Selecting Meats

The meat section of the grocery store can be an intimidating place. The cuts of meat available stretch the coolers, lined up nicely like little shrink-wrapped soldiers ready to sabotage your meal with tough, chewy bites. Even if you know the exact cut of meat you want, you still compare thickness, marbling, color and price to find just the right package to use for your special meal. We're here to help you pick the right piece of beef, seafood, fish, lamb and other meats. See our other articles for how to select and store fruits and vegetables too.

Many stores package meat with a label that lists how it will best be used. My local store uses color-coded labels to differentiate grill, stew, roast and stove-top cuts of meat. These labels are a great starting point, as is your local butcher. The first few times you go in, ask for the butcher’s assistance. They will share some tricks of the trade and maybe even tell you when the meat shipments come in so you can take advantage of the fresh delivery and better selection.

Let's start with beef, the most common and confusing meat. Beef is generally separated into two categories: tough and tender. Tough meats contain muscle and are meant to be cooked slowly at a low temperature. This cooking process (usually stewing, roasting, braising or marinating) helps break down the meat more and helps to tenderize it. Tough meats generally include the front cuts of the cow like the shoulder, leg and flank. Tender cuts are meant to be cooked quickly and at higher temperatures (grilling or stir-frying) to seal in the flavor and juices quickly. These cuts tend to be from the rear of the cow and include the rump, loin, and rib cuts. See the chart at the end to determine cuts and categories as well as suggested cooking methods.

Within these two categories of cuts, there are eight USDA grades of beef based on fat content, marbling and quality. Other meats like lamb and pork may not have all these classifications, but they follow the same ranking order, so any meat labeled "Prime" will always be the top quality meat.

  • Prime – most marbleized, more flavorful; most common in hotels and restaurants; only 2% of all beef in the world fits this category
  • Choice – high quality but less marbling than Prime
  • Select – lean fat content and less juice and flavor, but still tender
  • Standard – also sold labeled as “ungraded” or store brand
  • Commercial – also sold labeled as “ungraded” or store brand; not available in most stores
  • Utility – not available retail unless processed into a product or used to make ground beef
  • Cutter – not available retail unless processed into products like hot dogs
  • Canner – not available retail; processed for canned meats
Once you narrow the cuts based on how you will be using them, you next use your senses to select the best piece to take home with you.
  • Look – Look for marbling, color and date. You want meat that is marbled with flecks of white fat throughout the piece, not so much on the outside rim of the cut. While many people think lean is best, a nicely marbled piece will bring more flavor and juices to each bite. Just don’t confuse the fat with the thicker, white, stiffer gristle. The meat should be dark or cherry red. Brown color at the edges means it’s been sitting for a while. Also, check the date on the packaging to see how old it is.
  • Feel – Meat should be firm, not tough or soft. If it doesn’t spring back to shape after you poke it gently, it is likely less fresh.
  • Smell – Smell the meat, and avoid anything that smells funky or rancid. While you can’t smell the pre-packaged stuff, you can smell the fresh cut stuff from the butcher.

Other Meats
Chicken should be pink in the package, not brown or grey. Again, if you buy skinless chicken, you do want a little of the fat to help with flavor and juice. The more a piece of chicken is processed, the more expensive it will be. Boneless skinless chicken breast is more expensive per pound than chicken still on the bone and in its skin. If you are living on a budget, ask the store butcher to show you how to remove the skin yourself to save some money.

Pork should also be a nice even pink or pinkish-white color. Brown or grey coloring means it has been sitting for a while. Look for the same marbling characteristics as in beef, above. The smell test is especially important with pork as you will be able to easily compare a few pieces and know which one is oldest.

Lamb should have a purple USDA stamp on the package to ensure it came from a healthy animal. For the best meat, look for lamb butchered at seven months or younger. Fresh lamb is lean and pink in color, and the bones should be red and porous.

Fish is sold fresh or frozen, and you can use your senses to tell the freshness of each before buying. Fresh fish should have clear eyes that are slightly bulging. A few fish, such as walleye, have naturally cloudy eyes, so double-check with the butcher if needed. Scales should have a bright sheen and should be a universal color; avoid fish with scales that are browning around the edges or have a yellowish tint. The fish should be firm and elastic, so use the same finger-poke test as beef above. Also, fresh fish smell mild, not fishy or like ammonia. For frozen fish, look for tight packaging that is as close to the fish as possible. The package should not have any odors, which could signal old or improperly frozen fish. Freezer burn on fish will appear like dark, icy or dry spots on the scales of the fish.

Shellfish can be a little tricky, so find a good source and a reliable vendor who can help you make the best selections. Buy live seafood if possible for the freshest available. Lobsters and crabs should be moving their legs and have hard shells. A live lobster will curl its tail up when removed from water. Live oysters, clams, mussels and scallops should have closed shells without cracks or chips. If a shell is open and it closes when you tap it, it is still alive. Clams, oysters and mussels that have been shelled should be plump and kept in a clear liquid with a slight sheen to it. Scallops out of the shell should look moist but not be kept in liquid or touching ice. They should have a mild, sweet smell.

Shrimp can be sold many ways: raw with heads on, raw in the shell with heads removed, raw and peeled, cooked in the shell, or cooked and peeled. Generally if they are peeled, they have also been de-veined, so check the inside of the shrimp’s natural curl that the black veins and entrails have been removed completely. Raw shrimp will look grey and white, while cooked shrimp will be an orange/pink color. Shrimp is labeled either by size (jumbo, large, etc.) or by approximately how many make up a pound. The larger the shrimp, the lower the count and the more expensive they are.

Here are some other general tips when selecting meats:

  • Bone-in vs. Bone-out – this is a matter of preference. Bone-in will cook faster as bones help radiate and transfer heat. But bone-out is easier to eat as there is nothing to cut around.
  • You Pay for Service – while the prepared beef, lamb and pork items are easier for you, they are more expensive. To save money without compromising quality, buy the cuts that are just cut, not marinated, sliced, de-boned, tied, skinned, or seasoned.
  • Color Is Important – meat color and fat color is important. Avoid fat that looks grey or yellowish.
  • Avoid Condensation – meats packaged incorrectly may have condensation or excessive moisture in the packaging.
TypeMeat CutTough or TenderCooking Method
ChopsToughGrill, broil, roast, saute, pan-fry
Filet (center cut filet is Chateaubriand; near the end of the filet is filet mignon)ToughMarinate and grill or broil
Flank (London broil)TenderSear, then braise and roast
Loin or sirloin (or strip steak)TenderGrill, broil, pan-fry
RibTenderGrill or Broil
Rib eye (or Delmonico steak)TenderGrill or Broil
Rump and roundToughBraise
Shoulder and chuckToughBraise
Skirt and plate (can include short ribs)TenderGrill or broil steaks; braise ribs
Steaks (T-bone, porterhouse, sirloin)ToughGrill, broil
Stew meatTenderBraise, stew
LambChopsTenderGrill, broil, roast, saute, pan-fry
Rack of lamb (ribs)TenderBroil, roast
Shank (leg)ToughBraise, stew
ShoulderToughBraise, roast, stew
Stew meatToughBraise, stew
PorkLoin (center cut, sirloin roasts, chops, cutlets, crown roast and tenderloin)TenderGrill, broil, roast, saute, pan-fry
Ribs (spareribs, baby back ribs)ToughBraise or stew
Shoulder (Boston butt and picnic shoulder)ToughBraise, roast, stew
VealLoin or saddle (loin chop)TenderRoasted
Round roast (top round and sirloin tip)TenderRoasted
RumpTenderBoned and roasted
SirloinTenderBoned and roasted

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