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There’s a lot more that goes into buying meat than just picking up the cheapest package on the shelf.
Before shopping for meat, it’s important to have a plan, says Megan Thompson, the in-store dietitian with Dominion stores in Newfoundland, including St. John’s, Bay Roberts, and Carbonear, as well as virtually supporting stores in Corner Brook and Stephenville.
The first stage is to know your recipe, so you know what type of meat to buy.
Certain cuts or kinds of meat are better for certain dishes, says Thompson. For example, if you’re making a beef stew, you can use a less tender cut of beef, like stewing beef, because the slow moist cooking heat helps make it tender. This can help save you money, too, because stewing beef can be less expensive than some other premium cuts of beef.
Then consider how the meat comes prepared. Bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts are less expensive than boneless, skinless chicken breasts. But it may take more time to prepare the bone-in, skin-on chicken breast if you’re making something like a chicken stir fry. If you’re looking to save money and don't care about time, one may be a better option than the other, she explains.
She also suggests looking for weekly sales and specials, especially if you’re looking to stock up on essentials for your freezer.
Quality over quantity
Jennifer D'Aubin, owner of D'Aubin Family Meats in Bridgetown, N.S., says if you go for quality, you might find you don't need the same quantity. In the end, you'll be better off.
“I think it's also a misconception that only the top cuts, beef especially, can be good,” says D’Aubin.
D’Aubin's favourite beef roast is a blade roast, which is a cheaper cut and not as pretty in the end. When cooked low and slow, however, she says it always turns out well and the flavour can't be beat.
What you need to buy really depends on the recipe you're using.
Thompson says when buying meat, consider portion size. Canada’s Food Guide states that the serving size of meat like chicken, beef, and pork is about the size of the palm of your hand.
"When we think of it that way, many of the cuts of meat at the grocery store may actually be two to three servings. That’s important to keep in mind for both our diets and our wallets," she says.
What to look for
On the packaging, terms like “regular,” “lean,” and “extra lean” refer to the fat content, explains Thompson. In ground meats, like ground beef or ground pork, “regular” is a maximum of 30 per cent fat, “lean” means a maximum of 17 per cent fat, and “extra lean” is up to 10 per cent fat.
If you're monitoring your fat intake, choosing extra lean or lean ground meat over medium ground meat is a good option, says Thompson. Medium ground meat will require you to drain the fat after cooking, whereas draining isn’t usually needed when using extra lean. That’s another thing to keep in mind, depending on what you’re cooking, she says.
Just on looks alone, D’Aubin says you want to see marble in your beef steak. You can't always go by the colour of the meat, either, because sometimes a darker steak can mean it's aged and will actually yield a better end result.
Clean is key: clean hands, clean utensils, and clean surfaces (counters, cutting boards) should be the starting point when preparing meat, Thompson said. And when you're done, clean all utensils and surfaces (plates, cutting boards, counters) with hot, soapy water after coming in contact with raw meat.
"Be sure to wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds after handling raw meat," she says.
"Do not place cooked meat on a surface that had raw meat without washing first. Also, don’t chop raw vegetables on a cutting board that was used to cut raw meat without washing first."
When defrosting meat, Thompson says the safest way to do so is in the refrigerator. Defrosting on the counter at room temperature can cause bacteria to grow and increases the risk of foodborne illness.
When thawing meat in the fridge, it's best to place the meat on a plate, bowl, or other container to collect any of the juice that may escape the packaging, explains Thompson. The meat should always be placed on the bottom shelf of the fridge to prevent anything from dripping onto other foods and prevent contamination.
You can also thaw meat in the microwave, she says, or if it’s in a sealed package, by submerging it in cold water. But you should change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cold enough and prevent bacteria growth.
If you're marinating your meat, make sure to place the mixture on the bottom shelf of the fridge to prevent dripping on other surfaces, says Thompson. Don’t taste the marinade or re-use it once the raw meat has been added. The same is true of any breading or coating you may use with raw meat.
Before marinating, however, check the cut of meat. Michael Frizzell of Mike’s Island Market in Charlottetown, P.E.I., says one of the biggest mistakes he sees is someone buying a high-quality steak and then marinating it. A nice steak does not need marinade, he says.
When it comes to cooking, D’Aubin says it's important to know your cuts, especially beef. Some cuts require low and slow cooking to be tender.
And always cook with a meat thermometer to ensure your meat is cooked, but not overcooked, says D’Aubin.
Thompson says using a meat thermometer is the only way to be sure meat is cooked to a safe internal temperature, helping to reduce pathogens and can help prevent foodborne illness. It's simple enough to use - just insert the meat thermometer into the thickest part of the meat to check the internal temperature.
But be careful: if you insert the meat thermometer to check the temperature and the meat isn't quite cooked, be sure to wash the probe of thermometer with hot, soapy water before re-inserting.
“If we are trying to judge the doneness of meat based on appearance, we’re more likely to leave it in longer just to be sure,” says Thompson, noting that this is what often causes the meat to be overcooked.
"When meat is overcooked or dry, we’re more likely to add gravies or sauces to make it more enjoyable. This can add extra fat, salt or sugar we’re not always aware of."
Save the juice
Meat juices at the bottom of the pan can be saved for a great addition to stocks and soups, giving them some extra flavour and depth, says Thompson.
If you’re not planning on making stock or soup right away, drain the juice, let it cool and then refrigerate.
It can stay in the fridge for about three days, she says, or freeze it until you’re ready to make some soup or stock.
Where to buy
There are a lot of things to consider when purchasing and cooking meat, which is why Frizzell recommends supporting local and buying from butchers rather than box department stores.
“Experienced staff will be more than willing to help pick out the right cut for you,” says Frizzell.
In his experience, people who are used to shopping at large box stores are shy to ask questions.
"We want to engage them in conversation and understand what they are buying," he says, adding that they aim to help educate their customers.
D’Aubin adds that prices at a butcher’s shop are comparable to large stores - although she cautions that small businesses can't always compete with sale items - and the taste is superior.
Another reason to purchase meat from a reputable place is because of something that is happening more frequently – fraud, especially with fish.
Frizzell says fish fraud is nothing new. People are constantly finding ways to make their products cheaper. For example, scallops, shrimp, white fish are often soaked in tripolyphosphate to gain water weight, he says.
Frizzell also points to the water weight you pay for in some commercial bacon. Instead, he says, try buying locally made bacon, as it doesn’t shrink and there is no water in the packaging.
“There are ways to cheat. We want to educate our customers on this and show them we do not use these practices,” says Frizzell.
The next time you are buying meat, there is no reason to feel overwhelmed, he adds. Ask the butcher behind the counter who will be more than happy to help you get what you need.
Safe internal temperature guide when cooking meat
- Ground beef/pork: 71 C
- Ground chicken/turkey: 74 C
- Beef steaks and roasts: Medium rare – 63 C
- Medium – 71 C
- Well done – 77 C
- Pork chops and roasts: 71 C
- Chicken/turkey pieces: 74 C
- Whole chicken/turkey (without stuffing): 85 C