A HOW-TO GUIDE FOR BUYING, STORING
AND PREPARING FARM-RAISED CUTS.
BY DIANA RODGERS / PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
STYLED CATRINE KELTY
As the availability of local meat increases, through farmers markets and meat CSAs, more people are buying second freezers, exploring unusual cuts and experimenting with new cooking techniques. There are lots of reasons for these trends, which are especially strong in New England. As the wife of a farmer, and an advocate for local and sustainable food, I know well that buying meat raised locally helps support small-scale regional farms, and it tastes much better than the industrially raised meat found in a typical grocery store. But many people new to buying meat directly from a farmer—which is almost always sold vacuum-packed and frozen—find that dealing with this new product can be intimidating. They receive cuts of meat that they aren’t used to buying at the supermarket, and aren’t familiar with thawing and preparing them. Here are some tips to help you source local meat, store it, thaw it and cook it like a pro.
WHY BUY LOCAL MEAT?
Meat raised on pasture is much more delicious than factory- farmed meat. Because it has traveled fewer miles to get to your plate, and generally was raised outdoors instead of in a large concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), the meat you find from New England farmers is more sustainable for the environment. And despite its bad reputation, red meat is actually quite healthy.
Red meat from pastured animals is one of the best sources of bio-available iron. It’s also rich in B6, B12, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, folate, niacin, selenium, choline and zinc. Organ meat is especially nutrient-dense when it comes to vitamins and minerals. Grass-fed beef has significantly more omega-3 fatty acids than feedlot beef (although wild salmon is an even better source of this important nutrient). Grass is rich in vitamin E and carotenoids, and cattle that graze on grass store beta-carotene—the precursor to vitamin A—in their fat and milk, making the fat in grass-fed beef more nutritious, and more yellow, than grain-finished steak.
HOW TO SOURCE LOCAL MEAT
In the Boston area, most farmers markets now have at least one vendor who sells local meat. There are also several farms that offer their meat directly to customers, or people can opt for the new trend of local meat delivery services. Eatwild. com is a great resource to connect directly with a producer. Be aware that New England meat “season” is generally late summer through early winter, so if you’re interested in a onetime meat share, be prepared to receive your dividends then. Also, local meat is generally sold frozen and in bulk, which means less waste for the farmer.
BUYING A WHOLE ANIMAL
If you’re up for saving some money and investing in a whole animal, most farmers sell them by the “hanging weight,” which is the weight of the animal without the head, hooves, organs and hide. Once the majority of the bones are removed and the animal is butchered, the weight of the meat you’ll receive is less than the hanging weight. For pigs and lamb, finished cuts are about 70% of the hanging weight. Cattle return about 60–65%, and of this, 30–40% will be in ground meat. If you’re considering buying a whole animal, you can expect about 350–400 pounds for a whole cow, 110–150 for a whole pig, and 30–50 pounds for lamb. A whole lamb takes up about one standard-sized freezer (above a fridge), and a 20-cubic-foot stand-alone freezer can fit the meat of about two pigs or one cow. (Please note that most farmers do offer half and quarter animals for those seeking a smaller investment and less to store.)
When buying a whole animal, you should be asked for your choice of cuts, whether or not you want to receive any lard or organ meats and if you’d like your meat wrapped in paper or plastic. Vacuum-sealed plastic is preferable to paper because the meat will be less likely to dry out and it makes thawing easier and less messy. Well-sealed meat will last over a year in the freezer with the exception of bacon, which should be eaten within six months.
DO SOME RESEARCH
If at all possible, visit the farm your meat comes from. Walk around. Are the animals actually being fed and raised according to how they’re marketed? Are the chickens on dirt or fresh grass? Fresh grass is a better and more natural environment for chickens. Are they making lots of noise and pecking around for bugs? Noisy, pecking chickens are happy chickens! How about the cattle? Do they spend their time on the same piece of pasture or are they rotated to new grass often? And when the time comes, how and where are they processed? When you are investing in a meat share, visiting the farm for yourself and asking questions is the best way to ensure your investment will live up to its marketing promise.
HANDLING LOCAL MEAT
How to store
I have a dedicated “meat freezer” at my home. Chest freezers are more energy efficient, but I’ve found over the years that I prefer an upright freezer because I can easily see and grab the cuts I want rather than digging around in a chest freezer, which can make holes in the plastic wrapping—something that you don’t want to do. Holes make for a big mess when you’re thawing the meat, and can introduce bacteria that will spoil it.
How to plan and thaw
If you have a spare refrigerator in your house or garage, you’re likely already using it for leftovers and beverages, but it’s also great for thawing meat. For example, each week, I place a few packages of frozen meat in a bowl at the bottom of my extra fridge so I have choices throughout the week for what to cook. Using a bowl is key because sometimes the meat can “leak” if there is a hole in the package, making a huge mess. This is also why it’s important—from a food safety perspective—to store any raw or thawing meat at the bottom of the fridge, below any food you’ll eat without cooking. Most cuts will defrost overnight in the fridge and be ready to cook by dinnertime.
When planning a meal, take a look at what cuts you have available, how much time you have and what vegetables are on hand and start from there. There will be occasions when you find yourself without any thawed meat and a hungry family to feed, so to quickly thaw it, place a package of plastic-wrapped meat in a large bowl in the sink and let it sit under cool water for 15–20 minutes. Never use a microwave! This process works well for a one-pound package of ground meat or steaks, but not for large roasts or whole chickens—for larger cuts, the slow thaw-in-the-fridge technique is ideal. Do be aware that sometimes quick-thawed ground meat can produce a more watery product, which will make meatballs or burgers less likely to keep their shape and may necessitate more binder. Drain the ground meat well before using if you find a lot of liquid at the bottom of the thawed package.
HOW TO COOK
Because grass-fed beef is leaner than grain-finished beef, it has a reputation for being dryer and chewier. This is where your cooking technique comes into play. When cooked properly, grass-fed steak has a richer, more “earthy” or “grassy” taste. Be aware that grass-fed beef also cooks differently than conventional meat. “Low-and-slow” cooking techniques—like brazing and stewing—are ideal for larger cuts.
When making steaks, you can either try an initial quick sear in a cast-iron skillet followed by a low-and-slow roast in the oven, or start the steak in the oven and finish it with a good pan sear. You’ll need about 30% less cooking time for grass-fed meat. Set your oven about 50° lower when using grass-fed beef if following a standard recipe, and CrockPots should be set on “low.” You should also allow meat to come to room temperature before cooking it, and let it rest for at least five minutes after cooking before slicing.
There are a few great kitchen tools that will make your life easier when cooking local meat:
A digital meat thermometer, such as a Thermapen. It’s really hard to cook a perfect steak if you don’t know what temperature it is. Consult a temperature chart that will instruct you on the proper temperature reading for type of meat, cut and desired doneness. Always remove the meat from your heat source just before it gets to the proper temperature to allow for “carry over” time, which can vary depending on the thickness of the cut.
A well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. I love my cast-iron skillets, and have a variety of shapes and sizes. You can even find antique pans at yard sales, which may need reconditioning, but they’re easy to get back into shape. Cast iron holds heat really well and creates the perfect sear.
A braising pan. This isn’t mandatory, because you can also braise in a Dutch oven or in a baking dish with a cover, but a braising pot does make the job easier. They’re basically a wide, enameled cast iron with tight-fitting lid that can go from stovetop to oven. These also tend to make a fantastic wedding gift!
A Dutch oven. For soups, stews and slow roasts, a Dutch oven is a great tool. I like enameled cast iron, and they come in a variety of really fun colors. Make sure the lid is oven safe. A Dutch oven will produce flavors that are much more concentrated and developed than in a slow cooker.
A slow cooker. If you really need to “set it and forget it,” or are someone who likes to let your food bubble quietly overnight and be ready to eat the next morning, an electric slow cooker is ideal.
An Instant Pot or programmable electric pressure cooker. This is my absolute favorite new kitchen gadget, and I use mine several times a week. It can function as a slow cooker if you like, but to me the best part of the Instant Pot is its pressure cooker feature. I can make a homemade broth—usually simmered for several hours or overnight on the stove—in about an hour. Pulled pork, stews, soups and perfectly cooked beets and potatoes take practically no time at all. The food also tastes great because you don’t need lots of liquid and the pressure concentrates the flavors. If you’re a foodie, you need this pot! Trust me.
A meat tenderizer (either a Jaccard or a raised-surface meat mallet). There’s a reason why every grandmother’s kitchen back in the day had either a meat mallet or a bottle of powdered enzyme tenderizer. Grass-fed beef—which all beef once was before feedlot grain finishing—will be tough when not treated right. Searing a grass-fed steak straight up in a pan will result in a dry and chewy piece of meat, but when you use one of these devices, it comes out great. You can easily make a really tough cut juicy and tender by either perforating the meat with a bladed Jaccard, creating tiny air holes which reduce cooking time, or disrupting the connective tissue by pounding it with a raised-surface mallet. A must for any local meat CSA shareholder.
Tongs. Don’t flip your meat with a fork, which allows the juices to run out of the meat before it’s had a chance to rest. Get yourself a few sets of tongs so that you treat your steak well.
DIANA RODGERS, RD, LDN, NTP is a “real food” nutritionist and writer living on a working organic farm in Carlisle, Massachusetts. She runs a clinical nutrition practice, and speaks internationally about the intersection of food, sustainability, animal welfare and social justice. She can be found at sustainabledish.com.