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Jan 16, 2010 07:46 PM

Whole Foods meat vs. butcher shop?

Hey all, I have been buying my meats generally from my supermarket - Gristedes. I was making goulash and I needed to buy beef chuck cut into 1" cubes. Instead of paying the usual $3.99/lb at Gristedes, I bought a lb from Whole Foods at $5.99/lb. Whole Foods said it was organic, not treated with any hormones or anti-biotics, etc..

I made the goulash last week with the WF chuck and it was amazing tasting. It was maybe the best beef I've had in a long time! It was so tender and almost disintegrated in my mouth. Kind of reminded me of kobe beef actually.

In the interest of supporting my local businesses, I paid my first visit in my lifetime to a butcher shop near me called East Village Meat Market in the polish district of Manhattan. I asked the guy that barely spoke english for a lb of beef chuck. He astutely asked me what it was for and I replied that it was for goulash. He knew exactly what I meant and took a slab of meat and sliced up 1" cubes of it for me. I have to admit I was pretty impressed and really liked the experience.

I just finished cooking it using the exact same recipe (except I mistakenly forgot to add the caraway seeds!!) and the meat was tough, felt more "dry" and lacked that same texture and flavor the WF's beef seemed to impart. Only supporting fact I can think of is that beef chuck at the butcher might have had slightly less marbling.

Cost isn't really an issue, I am trying to eat wholesome foods preferably (but not required) not treated with chemicals, drugs, etc.. I also prefer to support my local businesses so I would prefer to shop at a local butcher even if the quality/cost is marginally unfavorable.

Any thoughts or ideas are greatly appreciated. Any advice on where to shop or how to find a good butcher is of course welcome as well.


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  1. Well, first of all no two pieces of beef (of the same cut, i.e., chuck roast) will be the same. Similar, maybe. Same? No.

    Also, you did not mention the grade of chuck roast that you bought at WF versus the one from the local butcher. Were both, or either, Prime? Something lower, like Choice or Select.

    From your description it sounds like the WF beef was probably Choice, while the local butcher gave you Select. Just a guess, though.

    1 Reply
    1. re: ipsedixit

      Also just remember that there is not a discreet line between the different grades. You have some choice that just failed to be prime and some choice that is just better than select.

    2. I think ipsedixit is spot on with that analysis -- next time, ask the butcher what the meat grade is. Or just tell the guy your experience with the meat and see if he can't suggest a different cut of meat.

      I would rank meat-purchasing desirability in the following order (from the least desirable place to purchase meat to the most):

      Wal-Mart (just... no.)
      Local meat market with non-locally-sourced meat (ranked low because it's pricey AND almost certainly factory farmed -- the proverbial "motorcycle with a side-car")
      Local grocery chains (Hy-Vee for instance has trained butchers on premises at every store and actually gets some of their meat locally)
      Whole Foods
      Local butcher with locally-sourced meat

      I am willing to sacrifice in the price department but not the quality department. I go to an old-fashioned butcher who sources all his meat locally from small family farms, does all the butchering himself, and has prices cheaper than WF's. It's the best of all worlds.

      If I were shopping for a butcher right now, the first question I'd ask -- whether at a grocery store or in a freestanding butcher shop -- is, "Where is your meat from?" A good butcher should be able to answer that question easily. The ideal butcher, IMO, gets all his meat locally from non-factory farms (otherwise, why bother going to a butcher? You can get factory-farmed meat at the regular grocery). If he could answer the first question to my satisfaction, the next question I'd ask is, "Do you do all the butchering yourself? If not, how butchered is the meat when it gets to you?" I strongly prefer a place that gets meat in sides or primal cuts because it reduces the possibility of contamination at the abbatoir. I definitely wouldn't buy meat from a butcher who didn't even grind his own hamburger.

      I honestly have never made better chili than with the meat I buy from my butcher, but if I were ever unhappy with something I got there, I know him well enough by now to know that he cares about his reputation and would make it right. That, to me, is the intangible something you have to look for with a truly great butcher -- and they're out there!! :)

      Good luck!

      1. I know the East Village butcher you refer to, and really, their strength lies in the sausages, roasted turkeys (weekends usually) and specialty dishes they make (as well as excellent European type breads.) Since you're apparently downtown, try these butchers: Pino, on Sullivan Street between Houston and Prince or Florence, on Jones Street just off W. 4th Street. Some people swear by
        Ottomonelli on Bleeker, near Sixth Avenue but I prefer the other two...

        1. Most supermarkets, butcher shops and restaurants serve beef purchased on the commodity market, whether it's box beef or hanging beef, and all that comes basically from three giant companies. Marketing terms and USDA grading aside, it's all the same beef. Whether it performs better on one day or the next is a matter of chance. Whole Foods uses primarily Meyer's Natural Angus. It is not commodity beef, and farmers take more care in raising and feeding the animals. It's still feedlot beef, but a feedlot can be run in a humane and safe manner. You write of the texture, and animals that put on weight gradually, rather than quickly via hormone, tend to yield more tender meat. Also, animals that are not stressed at time of harvest also yield much more tender meat, and Meyer's does observe these practices.

          1. Beef chuck is a large piece of meat that has four or five different muscles. Some muscles are more tender than others. When you buy only one pound, there is a good chance that you got different part of the chuck from the two stores.