Ask the butcher is a question and answer blog post that poses common questions from the public about topics such as how to choose meat for BBQs, how to prepare steak, and how to serve meat products. Answers are by a butcher with over 40 years experience in the trenches. If you have any questions, please send us an email and we’ll try to answer them.
Interested in learning more about meat cutting, butchery, and food preparation
How to Choose, prepare, and Serve Meat
Q. What is the actual definition of lean meat?
A. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), lean meat is any serving of meat (90 grams – about the size of a deck of cards) with less than 10 grams total fat, 4.5 grams saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol. Extra lean meat has less than 5 grams total fat, 2 grams saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol.
Q. Aside from chicken, what other lean meats are available?
A. All meats are available as lean meat if the fat is removed. However, some meats have more internal fat than others. The skin of a chicken contains 80% of the total fat so it is best to eat skinless chicken if you are concerned about fat intake. The fat on pork chops accounts for about a third of the total fat. All meats can be trimmed to suit the customer and over the last 20 years most meats sold in butchers shops are really well trimmed due to customer demand.
Q. What is the best value cut of lean meat (other than chicken)?
A. Diced beef is usually fat-free and is very good value. Beef eye of round roast is generally considered to be the leanest beef you can get, followed by round steak, then sirloin.
Q. What are your best tips for cooking lean meat?
A. Grilling obviously is better than frying for cuts like eye of round roast. Recipes that use braising and casseroling mean the meat is not cooked in fat. Some of the fat reducing grills endorsed by sportsmen claim to eliminate most of the fat, but they also eliminate most of the moisture from the meat.
Q. When it comes to mince, is it better to buy lean or regular?
A. If you are concerned about fat or are on a fat-free diet, then lean, (less than 10% fat ) mince is the one to go for. If you are making burgers, it is better to have some fat for juiciness and flavour.
Q. Are there times when it’s better to buy meat with more fat?
A. This depends on what you want from meat. If you want to enjoy a steak that is juicy and full of flavour, then a Rib Eye steak is the one to go for. If you are looking for flavour and juiciness in meat it’s always better to have some fat on it. Burgers made with really lean meat can be dry and tasteless. Roast beef without an external fat layer will tend to dryness and will lack flavour. If your main concern is not flavour and fat content is, the lean meats are the ones to go for. As in most things, it is a matter of personal preference.
Q. What are the best reasons to buy chicken fillets?
A. Most people buy them because of their convenience, you can buy one or a dozen, they only contain white meat which is very popular, they are good for portion control, i.e. one per person, and they are available in various sizes. For whatever reason, Irish people far prefer chicken fillets to any of the other parts available.
Q. What are the disadvantages of fillets as opposed to other parts of the chicken?
A. Chicken fillets can sometimes be dry and bland compared to legs and thighs which generally have more flavour. That is why they are usually cooked breaded or in a sauce or flavouring rub.
Q. What should I look for when buying them, other than the best before date?
A. Make sure they have a uniform colour with no bruising visible, no bone chips or discolouration or blood spots. If they look grey, or the package is damaged in any way, don’t buy them.
Q. How long can you freeze chicken fillets for?
A. They will be at their best if used within 3 months of the date of freezing. Make sure you have got as much air out of the packaging as possible and use good strong packaging to avoid freezer burn. Freezer burn does not affect the safety of the food but it does affect the taste and the texture. Always put the date on anything you put into the freezer. This avoids throwing away good food when you can’t remember how long it has been frozen.
Defrost on the bottom shelf in the fridge, in a bowl to catch any drips.
Q. What type of cooking are fillets best suited to?
A. Stir-frying, baking, roasting, cut into strips and breaded, butterflied, flattened and breaded for schnitzel. You can poach them in stock or in a sauce. Use them in casseroles or curries. Bake them in a pie. Use with some leftover ham in a risotto. They are a very versatile product and there are literally millions of recipes available. Ask your butcher to slice or dice when you are buying and he can give you storage and cooking tips.
Q. I’ve heard it’s a common mistake to over-cook chicken fillets and make them tough. How do I avoid this without running the risk of food poisoning?
A. If you overcook them they will dry out. You could use a meat thermometer to be sure the internal temperature is over 75C.
Here are some guidelines if you don’t have a thermometer.
Chicken Fillets in a fan oven @180C 20 – 30 mins, in a conventional oven @190C, 20 – 30 mins, in a gas oven, Mark 5, 20 – 30 mins and under a grill,
20 – 25 mins. Always pre-heat the oven so that everything starts to cook immediately.
Q. Once they’re cooked, how long can I store chicken fillets in the fridge?
A. Chicken is best eaten 2-3 days after cooking. Allow to cool properly before placing it in the fridge wrapped in cling film or greaseproof paper. If you are not going to use them within 2-3 days, it is best to freeze them.
Q. Is it safe to reheat cooked chicken fillets?
A. Leftovers should be used within 2 days and stored in the fridge at between 0-4°C during this time. They can be reheated as long as they are heated to 72°C or higher. Food should be very hot and steaming before it is served. It is important when reheating stews and casseroles that the liquid boils for around 3-5 minutes to ensure the pieces of meat are completely heated through. Never reheat food more than once.
www.safefood.eu is a good source of food safety information.
Q. What is the safest way to defrost a turkey?
A. Always defrost any meat in the fridge. It can take up to three days to defrost a good sized turkey, and it is the safest way to do it. Put the bird in a basin in the fridge to collect any drips and don’t wash the turkey with water when it is defrosted. Be sure to wash your hands, your utensils and all work surfaces properly after preparing your turkey.
Q. How will I know when the turkey is fully defrosted?
A. When you press on the muscles of the leg and breast and they give easily, and you can flex the legs freely, it is ready. If they are stiff, the turkey is still in the frozen state.
Q. How should I prepare the turkey for roasting?
A. Dry it off with kitchen paper. Slide your fingers under the breast skin from the neck cavity, then push your fingers down along the breast to create a space under the skin. Push some butter into the space and press flat from the outside. The butter will melt during cooking and moisten the turkey breast.
Q. How long will it take to cook a turkey?
A. It differs from bird to bird, depending on the weight. A good rule of thumb is 25 minutes per pound (454gms) plus 25 minutes extra at the end.
Q. If the turkey is stuffed will it take longer to cook?
If the body cavity is stuffed it will take longer because the heat from the oven won’t circulate through the bird as it would an empty cavity. We recommend not to stuff the inside cavity, just the neck space. It is safer. Cook the stuffing in balls half the size of an egg on a baking tray while you are resting the turkey after cooking.
Q. How will I know when the turkey is cooked?
A. we recommend using a meat thermometer to be absolutely certain. The turkey should be a minimum of 72 degrees C in the breast and 84 degrees C in the thigh.
Q. The last turkey I cooked was quite dry. How can I avoid that next time?
A. Push some butter under the skin (see above)
Alternatively, get some fatty streaky rashers from your butcher and cover the breast and legs with them before you put the bird in the oven. Remove the bacon 40 minutes before the end of cooking to allow the skin to brown.
Q. What do you reckon is the best way to cook a turkey?
A. Get your butcher to take the legs off the bird and cook them separately from the crown at the same time or at a later time. The legs cook differently to the breast and if cooked on the whole bird can be very dried out after cooking, but are very succulent if cooked separately.
Q. How long should I “rest” the turkey for?
A. Like all large joints of meat, 20 to 30 minutes is fine. Cover lightly with tinfoil and it will stay hot for that time.
Q. How long can I keep left over turkey in the fridge?
A. All leftover meats should be consumed within three days. If there is a lot of cooked turkey over, it would be best to freeze it to use later.
One final tip. Use the turkey carcass to make stock before finally disposing of it. It is great for soups and gravies.
Q. What’s a good value cut of steak to buy?
A. Sirloin ( Rump or Chump) is usually good value and cheaper than striploin, rib-eye or fillet. Sirloin has a great flavour too. Look out for special offers in your local butchers.
Q. Are there any advantages to buying a steak with fat running throughout?
A. Yes. A steak with fat streaks in it will be a lot juicier and flavoursome than a very lean steak. The ultimate is a Wagyu steak, with 12 degrees of marbling, but this is very expensive meat and not available everywhere.
Q. Which cut of steak would you recommend for a barbecue?
A. Ribeye, sirloin, striploin or fillet are all good on a barbecue.
Allow meat to come up to room temperature and make sure the coals on the barbecue have gone grey before cooking.
Q. I want to splash out on a fillet steak for a dinner party. How should I cook it?
A. You could buy the fillet in a whole piece and cook a Beef Wellington. Otherwise, lightly fried or grilled would be best. Fillet is very tender because it is a non-working muscle, but lacks flavour compared to other steaks.
Q. I bought steaks a couple of days ago and, while they’re still within their use-by date, parts of the meat have turned brown. Are they still okay to eat?
A. If you keep steaks in a bag in the fridge for a few days they will discolour. This is normal. It is caused by the steaks pressing on each other and lack of oxygen. So long as there is no sour or offensive smell, they will be fine.
Q. What are your top tips for cooking steak?
A. Bring to room temperature for an hour. Cook on a hot frying pan or grill. If frying, use a combination of rape seed or groundnut oil and butter. Beef dripping (called beef tallow in the USA) is another excellent oil for frying. Don’t overcrowd the pan, cook steaks in batches if needs be and allow to rest (covered in foil) while cooking the next batch. Only put salt on at the last moment because it will cause the juices to run out. Rest for 10 minutes, lightly covered in foil, before serving.
Q. What is minute steak used for?
A. It is a thinly cut steak that is used for steak sandwiches. As the name suggests, it will cook in about a minute.
Q. Is rare steak really safe to eat?
A. Steak is safe to eat ‘rare’. Whole cuts of beef or lamb, steaks, cutlets and joints only have germs on the outside, so as long as the outside is cooked any potentially harmful germs that could cause food poisoning will be killed.
So long as the outside of the steak is cooked, the inside will be perfectly safe to eat.
Q. How long should I cook a steak for it to be medium-rare?
A. Depends on thickness, temperature, whether fresh or frozen.
A general rule for a 2cm (¾ inch) thick sirloin steak:
Blue: About 1 min each side
Rare: About 1½ mins per side
Medium rare: About 2 mins per side
Medium: About 2¼ mins per side
Q. If I freeze raw steaks, will this have any impact on quality?
A. A frozen steak that has been thawed out will lose some moisture.
While meat is being frozen, the moisture inside the muscle expands and damages the molecular structure of the protein, breaking the cellular walls.
When you thaw the meat out the burst cellular walls allow a lot of moisture to escape and the meat will then be dryer when cooked.
The packaging you use when freezing meat is important too. Use heavy freezer bags to help avoid freezer burn.
Modern commercial freezing methods freeze meat very quickly and this stops a lot of the moisture loss, but this doesn’t apply to freezing at home.
Generally speaking, in our opinion, fresh is better than frozen.
Meat For Picnics
Q. Aside from chicken drumsticks, which are the best meats for serving at a picnic?
A. Full Chicken precooked & sliced, Boned, Rolled and Stuffed Chicken, precooked and sliced, Cold Roast Beef, Cold Ham, Cold Corned Beef, precooked and sliced. You can buy all those items ready cooked, but it is so much cheaper to buy the meats in your local butchers and cook them yourself. And of course, it tastes so much better than factory produced cooked meats.
They are not to everyone’s taste, but cold cooked sausages on buttered Vienna roll always remind me of picnics when I was a child and I still love them. Buy good quality sausages from your butcher, cook them the night before the picnic, place on kitchen towel and allow to cool before placing in the fridge.
Slice lengthways and place on buttered bread.
Q. How long will meat keep once it’s cooked?
A. Once cooked, meats will last 3 to 4 days in a fridge, so you can prepare in advance. And if the weather is bad and the picnic is cancelled you will have all that food ready to serve at home.
Q. What is the best way to transport meats for a picnic?
A. The ideal method is to use a cooler box with ice packs, but failing that you can get cooler bags in most hardware stores. If you are really stuck, put a couple of newspapers in the freezer overnight, wrap up the meats in cling film or tinfoil and then wrap everything in the frozen newspapers. The newspaper will hold the cold for hours and when you are done you can wrap all your rubbish in the newspaper and dispose of it carefully.
Q. How long can the cooked meat be left out, uncovered, while we eat?
A. That would depend on the heat, wind, flies, wasps etc., but I recommend you only unwrap everything when you are ready to eat.
Q. Are there any other food safety issues I should worry about?
A. Always wash your hands before and after handling food, and always after using the toilet. Never let raw meat come into contact with cooked meat. If anything falls on the ground or the grass, don’t use it. You cannot take any chances. Particularly where young children or elderly people are concerned.
Q. What’s your favourite picnic recipe?
A. Ham Hock Terrine, absolutely fabulous,
Ham Hock Terrine ingredients:
- 3 ham hocks
- l tbsp wholegrain mustard
- l tsp chopped parsley
- l tsp chopped tarragon
- 50ml duck fat or butter
- 1 carrot, peeled and chopped
- 2 sticks celery, chopped
- 1 onion, peeled and chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 bunch thyme
- 3 cloves
Ham Hock Terrine Preparation:
- Place ham hocks in a large saucepan and cover with water.
- Add carrot, celery, onion, bay leaves, thyme and cloves. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer very slowly for four hours.
- Remove from the heat and cool in the liquid. Remove the cold ham hocks from the stock and strain the stock. With your hands, remove the meat from the bones (the meat will fall awav easily) and shred it into a bowl.
- Add the mustard, herbs, duck fat (or butter) and 50ml of the stock to the meat. Mix all ingredients well and place in a mould or loaf tin lined with cling film.
- Chill in the fridge overnight. Slice and serve.
Do as much preparation at home as you can because when you are outdoors at a picnic you don’t have the gadgets and gizmos you are used to in your kitchen, and sure as anything you will find that you are short of some utensil or other.
Q. I always buy chicken fillets, but I’ve heard it’s better to buy a whole chicken. Why is this?
A. A whole chicken will be better value, the breast will be much more moist on a whole chicken, you will get more chicken for your money and it will be much more flavourful on the bone.
Q. I’ve never actually roasted a whole chicken before. Where do I begin?
A. It’s really very easy. Wipe with kitchen towel, rub some butter on the breast skin, sprinkle with salt and pepper, place on a rack in a roasting tin in a preheated oven, 190C for 1 hour and 20 mins.
Q. Once the chicken is cooked, how do I go about carving it?
A. Let it rest for 15-20 mins, then start by taking off the legs.
Remove a leg by pulling it away from the body to expose the hip joint (between the thigh and the breast), and cut through the joint.
A whole leg consists of the drumstick and thigh. Hold the drumstick firmly against the board and cut through the knee joint. Cutting this joint separates the leg and thigh.
Remove a wing from the joint that attaches it to the body.
Cut as close to the breast as possible. A whole wing consists of three parts: the pointy wing tip, the flat part, and the part that looks like a mini drumstick.
Carve the breast meat parallel to the centre bone, slicing toward the top of the breast. Slice thinly.
Q. What is spatchcocking and why is it done?
A. The backbone of the chicken is split to help flatten the carcase and the cooking time is very much shorter.
Place chicken breast side down, with the legs towards you.
Using sturdy scissors or poultry shears, cut up along each side of the backbone to remove it, cutting through the rib bones as you go.
Open the chicken out and turn over. Flatten the breastbone with the heel of your hand so that the meat is all one thickness. Use two skewers to secure the legs and keep the bird flat. Run the skewers diagonally through the breast and thigh meat.
Griddle, grill or barbecue for 15-20 mins per side or roast for 40 minutes (depending on size of bird).
Q. What kind of dishes are best with chicken legs or thighs?
A. A chicken thigh’s brown meat contains slightly more fat than chicken breast. However, due to its fat content the chicken thigh contains more flavour than the breast. Chicken thighs are great to use in casseroles, bakes, curries or, when boneless, in stir-fries.
Q. I’ve heard you can make chicken stock at home – is this difficult?
A. No. After you have eaten your chicken, save the bones or ask your butcher for some chicken carcases, add carrot, onion, celery, parsley, salt and pepper and enough water in a large pot to cover the bones, bring to the boil and then simmer for 4 hours. Strain the stock to remove all solids. Allow to cool. Pour into ice cube bags and freeze. When you need chicken stock for a recipe you can tear off one cube or as many as you need. (Do the same with leftover wine, to save it going to waste)
Q. I don’t like to eat the skin of the chicken. Won’t it just go to waste?
A. If you rub the skin lightly with oil, and some salt and pepper it will crisp up during the cooking and will be very tasty. If you take the skins off legs or breasts before cooking they can be fried in the pan with a little salt and pepper and they come up very crisp.
Dry off on some kitchen towel to absorb the fat.
Q. Are there recipes where it is better to buy chicken fillets?
A. Chicken breast fillet is white meat and can be used in various cooking styles, making it the most versatile part of the chicken to cook with. Chicken breast has a lower fat content compared to the chicken thigh. The chicken breast can be poached, grilled, baked, marinated, pan-fried or roasted. They’re great to use in stir-fries and sandwiches too.
Talk to your local butcher, he can help you to choose the right meats for any recipe.