for their recommendation. Cooking a New York strip? Try panfrying. Drooling over a pack of short ribs? Cook them slow and low in a slow cooker.
If you want to learn more about meat, make sure to join our newest Facebook community - The Conscious Carnivore Collective.