Things you didn't know your grocery store butcher can do

I believe in getting the most help I can when I'm at the grocery store, and one part of the store that has saved me loads of time and aggravation is the meat department. You may think you have to visit an upscale, old-timey butcher to receive the kind of personalized attention that your grandparents may have enjoyed from their neighborhood purveyor of fine meats, but most supermarkets are still equipped with butchery pros who are all too happy to put their mad skill set to work for you... provided you ask nicely. 

A couple of ground rules when utilizing your local grocery store butcher: don't assume they can complete your request on the spot... you may have to return later in your shopping trip, or even in the day, for your order to be complete. Also, don't try to get crafty with the pricing... be prepared to pay the original marked price for a weighed item, even if they've removed a good bit of weighty fat and bone for you. 

So what exactly can your grocery store butcher do to help you get dinner on the table tonight? It turns out, a whole lot more than you probably think...

Deboning

Ever roasted a butterflied chicken? Sometimes called spatchcocking, a butterflied chicken has had its back bone removed, so that the bird can be flattened out and laid on a roasting rack, resulting in oodles of crispy skin after roasting. Removing the backbone yourself requires a good set of poultry shears, and a bit of muscle as you push down on the bird to get the crunch of bone or two needed to make the chicken lie just so. Don't feel like doing that? Then ask the butcher to do it for you! Letting the butcher handle this step for me takes a bit of prep and clean-up out of my dinner time equation.

Other cuts to consider deboning? Legs of lamb, butts and shoulders of pork, or any bone-in cut that would benefit from the quicker cooking time a boneless cut of meat lends you.

Grind meats

Looking to up your burger or meatloaf game to gourmet levels? A custom grind on your favorite meats is one way to elevate typical ground meat items to restaurant-worthy status. And your grocery store butcher can help you do that.

If you aren't seeing a grind you're excited about in the pre-packaged selection, pick out a few choice cuts and ask the butcher to grind them for you. They may even be willing to grind them together if you ask nicely. A great combo for burgers would be a mix of chuck, sirloin, and brisket, or even a grind of rib eye steak for a fatty and flavorful punch. Meatloaves and meatballs can certainly get more creative than the standard meatloaf mix of veal, pork, and beef you see sitting in the butcher's case. Ask the butcher which combo they recommend, and you may get a hand creating your new favorite weekday recipe.

Cut down large cuts of meat

We love filet mignon at my house, and while it is pricey, I've learned that I can really stock up my freezer if I look for it on sale. But I don't look for regular cuts of filet mignon for the best deals... I look for beef tenderloin. This larger cut of beef looks like it could feed a pack of hungry carnivores, but cut down and tied, and you have yourself a load of filet mignon to get you through a season. The butcher at my local grocery store offers to do this for me as soon as he sees me pull a tenderloin out of the case. While it isn't the most difficult job to pull off in your own home, it is a nice perk of buying a cut of meat that could go well into the triple digits in price.

Other large cuts the butcher may be able to cut down for you? Briskets, prime ribs, racks of rib, racks of lamb... pretty much anything that you'd prefer to bring home packaged in portioned sizes that you can pop directly in the freezer.

Sell you half a package

So you're cooking for one tonight, and really have your heart set on pork chops... but the smallest package available is a four-pack. What to do? If you aren't quite prepared to dine on pork chops for the rest of the week, you could ask your butcher to reduce the package down for you. Often times they have just sealed it in the back based on their assumptions of what customers would need that day. A quick repackaging, a visit to the scale, and a new price tag, and you're out the door.

This may not work when a package has been labeled "family pack" or "extra-value" for buying in bulk, but it never hurts to ask. It also won't work if you're buying a commercially packaged name-brand meat. But utilizing this trick is a smart way to reduce buying what you just don't need.

Prep a roast

You've probably noticed around the holiday season that your grocery store's meat section has lots of beautifully tied and trussed roasts for your various celebrations. I'm talking about crown roasts of pork, standing rib roasts, legs of lamb, and more. That gorgeous handy work was accomplished right there in the store, meaning there's no reason you couldn't get your mitts on one of those magnificently prepped roasts, any time of the year.

Prep work doesn't need to stop at roasts. I've had my grocery store butcher "French" lamb chops for me, giving me a dynamite hand-held dinner party app. Trimming fat, even marinating and seasoning meats, can all be done right there in the store... provided you ask nicely, and give them proper time to get the work done. Calling ahead before you want to pick it up is best, or even visiting the store a day or two in advance to place your order.

Pound cutlets

I'll be the first to admit, I don't enjoy pounding cutlets. Sometimes also called "tenderizing" meat, properly pounded cutlets of equal thickness are a must for many recipes. You'll likely find cutlets pre-packaged in the meat department, but they're often not the size you need for your recipe. Despite my best efforts, I always manage to pound myself cutlets that are disparate in size, with sad little bits of meat scattered across my kitchen counter that will end up in the garbage can because I pounded that edge too furiously. Enter my grocery store butcher, who can do this job for me while I grab eggs and bread crumbs.

Order special items

Just because your grocery store meat counter doesn't normally carry a special item does not mean they can't get it for you, and often at a much better price than a specialty store. Go ahead, ask them about ordering you whole ducks, goose, beef tongue, trotters... you might only wait a day or two to get exactly what you need for your special meal. 

I use this trick myself, particularly when I'm cooking lamb shanks or beef short ribs for a dinner party, when I like to make sure I can serve my guests portions that are all about the same size. I give the butcher a few days notice to round me up the amount of pieces I want, and to match up the sizes for me. It makes my job easier, and it makes me look like a pro come dinner time.

Sell you bones for stock

Though you may have never seen them packaged and marked for sale, you can be sure that your grocery store butcher is sitting on a "stock" pile of bones, just waiting to make their way into your own homemade stocks and broth. Though I never assume I'll get a freebie, I have more than once had the butcher give me the bones on the house. Even if they do charge you, the bones are typically pennies on the pound, leading the way to a healthful and economical homemade brew. Jumping on the bone broth trend may be a lot easier than you think...

Chop through bones

Here's an area where my tiny baby hands just don't serve me well... I am miserable when I have to chop through bones. That's why I'm never shy about asking the butcher to do this for me. Cutting an entire chicken down to parts for the grill, breaking a rack of lamb down to chops, or especially larger cuts of meat that require the kind of equipment that your little home cleaver could never stand up against. Trust the professionals... this is the kind of stuff they trained for.

Give you cooking advice

When's the last time you had a chat with your grocery store butcher? These guys and gals are a wealth of information when it comes to slow cooking versus quick cooking, and can also advise you on substitutions when your favorite cuts are out of stock. Better yet, ask your butcher to recommend a cut of meat you may have never even heard of, and you could be in for a new favorite recipe that only cost you a fraction of what you planned to spend on dinner tonight. And hey, it's the grocery store... you may even be able to use a double coupon.