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Mar 18, 2008 04:22 AM

Differences between meat from the butcher, Costco and the supermarket


I'll be making a ham and a grilled butterflied leg of lamb for Easter. I haven't bought the meats yet but my question is primarily about the lamb. Besides the price per pound, what is the difference between the lamb from these three locations. I can understand steaks, but somehow I can't figure out the diffeerences with the lamb. As for the ham, I love it but is there a less salty ham that I can buy. If it means buying fresh instead of one of thos spirals, I'll do it. Thanks

  1. That's impossible to respond to really because it depends on the individual butcher or supermarket you are using. Simply because your butcher may charge more than the supermarket who may charge more than Costco is no indication at all of quality difference. However most specialty markets or butchers may carry more than one grade of lamb and offer a certified Colorado lamb or meat from a specefic ranch. I find the lamb at costco an incredible buy. The costco leg of lamb is boneless and that may be an issue depending on what you want. While I am a Costco fan I won't buy their cut steaks. They look like they were butchered (literally) by ten year olds in 30 seconds or less and are often absolutly HUGE steaks. I do buy tenderloins or strips there in the cryo from time to time but on theese the Costco price can actually be higher than other markets here. Not a fan of the Costco ham, way to salty.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Docsknotinn

      jnk, I have to agree with Docsknottin. In the past, I've gotten whole hams that had to be boiled prior to baking, and then they were still salty. I believe the hams in supermarkets are much improved over those of years ago -- my supermarket butcher Vinny recommended a particular spiral sliced ham to me, and I've never been disappointed.

      I've gone the 'elite' butcher route, and haven't been impressed. I've also tried the Costco whole pork loin, and I think it was better in terms of pricing.

      However, I 'still' return to my personal supermarket butcher, since I KNOW he will give me the best meat he can, cut it the way I like it, be there for me when I need him, and most importantly to me, I can still maintain human contact in this world of impersonality. However, as they say, YMMV.

      1. re: Docsknotinn

        Agree about the cut steaks at Costco, the filet mignon my wife purchased there once still had the chain meat and silverskin attached. They had just cut through the entire tenderloin without trimming it at all. Other cut steaks can vary by as much as 1/2" in the same package (and sometimes on the same steak!). The subprimals are an excellent buy if you don't mind doing a little fabricating on your own. Other meats I like to buy there are the rack of lamb, leg of lamb, chicken breasts/thighs and whole chickens. Their seafood also tends to be of good quality, but never as fresh as you can get at a good fishmonger.

      2. For me:

        1st choice: my local small town butcher shop
        2nd choice: Costco
        3rd choice: Supermarket meat dept.

        I do pay a premium for the meat I buy @ the local butcher, but it is well worth it for the quality of meat, and service I recieve. If you form a relationship with a local butcher they will typically be glad to special order any item you may need(specialty lamb, fresh turkeys, whole pigs, etc).

        This is an area where I do not care if I spend a little more. If I can do my part to keep my local family owned butcher shop in business, and avoid pumping more money into faceless corporations that is worth a few pennies per pound extra it may cost me.

        14 Replies
        1. re: swsidejim

          I'm with you on that one, if you're really choosy you can always smell it before you buy it. since there's (gasp) HUMANS! across the counter. You may be able to cut a deal, buy in bulk and toss it in the deep freeze if you have one (it's cheaper to go to the nearest family-run packing house but prob. not by much). Sadly there just aren't that many of either to choose from (or even find) these days.

          Best bet of all would be to get a retail license (anyone can, but you're responsible for calculating and paying the sales tax independently even if you don't resell) and go to the sources that supply the pro kitchens.

          1. re: swsidejim

            I agree with this ranking. I love my small local butcher shop -- called "The Meat Store". It's not just for the service or the quality of the meat; it's the knowledge. The meat cutters there are all very experienced. I mean, if I buy a whole tenderloin, I can slice it myself into filet mignons. Joyce, John, and the other guys at The Meat Store do the rest faster and better than I could.

            Plus, John owns the store, and like you said, I know where the money's going.

            1. re: jmckee

              I agree, I love having my steaks, and other cuts of meat sliced to order, not sitting in packages, or cryovac. I dont buy Choice graded meat, so places that sell Choice graded meat will not work for me.

              Its interesting, the people on here that speak about "buying locally" and "supporting the small non-chain restaurants & merchants" are sometimes the same people who have no problem shopping at Costco. I guess to some helping to keep a local butcher shop in business isnt as important as keeping the non chain restaurants, small farmers, and other small businesses around.

              1. re: swsidejim

                what I dig about mine is that they have cuts and terms you just don't often see anymore - seen a steak labeled a Delmonico lately? plus they've been around since the 40's (I think, maybe 50's).

                swside - ever read "Cruddy" by Lynda Barry? early plot point refers to this.

                1. re: hill food

                  hill food,

                  no I'll have to look for that book you mention.

                  The meat market I go to has been around a while as well. 4 generations man the store on a Saturday when i do most of my shopping. They will stay open past 5:30 if I call and let them know I am coming on a weeknight, and we have been known to bend an elbow in the back of the butcher shop after closing time on Saturday's.

                  1. re: swsidejim

                    Cruddy is a very dark novel, the father figure is a butcher with "issues" and grudges regarding the industry, the small guy vs. the big houses. not the point of the story, but a strong underlying theme.

                    small, little details that really only come out on a 2nd or 3rd read. not foodie in the least. quite the opposite really.

                  2. re: hill food

                    "seen a steak labeled a Delmonico lately? "
                    Is that a serious question? A Delmonico is just a rib eye. Every grocery store and market from here to timbuckto has them. Labeling it a Delmonico doesn't make it a different cut of meat.

                  3. re: swsidejim

                    How does buying 'locally" apply to a butcher in any way? If your buying Australian lamb it's likely the same product at Costco for $4 a pound as the stuff at your butchers for $12 a pound. If I buy Colorado lamb at $16+ per # in MI how am I buying locally? Now if there was a farm selling lamb I'd be sold and I would gladly pay more for that. There's a difference between supporting local businesses and throwing money away. I'm also wondering where you get meat that has never been in cryo. Chances are pretty high that it arrived to your butcher or market that way. I greatly prefer buying whole loins in the cryo because I can wet age my steaks this way as well as cut my own steaks.

                    1. re: Docsknotinn

                      its supporting a local family owned business(who offers local turkeys, local pork products, as well as local beef) as opposed to a face less corporation. Spending a few pennies extra per pound(not the $8 per pound difference you mention) to support other people in town is well worth it & not "throwing money away"(that and the meat I buy is all prime/dry aged, I dont want to go to Costco, and maybe "get lucky that they received prime beef when they ordered choice").

                      To each their own,

                      1. re: swsidejim

                        I completly agree that spending a little more to support local is a nice concept. However the numbers I put up for leg of lamb represent the actual prices in my area. The same leg of lamb at a local butcher would have been $60 not $20 and it's the same product. To me that is definatly throwing money away at least in the context that was suggested earlier, IE pay more just to support the little guy. Here we can get local turkeys and other items and that is worth the price but the thread was about lamb. As I said earlier I think there is a difference between the concept of buying local and the corporation Vs independant operator debate. Whether theese two concepts blend together is going to vary greatly with your physical location and availability.
                        Does your butcher have a web site?

                        1. re: Docsknotinn

                          no website, just a small family run place in a small town southwest of Chicago.

                          I agree location and availability do impact prices paid.

                          For the record I am not anti-Costco for everything, I am a member, but rarely if ever buy any meat from them.

                          As for salty hams the OP mentioned I have not run into that with any I have purchased. But then again I simmer the ham the first night in a mix of beer, and Vernors GInger ale which adds sweetness.

                          1. re: swsidejim

                            I really think we are on the same page. I'm just north of Detroit. Pretty hard to find dry aged steaks here. When you can they are very expensive and only in specialty markets. If I had a butcher with dry aged steaks I'd be a very happy camper.
                            We have some incredible ethnic markets and products in this area but independant butcher shops have become almost extinct. Most are inside upscale specialty markets.
                            I think the vast majority of hams I see locally now are spiral sliced. Sad. I like your idea of the vernors.

                            1. re: Docsknotinn

                              I simmer the ham for some sandwiches the first night, and then bake the ham for a second dinner. The vernors adds some spice and sweetness.

                              The butcher shop i go to dry ages their meat on site. Not in a salt room like David Burkes Steakhouse, but still dry aged.. The demise of the local butcher shop is one reason I am really loyal to them, I'd hate to see them close.

                        2. re: swsidejim

                          The best can be less if you live in a rural area with livestock operations. We have butchers who will cut what you want and how you want it for far less than the chains because they kill what they sell. The term abbatoir is negative to many, but not when applied to small, privately-run, spanking-clean, local shops who process local produce and retail and wholesale directly.

                          We like a few things such as trotters, heart, calves' feet, tongue etc. that have to be absolutely fresh so you find them only rarely on the major's shelves. Show up on "kill" day and you get anything you want along with some cheap or free soup bones.

                          The meat is all local - slaughtered, hung, seasoned and butchered right on the spot to individual wish.

                2. i agree with that the previous posters said, especially Docsknotinn: there's no good way to answer this one. :) that being said, my main problem with mainstream meat (such as you buy at the supermarket, etc) is the injections so much of it receives - water, preservatives, "flavor", salt... meat shouldn't have an ingredients list! i want my meat to only contain MEAT!

                  in regards to the ham, i would suggest buying fresh and curing it yourself. it's actually very simple (you make a brine, put it in a tupperware in the back of your fridge, and forget about it for awhile) and you can control the salt content yourself. it's a bit late to do one for this easter, but if you got it going tonight it probably wouldn't suck anyways. :)

                  1. Most lamb, especially if boneless, comes frozen from New Zealand, regardless of who is selling it. I've been perfectly happy with the lamb that I've bought from Sams.

                    Regarding ham, since you mention saltiness, I assume you are talking about cured ham, as opposed to a fresh pork leg (also called ham). No cured ham is 'fresh'. Traditionally ham has been dry cured, and is very salty. That salt is needed to preserve it. You probably haven't encountered that type. There are threads about Smithfield types of ham.

                    All other ham is wet cured, usually by injecting a brine. There may be a some variation across brands in saltiness. But there is little reason to expect one market to have a less salty version than another. Saltiness has little to do with the quality of a ham.


                    2 Replies
                    1. re: paulj

                      "there is little reason to expect one market to have a less salty version than another"

                      I don't agree.
                      Not on a train, not on a plane, not with green eggs and ham.
                      "Saltiness" varies considerably by brand be it actual salt content or meat quality. I don't believe that the OP is talking about a dry cured ham.

                      1. re: Docsknotinn

                        OK, so which brands of ham are less salty? Where would the OP find them?

                    2. For a great ham, you need a specialist. Mail order from one of these, or some other specialty house. Supermarket and Costco hams are shit by comparison, and individual butchers would be hit or miss, unless you know of one locally that has a really good reputation specifically for their ham. Follow their directions for heating.


                      When you say buying your own fresh pork leg, what are you going to do with it, just roast is as a pork roast, or try to make your own ham? Good luck with that. I would stick to a picnic or blade from the shoulder if you're seriously considering curing and smoking your own.

                      Costco beef is the top end of USDA Choice - sometimes you actually find USDA Prime for the same price (that's in their contract with their suppliers). You absolutely cannot beat the quality for the price. It is better quality than BJ's, Sam's and any of our local private butchers, (including Butcher Boy in N. Andover, MA, which is wonderful). I've never worried about their cuts - I'd like to see some thicker ones but not at twice the price for less quality.

                      Costco lamb is as good as any other for the cryo'd, butterflied or deboned American lamb. Lamb is classified with the same USDA grades as beef, but grading is not mandatory (USDA inspection is mandatory, but not classification). So most lamb just says USDA inspected on it. The best lamb tends to be Colorado lamb that they voluntarily grade as Choice or Prime. Here are a couple of sources:

             (not mail order)

                      17 Replies
                      1. re: applehome

                        Costco lamb is from Australia. IMO this is definatly not as good as Colorado lamb. The whole contract thing for prime meat with Costco is a bit of marketing. If meat supplies for choice are so low they run out what do you think the chances are of getting prime meat? There's far less prime available than choice. In three years as a Costco member I've never once seen prime at a costco meat counter. I do not agree at all that Costco beef is superior in any way at least that's not been my experience. It's the same as any other Cryo choice beef of the same cut.

                        1. re: Docsknotinn

                          yes, but let's not forget fresh lamb is seasonal, flown up (over?) in Winter, domestic in a few weeks. If it's frozen, you're right flavor-wise it doesn't make a diference if handled right.

                          if the powers that be can manage to make it economical to do that, so be it. But I still feel a little funny that, fish f'rinstance, caught in the US is flown to Asia for processing and flown back.

                          There are a number of small ranchers that sell to local houses who in turn sell up to other regional distributors. Trickle-up.

                          a simple google on the subject may turn up some outlets, often their sources are grass fed even if not touted as such (although you may still get anti-b stock). if you want to load the freezer start talking before Fall when the steers are (ahem) sold and ask questions.

                          you're in MI right? pick a town and scroll down.


                          1. re: hill food

                            I'm sorry but you completly lost me with that post. Costco carries fresh Lamb not frozen.
                            Most Australian lamb is Grass fed and antibiotic free. Follow the links. I especially like the Opal Valley Brand.
                            Just for the record your link is missing some major cities. I chose a near by town and they list Honey Baked Ham under Butchers!



                            1. re: Docsknotinn

                              I'm very good at losing things, quitting things is a close second.

                              True, at the top of those listings you do find paid ads for things you're not looking for at all, (I know, Honey Baked Ham?) major cities aren't likely to have small operations linked in.

                              I'm not familiar with what Costco carries (beyond the obvious of course - not being snotty just not one nearby) I'm prob. the one who missed something.
                              I guess my point was with a little looking you can find all sorts of local, but that can mean a day trip and who really has time to do much of that and is it worth it.

                              I will keep my eye open for Opal Valley if it's not an exclusive to CC (we're getting a new grocery store in the hood soon so who knows).

                              That said I've had great Aussie and NZ lamb.

                              1. re: hill food

                                I agree in general but I think what often gets lost in a thread like this is that we are all in different locations with different availability. I was just a bit lost at the digression of buying local getting translated to an issue of big business Vs small. Buying local is at least for me a focus on quality. Basicly all Beef except that from specialty ranches comes from a few packing houses any how so if I buy the same product from a butcher or Costco the only real issue for me is price on select products. In other cases I would quicly conceed that a butcher can offer more options like specialty cuts, Prime meats, veal etc. Sadly in my area that means high end specialty markets with prices to match.
                                Krogers here typically carries Southern Cross or Opal Valley leg of lamb this time of year. Both are grass fed and antibiotic and steroid free.
                                Enjoy! ;)

                                1. re: Docsknotinn

                                  I'd always heard that ALL lamb is grass-fed - because they just won't eat anything else. Anyone else heard this/know if it's true or false? Antibiotics and steroids are obviously a separate issue.

                          2. re: Docsknotinn

                            Obviously every Costco store doesn't carry the same products. In Toronto Costco only carries Australian lamb but the Costco just opened in Puerto Vallarta carries US lamb.

                            1. re: Docsknotinn

                              I just got back from Costco and noticed that you're right- all the lamb is Australian. I do think that the marketing shtick from the Colorado lamb growers, that they grow for meat while the Aussie's grow for wool, is a crock. But it is not USDA graded, so the USDA Prime lamb is bound to be better.

                              As far as beef goes, I've purchased USDA Prime several times at Costco, so I know for fact that it's more than marketing. I look at the cryo'd sub-cuts and while they all have the paper USDA Choice on the outside (put on in the shop, I'm sure), the blue stamp on the meat is sometimes USDA Prime. It is entirely feasible that a supplier is momentarily out of Choice and has to provide Prime cuts to substitute. I've bought both tenderloin and top loin strip that is stamped USDA Prime. Now - is there any real difference between the top grades of Choice and the lower end of Prime? No, not really. Beef is graded on the hoof, so these fine distinctions are not going to be so evident. But I know this - I've cooked a lot of beef over many, many years, and Costco beef is very well marbled, with fine veins. BJ's USDA Choice is not nearly as well marbled. Neither is the supermarket beef, most of which is Select. Their Choice stuff sometimes is as good as Costco, but it costs more. The local butcher has great beef - and will cut to the thicknesses I like. But it costs twice as much.

                              I buy BJ's cryo cuts for rump (top and bottom round), and chuck (underblade or flatiron), but when I'm looking for the best steaks, Costco is hard to beat for the price.

                              1. re: applehome

                                "I look at the cryo'd sub-cuts and while they all have the paper USDA Choice on the outside (put on in the shop, I'm sure), the blue stamp on the meat is sometimes USDA Prime"

                                Please don't take this the wrong way but I would have to see that to believe it. Meat is either Prime or choice. I have no idea where you are getting the upper end of choice or lower end of prime. We no longer have #1 choice etc and have not used that grading system for years. Most sub-primal cuts that have USDA blue roll stamps are pretty difficult to read. The stamp on the cryo absolutly should not be a different grade than the roll stamp. As far as cost per # from the supermarket Vs Costco it's often pretty difficult for most to make a direct comparison. Not because of grade but because of cut (0x1 vs 1x1). I've bought several strip loins and tenderloins from Costco in the last three years and all I can say is that I have never personally found anything even close to prime. In fact I bought one tenderloin that I thought would barely qualify for no roll status. I have also not seen anything but choice in grocery stores here. But that will depend on where you shop. I honestly don't expect too many to have select grade beef unless you are shopping at a lower end store. I find Costco great for lamb. Average for cryo beef and unacceptable for cut steaks.
                                As always YMMV

                                1. re: Docsknotinn

                                  Except for beef steaks, does the distinction between Choice and Prime matter much? Rump is still going to be pretty lean, chuck will have a lot of connective tissue. As for lamb, I don't think I'd want well marbelled meat.


                                  1. re: paulj

                                    I believe that the grade is applied to the entire carcass, so you probably wouldn't notice too much difference between top round from a select-graded steer and a prime-graded one.

                                    1. re: paulj

                                      Paulj - I believe you're right - I've bought US Wagyu Brisket, for instance and while the really good Wagyu is well beyond the US scale altogether in terms of marbling for the rib and strip, I didn't find the brisket to be that special - a great piece of meat, to be sure, but not so that either Choice or Prime (or Japanese grades beyond Prime) would mean anything. That's one of the reasons I'll buy the non-kosher sub-primes at BJs - the other is that the Costcos in this area simply don't carry the round sub-primes I like for roasts and can generally afford to feed my family.

                                      As to the Doc, here's a 2003 post of mine where I refer to the practice by Costco of substituting Prime for Choice. It actually refers to an earlier post (that it can't find) which I believe was the first time this happened to me, sometime in 2002 - one of the butchers had come out from behind the window and we were BS'ing and he told me this policy. It had just happened, and he pointed out a couple of the cryo's that were prime. He said that some of the cut steaks at that time were from Prime subs. I've since bought prime subs several times from Costco - even had friends over for special "prime" cookouts. I look at the subs quite often and see prime ones all the time.


                                      Of course, Doc says I'm lying... mileage varying has nothing at all to do with calling me a liar. But then again, there's nothing I can do about it but promise to hound Doc till the end of time... heh, heh, heh... Perhaps he will deign to look at some Costco cryo's over time, and lo and behold, may tell us how crow tastes.

                                      Saying that all USDA Choice is the same is ridiculous on the face of it. Beef is graded on the hoof, so being really fine-tuned about it is not possible. Each grade is actually a pretty wide swath, and certainly the difference between a low-end Choice and a high end Prime is going to be obvious, while that between a top end Choice and a low end Prime is going to be less obvious. But the people who have done this forever know everything about the source - from breed to feed, and they're going to have some very good ideas about cattle that consistently gets into prime as well as an understanding of those that are not prime for one reason or another, but are going to be better than the average choice. So it isn't unlikely to think that a buyer that cares, would be able to deal with certain providers, and would be able to guarantee his customers a certain level of product. Do you think that Lobel's or Tourandel or Bern's doesn't have access to the best Prime beef? Do you think they don't care where they get their beef as long as it's Prime?

                                      I would contend that like any other commodity, there are always going to be ways to distinguish and acquire a higher-quality version, if the desire is there. So the only thing to suspend belief in is whether a company like Costco would bother with such product specificity. I completely buy that they would. Costco is the Un-Walmart. At every turn, Costco goes out of their way to insure that their employees are well taken care of, that their customer service is second to none, and that they carry great products. Wall Street is pissed off at them because they don't maximize their profits. Why wouldn't they provide the highest quality beef, within the range they have selected to be their market?

                                      1. re: applehome

                                        Folks, we're reviewing this thread, but please keep the discussion civil and without personal attacks. We've placed this response here, but it is not directed at any particular poster - we've removed some attacky posts.

                                        Thank you.

                                      2. re: paulj

                                        Paul, I'm not totally sure I understand your question but I'll try to help. Costco only carries beef tenderloins, Prime rib and NY strip in the Cryo. The distinction between Prime and choice is significant. Because beef is graded on the hoof a very small % of all beef graded is prime. You can get different numbers depending on your source but most agree around 3% of all US beef is graded prime. When it comes to steaks this is where a good bit of marketing comes into play. An honest restaurant or butcher will not sell steaks labled as prime that did not come from a USDA graded prime beef. Others will cut a Choice piece of meat and say, wow that looks like really nice meat, Ok lets sell that as "prime". There is a big difference between the two. I hope that helps. I agree with you on the prime lamb. Here are a couple of links that may help.



                                        1. re: Docsknotinn

                                          Part of why I asked was that the OP asked about lamb and ham, not about beef steaks and tenderloins. So the digression as to who sells what grades of meat isn't of much value to the OP, though it may be interesting to others.

                                          I'm not so sure the prime/choice stamp matters to most consumers who buy their steak by the slice, as opposed to a whole cryo pack of beef tenderloin or rib roast. But they can, usually, see the whole cut surface of the steak. Shouldn't that be enough information to choose the best available piece? When faced with a number of different pieces of steak in plastic wrap, or on display in the butcher's counter, how do you choose one? Do you specifically look for marbling?


                                          1. re: paulj

                                            The grade stamp of the meat, be it lamb or beef should be equally as important when purchasing individual steaks or cryo loins. You may never see that USDA roll stamp on individual cuts though so trusting your source is a key element. This gets very sticky because of the amount of marketing involved by some companies, stores or restaurants. You wouldn't want to be paying for prime and receive hand selected cuts that are actually choice simply because they look good in the case. There is a major price difference here. you could be easilly looking at a 300% mark up for prime depending on the cut of meat, store etc.
                                            Ideally if you are buying steaks or chops you will be able to select them individually for size, marbeling and cut. Some might prefer a rib eye cut from the sirloin end while others will prefer the chuck end. I don't want to digress further on the beef so if you want to start another thread about that I would be glad to try to help.
                                            The lamb the OP is asking about at Costco it is not USDA graded so it's much harder to compare directly. The leg of lamb that is normally stocked there is also not one of the brands marketed as grass fed and anti-biotic free. However Costco does offer specialty meats on line.


                                            1. re: paulj

                                              Yes - you look at the slices for marbling. That's all you have to do to tell how good it's going to be.

                                              What I have found is that Costco's rib and strip slices are consistently well marbled, and better than BJ's or the supermarkets - when all of them are labeled USDA Choice. The local butcher's USDA Choice is as good as Costco (or better), but far more expensive. I understand that people aren't going to necessarily remember what one package looked like - I recommend that they take a camera and take pictures. In fact, I'll do so and publish them here. I compared the beef for many years, and I know for a fact that Costco has better beef for the same grade and price.

                                              Better, finer marbling will always translate to a better tasting steak. Regardless of grade or price, marbling beats everything else. That's why real Kobe is incredible. The Japanese have a marbling scale that is completely beyond ours - USDA Prime doesn't even begin to touch what Kobe can look and taste like.