Principles: How to buy great meat

Buy meat needn’t be intimidating, you only need know a few principles to be able to pick up a great a piece of meat.

When it comes to meat, you can get as complicated as you want, just like with wine. It is very rewarding and I would high recommend that people learn more about meat.

However, a massive amount of learning isn’t needed to choose well. Here are our rules for success.

Trust your eyes

What good quality older lamb or mutton should look like

Meat shouldn’t be grey. The pork should look like pork, the lamb like lamb and the beef like beef. If you are struggling to tell the difference, don’t buy it.

Meat should also look firm and be reasonably dry. Wetness can be an indicator that the meat hasn’t been aged, is on the turn or had water added. Avoid.

Check it is from a proper traditional breed

Traditional Aberdeen Angus cattle

When you are buying an Aberdeen Angus steak, you’d assume it’s from Aberdeen Anus. Well, it’s properly not. It will most like be a cross with a modern breed. Proper Aberdeen Angus cattle are so uncommon now that they are considered endangered by the Rare Breed Survival Trusts, which means there are only 150–250 left.

It’s like when anything becomes popular, someone will come along with a cheaper and lower quality alternative — think Ugg Boots. But, with meat you can just call them Ugg Boots too.

It should have spent the vast majority of its life outside

You will find lots of nonsense stickers on meat about how the animal was brought up, ignore them. You only need to know one thing, did it spend as much time as possible outside.

If it is a traditional breed, it will be able to survive outside in the toughest conditions, because that’s what they have evolved to do. They will be happier, healthier and tastier outside.

Do note though that most animals will be kept inside as they near slaughter weight to be finished (getting the right fat covering on them). That’s important as you don’t want a too skinny animal going to the abattoir.

There are four main parts to any quadruped

You can butcher a carcass into hundreds of different of cuts, but you only need to know four parts really, shoulder, belly, loin and leg. Any cut from an area will perform and taste pretty similar.

The loin is where premium cuts will come from, like sirloin steak, pork chops or lamb cutlets. Anything from the loin will need cooking rare to just through. It will have a bit of fat and maybe marbling. It will be expensive.

Beef rib, which are part of the belly area and can be treated like belly pork

Belly will be fatty, about 50% fat on a lamb or pig and less on a cow, but that fat combined with the hard work done by the muscles makes for an amazing slow roasting joint, as anyone that has had pork belly will know.

Another part of the animal you want to be slow roasting is anything from the shoulder. The fat content will much lower than the belly’s, so you can dry it out if you really go for it, but you will have masses of flavour as the shoulder does majority of the work when the animal moves around.

The leg will be leanest. It is where joints like topside come from. If you cook any cut from it rare to just well done, it will make a great roast for a fraction of the price of a joint from the loin.

Only accept dry-aged beef

Dry-aged steak

Aging beef can get very nerdy, but the basic principle is only except dry aged, which is where the carcass is hung in a relatively dry cold room to let the flavour develop and the moisture levels drop.

Anything dry aged for over three weeks will be outstanding and that will be the case for up to around five weeks. Anything over five weeks, you will begin to get rotten flavour. Some people like these, but it is niche thing not generally enjoyed.

Follow these simple rules and you won’t go far wrong.

By Callum Heckstall-Smith, who is the founder of Heckstall & Smith.