Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Buying a side of beef: Lesson five: providing cut and wrap instructions

In this lesson of our "How Stuff Works" series on how to buy a side of beef we discuss cut and wrap instructions for the butcher.

If you are just joining us, be sure to catch up the other lessons in this series on how to buy a side of beef:


Buying a side of beef can be an economical way of filling the freezer and supporting your local farmer but the process can be extremely confusing for the first time customer. Here's a detailed primer on how it works and what to expect.

Now we have a good feel for the process of buying a side of beef. We understand what it means to purchase shares in a live animal. We can calculate hanging weight and estimate yield. We know how to calculate the cost of purchasing the meat and what type of cuts come from each primal group. Now we are ready to provide our cut and wrap instructions to the butcher.

Of course, if you aren't super picky about what comes in your share, you can request the standard butcher's cut and only need to provide minimal information:

- Your name and phone number
- The name of the farmer you purchased the beef from
- The size of the share you purchased (whole, half, quarter)
- Don't forget to ask the hanging weight of the beef and processing fees!

Of course, in my opinion, providing your own cut/wrap instructions is a great way to ensure that the meat is cut to your specifications and needs of your family. After all, it is a big investment to buy a year's worth of meat in one go, it may as well be cut to your liking, no sense in having two steaks per package if you are a family of three.

Most all butchers are very helpful when it comes to walking you through the process of deciding how to have your meat cut up. They are used to fielding all sorts of questions so feel free to ask. Whenever I visit a new butcher I request a copy of their cut/wrap instructions sheet. Each sheet is designed differently - some go through each primal while others are broken into "steaks/roasts/other". It helps me to prepare when I know which questions they will ask and what they do not cover so I can be sure to pass on other instructions. The main questions they will ask beyond contact information are:

- the size of your share
- how many steaks per package
- thickness of steaks and size of roasts
- lbs of ground beef per package
- any special requests

Share size
Be sure to specify what size of share you are purchasing - whole, half or quarter. There are three different types of quarter shares:

Forequarter: This quarter contains less of the "money" steak cuts and so is frequently cheaper. Keep in mind the butcher fees will still be based on the overall hanging weight of the beef so the price break for the meat will be with the farmer. Be sure to ask if there is a discount for purchasing a front quarter.

The forequarter is a good choice for larger families seeking many roasts, are fans of ribeye steaks or those looking to get a deal on a lot of ground beef. Steaks include ribeye, flat iron and skirt (if requested) with the option of roasts from the chuck and brisket plus ground beef, short ribs, stew meat and soup bones.

Hindquarter: Since many of the valuable steak cuts are located in the hind quarter, be prepared to pay more for this section of beef. Some farmers will simply not sell fore and hind quarters because it can be difficult to find buyers for the forequarter and thus will only sell "half-of-a-half" quarters. Steaks in the hindquarter include: Tbone (or NY/tenderloin), top sirloin, tenderloin, round (or cubed round) and flank steak with rump and sirloin tip roasts plus ground beef, stew meat and soup bones.

Half-of-a-half: This quarter is exactly what it sounds like, all the cuts from a side of beef evenly distributed into two shares. This share gives the best variety of steaks, roasts and other cuts.

Number of steaks per package:
Pretty self explanatory here. Beef for our personal consumption and for our Meat CSA is packed two steaks/package.

Steak thickness:
For most people, a one inch thick steak is a perfect portion. Of course there are those that want a 2" ribeye or thin sirloin steaks but one inch is generally a good choice. However, in my personal experience, many butchers err on the side of a thicker steak (after all it is fewer cuts for them). When I have ordered 1" steaks, they lean toward 1.25" so I now request 3/4" steaks and end up with an average just shy of an inch.

Roast size:
A two to three pound roast is a good average size for a family of two with leftovers. Sirloin tip roast and brisket tend to be larger (3.5 to 5.5 lbs) and will not always fit in a crockpot whole.

Pounds of ground beef per package:
Most all of our ground beef is wrapped in one pound packages (though they average about 1.1lbs). They thaw quickly and are easy to distribute in the CSA and tend to be more flexible for stacking in the freezers. However, while a pound of ground beef is a good amount to use in a dish (taco meat, casserole, stroganoff and so forth), it doesn't quite make four burgers (especially if the beef is grain finished because it will shrink during cooking). Two pound packages are nice for big families or those wanting to thaw out one package and make several meals over the week but it does take much longer to thaw.

Special requests:
There are several steaks that are not part of the standard cut instructions and if the butcher does not mention them as you run down the cut list, be sure to request them instead of assuming they will show up in the share because they probably will not. These cuts include: flat iron steaks, skirt steak, hanger steak, tri-tip and occasionally flank steak. Beef cheeks must be requested before the day of slaughter or else they are discarded with the head. Other special requests can be related to services provided by the butcher shop like summer sausage, pepperoni or pre-formed hamburger patties. These items may have separate charges beyond the standard cut and wrap fees.

Wrapping and packaging:
Many butcher shops will double wrap with white butcher paper. The first layer is wrapped in plastic and the second in white butcher paper with a wax or plastic coating on one side. This system is widely used especially by small shops. Properly wrapped the meat will store for well over a year. The main disadvantage is not being able to see what is in the package. Some shops give the option of vacuum sealing (I have also seen those that use a sort of heat shrinking system but I wasn't took impressed with the shelf life of meat packed that way). The product looks nicer and stores longer but this frequently comes with a higher fee for cut and wrap because it takes much longer to do when there are several hundred packages per beef. We do not have any local shops that will vacu-seal but from the perspective of someone that sells meat for a living, I wish we did. Presentation goes a long way.

Also be sure to mention if you are interested in: stew meat, brisket, short ribs, shank and any offal (liver, heart, tongue).

If you would like to see sample yield records from a few of the beef we have processed over the years, read on. Otherwise, now that we are well equipped to determine how to have our share cut and wrapped we can move on to Lesson six: transportation and storage.


Sample butcher's cut quarter share:
Of course it depends greatly on the butcher but in general a standard butcher's cut of a half-of-a-half quarter share will contain roughly:

30 - 45 lbs ground beef (depending on hanging weight and number of roasts)
3 pkg ribeye steaks
3 pkg Tbone steaks
2 pkg top sirloin steaks
1 pkg tenderloin steaks
6 pkg round steaks (or cube steaks)
1 pkg flank or skirt steak
1 sirloin tip roast
2 chuck roasts
3 pkg stew meat (1#)
1 pkg short ribs
Plus a few extras that did not divide evenly among the shares - an extra ribeye here, a rump roast there.

Here are a few records from a few of the whole beef we have had processed over the years. We run a grass-finished, medium frame Angus cross herd on rangeland and harvest between 20 and 28 months of age.

Example A HW 516
Instructions: 2# ground, chuck roasts (2-3#), steaks cut 3/4" and 2/pkg, rib steak, TBone steak, top round - steak, bottom round - cube, rump roast, sirloin tip roast, no ribs/brisket/soupbones/shank, stew meat 1# pkg

Ground beef (2# pkg): 66
Chuck roast: 8
Rib steak: 12
TBone steak: 12
Top Sirloin steak: 8
Tenderloin steak: 5
Top round steak: 15
Cube steak (bottom round): 15
Rump roast: 2
Sirloin tip roast: 4
Flank steak: 2
Stew meat: 16

Example B HW 582
Instructions: 2# ground, chuck roasts (2-3#), steaks cut 3/4" and 2/pkg, rib steak, TBone steak, top round - steak, bottom round - cube, rump roast, sirloin tip roast, no ribs/brisket/soupbones/shank, stew meat 1# pkg

Ground beef (2# pkg): 68
Chuck roast: 8
Rib steak: 13
TBone steak: 13
Top Sirloin steak: 8
Tenderloin steak: 5
Top round steak: 16
Cube steak (bottom round): 15
Rump roast: 2
Sirloin tip roast: 4
Flank steak: 2
Stew meat: 16

Example C HW 523
Instructions: 1# ground, steaks cut 3/4" and 2/pkg, chuck - flat iron steaks, rest grind, brisket (roast), ribeye steaks, TBone steak, Round - cube top and bottom, rump roast, sirloin tip roast, no ribs, yes stew meat (1#) and soup bones. Special requests: hanging tender, skirt

Ground beef (1# pkg):173
Flat iron steaks:8
Brisket: 2
Ribeye steak:13
Skirt steak: 4
Hanging tender: 1
TBone steak:15
Top Sirloin steak: 12
Tenderloin steak:7
Cube steak: 27
Rump roast: 4 (small)
Sirloin tip roast: 4
Flank steak: 2
Stew meat:12
Soup bones (cross cut shank): 6
Oxtail: 1

Example D HW: 568
Instructions: 1# ground, steaks cut 3/4" and 2/pkg, chuck - flat iron steaks, rest grind, brisket (roast), ribeye steaks, NY/tenderloin steak, Round - cube top and bottom, rump roast, sirloin tip steaks, no ribs/stew meat, yes soup bones. Special requests: hanging tender, skirt

Ground beef (1# pkg): 197
Flat iron steaks: 4 (large)
Brisket: 2
Ribeye steak:13
Skirt steak: 9 (small)
Hanging tender: 1
New York Strip: 14
Top Sirloin steak: 11
Tenderloin steak: 11
Cube steak: 29
Rump roast: 2
Sirloin tip steaks: 13
Flank steak: 2
Soup bones (cross cut shank): 6
Oxtail: 1

Example E HW: 574
Instructions: 1# ground, steaks cut 3/4" and 2/pkg, chuck - (flat iron steaks, arm roast, rest grind), brisket (roast), ribeye steaks, NY/tenderloin steak, Round - cube top and bottom, rump roast, sirloin tip roast, yes ribs/stew meat/soupbones. Special requests: hanging tender, skirt, beef cheeks

Ground beef (1# pkg): 176
Flat iron steaks: 4 (large)
Brisket: 4
Ribeye steak:12
Short ribs: 8
Skirt steak: 4
Hanging tender: 1
TBone: 15
Top Sirloin steak: 11
Tenderloin steak: 4 Tri-tip: 2
Cube steak: 25
Rump roast: 2
Sirloin tip roast: 4
Flank steak: 2
Stew: 11
Soup bones (cross cut shank): 6
Oxtail: 1
Beef cheeks: 1

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow! How incredibly helpful. I have been buying "meat" animals by "the seat of my pants" and even done the cut and wrap myself a few times and never knew all this. Thank you . You have lucky customers!

Katia said...

So glad you found this information to be helpful. Thank you so much for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Very helpful. Thank you!

Katia said...

You're welcome! Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

This has been a great help. We have never bought a side of beef before and we were not familiar with all the different options for cutting up the portions of meat. Keep this web page going. I am sure more people will find it as helpful as I have.
Thanks for the information,

Anonymous said...

This is the most helpful information I have found!! We are raising two head and splitting the meat between 4 families. I had no idea how I was going to determine how much meat to expect or how to calculate cost. This site totally solves my conundrum. THANK YOU for such a great service.

Katia said...

So happy I could help!

WAR III said...

Great information. We are raising an Angus/Beefmaster steer with the intention of butchering him and I had no idea how to figure which cuts we would get and how much of each. The site helps tremendously with planning.
Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

Phenomenally helpful! Expertly explained, yet easy to understand! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this and for sharing it with everyone!!!

Katia said...

Wonderful. So glad you found the guide to be helpful!

Rachel Austin said...

Thank you so much for this info - maybe you could help me with a question. We just purchased our first quarter and are a little new at this. When we picked up the meat from the butcher is came frozen and sealed in a thin plastic wrap. Is this a good way to store it? One of the cuts even had hole in the plastic so we are eating that first. I feel we should wrap it in butcher paper or put it in freezer bags to give it a little added protection from freezer burn. Could you advise? I don't want anything to get ruined. Thank you!

Katia said...

Hi Rachel,

Thanks for the excellent question! I am familiar with that type of wrap though it is not too common. It is not the vacu-sealed pouches but rather looks like a thin plastic wrap (like cling film/saran wrap) that is shrunk down around the cuts of meat.

The advantage of this type of wrap is that you can see exactly what is lurking in those packages. The downside is (as you noticed) there is only one layer of thin plastic protecting your meat from freezer burn. This style of wrapping will keep your meat fresh, just not quite as long as other methods. Here's some tips:

1. Inventory what you have and post a list on the outside of the freezer. This helps you remember what you have so you are able to get through all the meat in a timely manner. Since you purchased a fall beef this will also make sure that you get full use of your cool weather cuts (roasts and stew meat) during the winter. Otherwise, summer rolls around, the ground beef and steaks are gone, and all you are left with is soup bones. Aim to consume all the beef by September/October.

2. During your inventory, sort out any packages that are damaged or have extra air inside which will hasten freezer burn. Eat them first.

3. If at all possible, store your meat in a frost freezer like a chest freezer (NOT a frost-free). A frost-free freezer will fluctuate temperatures to keep ice from accumulating but these colder/warmer cycles speed the rate of freezer burn. The chest freezers get cold and stay at that same temperature - less temperature fluctuations = longer storage potential.

4. Organize the meat by category when putting it in the freezer. With this style of packaging, you want to minimize handling as much as possible. If two package "clack" together it can make holes in the plastic and hasten freezer burn.

5. If you are still concerned, your suggestion to double wrap some packages in butcher paper or freezer bags and plan on eating those last is a good one

Here's to many delicious meals! Thank you for supporting locals farms and foods.

Rachel Austin said...

Thank you so so much! I've been so worried that the meat would get ruined. Thank you for all the information!

Jen Henderson said...

Thank you for this incredibly helpful series! I've been a local beef customer (from a farmer friend here in KS) for four years now, and I sure wish I'd had this to refer to back when we first started, and I was so foggy about the whole process that I didn't even know what questions to ask. I found you today with a little web search about calculating packaged weight from hanging weight, to see my true cost (higher this year!) for my current freezer-full of beef. I'm sharing your site with my mother-in-law in Texas, who is trying to figure out how to begin. Your information is most useful, and your explanations are clear for a beginner. Thank you for taking the time and effort to provide this service to all.

Katia said...

Thanks Jen! So glad you found the guide to be helpful for you and for others. Thanks for supporting local food!

jnstephens said...

Thank you, this helps me explain to customers the exact process.

Katia said...

You are most welcome!

Alyssa Collins said...

Buying our first side of beef and this entire series has been SUPER helpful! Thank you so much for the time and effort you spent to make this information available!

Katia said...

Thanks for stopping by! Glad the series was helpful.

Katia said...

Thanks for stopping by! Glad the series was helpful.

Anonymous said...

I just want to thank you for taking the time to put this all together. It was a great learning experience for me so I won't get fleeced.

Katia said...

You are ever so welcome. Knowledge is power!

Anonymous said...

Agree with so many above - Thank you so much for explaining so well!! No longer overwhelmed as a first time buyer!!!

Unknown said...

What about organ meats? Beef liver...or the tongue? Or the tail of the animal for oxtail soup? What happens to those parts of the animal? Will the butcher include them in your order...or are they typically sold separately? Thank you for your help.

Katia said...

Great question! There are four common cuts of beef organ meats (a.k.a. offal): beef liver (~15-17lbs/beef, usually packed in 1LB pkgs), beef tongue, beef heart and oxtail. These are almost always saved by the butcher at the time of harvest. Since there is only one heart, tongue or oxtail, they are not easy to split out among quarters.

Most American consumers are not terribly interested in organ meats. If it is something you would like, let your butcher know.

Now for costs: The price of a beef is based on the hanging weight but this measurement is taken AFTER removal of the viscera. Thus, organ meats are essentially free meats since there is no added cost to take them.

Moral of the story? If you would use them, great, you get more meat for no more money. If you do not want organ meats, speak up! Otherwise you may have packages of liver or tongue lurking in your freezer long after the meat is all gone.

Not a fan of liver yourself? Small amounts of liver (raw or cooked, especially grass fed liver) is an excellent nutrient-dense source of protein, vitamins and minerals for dogs and cats. Be sure to introduce any dietary changes gradually.

Thanks so much for stopping by and asking such a great question!

KENYON PARSON said...

As everyone else said... thank you so much for this information!! I'm glad that I found it relatively early in my search. A few family members have decided to split a cow and we had no idea where to start. Now we do. Thanks again for sharing this information

Katia said...

You are so very welcome!

Clicia said...

My previous butcher was really good about getting us what we need by asking similar questions you posed in lesson 4. I am unfamiliar with the butcher our friend is using now, so I wanted to do my homework. I actually came across lesson 3 while I was doing research on the most important question (or so I thought).... figuring cost. You gave so much information I ended up reading the entire series! I didn't know how much I didn't know until I read this! Thank you for taking the time to provide this information!!!

Katia said...

How wonderful! Glad I could help. Enjoy your beef.

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