Thursday, December 22, 2011

Preserving Floyd: Save Money, Cut Meat Yourself - NY Strip Steaks

It's possible to save yourself a whole lot of money by learning a bit about cutting your own meat.  Whether you buy from the grocery store or from a local farmer, the less the seller has to handle the meat the more money you'll save.  I recently bought a whole strip loin, cut it into steaks, and saved approximately $8.99/lb.
NY strip steaks, ready to cook, retail for around $12.99 a pound.  As you can see from the label, this 12 pound loin was retailing for $8.99 a pound and was on sale for $4.99 a pound.  This loin broke down into twelve 1 1/2" thick steaks a little under a pound each.  Michael and I will split one of these for a meal.

After slaughtering, the first cuts of beef, pork, and lamb are called halves and quarters.  If you buy directly from a farmer you are usually required to buy a half or a quarter.  Next you'll be asked how you want it cut.  This means do you want steaks and what kind, roasts and what kind, ribs, burger, shanks, etc. (Be aware that, when buying halves and quarters, the cost of cutting the meat into the final cuts is often a separate charge from the price of the meat itself.  This ups the total price per pound that you paid.) If you bought a quarter, what kind of cuts you get depends on whether you bought a front quarter or a hind quarter.  The front quarter turns out tougher cuts and the rear quarter more tender ones.  In between the purchase of that half or quarter and you receiving the final packaged cuts that you ordered, that meat has been handled many more times by the butcher, each time increasing the final cost to you.  The same thing happens in the grocery store.

Back when my father was a grocery store butcher meat used to arrive in halves and quarters.  The next step was to break it down (referred to as fabricating) into primals and then into the various cuts you are accustomed to seeing in the cooler.
Primal Cuts (illustration courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
 Today meat arrives at the grocery store already fabricated into primals or sub-primals, and often already into retail cuts.  Many grocery store butchers are familiar with only the most popular cuts of meat and only recently has demand for some of the lesser known cuts (such as hanger steaks) brought them back into the display cases.

How many times did the whole strip loin I bought get handled before me?  Quite a few actually.  (1) Splitting the carcass in half.  (2) Splitting the half into quarters. (3) Cutting the quarters into primals.  (4) Cutting the short loin primal into the sub-primals from which individual T-bone, Porterhouse, and NY Strip steaks are cut.
Short Loin Primal (illustration courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
It may not be practical for most of us to handle anything larger than a sub-primal cut (like my whole strip loin) in the home.  This cut is great to start out on since it's boneless and generally of a size that most anyone can handle.

A whole strip loin will come vacuum-packed and the loin will be covered on top with a thick cap of fat.  Rifle through the loins offered and choose the one that has the thinnest cap of fat.  Look at it from both ends and press on it to kind of gauge the thickness of the cap.  You'll be trimming away the vast majority of the fat cap so why pay for waste.

While you're looking at the ends of the loin (or as much as you can see through the packaging), look for a nice balance of meat and fat marbling.

Fat on the outside of a piece of meat, usually fat that was located between the muscle and the skin, will be discarded.  Fat located within and between the muscles is the fat (marbling) that melts and bathes the meat during cooking to prevent drying and produce succulence and tenderness.

Assemble your tools and wraps.  I used a 6" chef knife, a honing steel, a tape measure, a flexible cutting mat, plastic wrap, freezer bags, and paper towels

Place the meat on your work surface and trim off the ragged ends.  Save these pieces to cut into strips for a stir-fry or steak sandwiches.

With the ends straightened up, measure off the desired thickness of your steaks, leaving a slash at each point where you want to cut.  I prefer an inch and a half thick steak because that allows me to achieve the desired caramelization of the meat on the outside and the rare-medium I prefer on the inside after the steak rests.  It's a hefty chunk of meat but provides a generous two portions when split between us.

Go back and begin cutting the loin into individual steaks.  Try to cut the entire steak with one long, steady pull of the knife to ensure a clean cut.  Sawing back and forth can leave the surface of the steak ragged.  If you must use a second cut to get through the steak, open it up and make sure you place the knife in the path of the original cut.
Cutting through fat will quickly dull your blade so keep the honing steel handy and wipe and hone the knife after cutting a steak or two.

Once all the steaks are cut, trim each one of surplus fat.  How much you trim off will be up to you but since we aren't fond of beef fat I remove all but a thin layer around the outside edges.

Wipe off any bits of fat or meat adhering to the steak and tightly wrap it in plastic wrap, bag with the other steaks in a freezer bag, removing as much air as possible or vacuum seal it.  Label, date, and freeze.

After weighing up the fat trimmed from the steaks, I lost 1 pound and 5 ounces to waste at a cost of $5.27.  There will be waste and this is why you should choose the loin with the least amount of discardable fat.
Still, I ended up with 11.04 pounds of beautiful NY strip steaks in my freezer for a very reasonable price.

One last thing.  Beef comes graded as prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner. According to the USDA:

"USDA Prime, Choice, Select and Standard grades come from younger beef.  The highest grade, USDA Prime, is used mostly by hotels and restaurants, but a small amount is sold at retail markets.  The grade most widely sold is USDA Choice."  (I have never seen Prime beef in a grocery store.  Update: My son works in the meat department of a Wegmans in PA. and tells me that they do get Prime grade beef during the holidays.)

"Standard and Commercial beef is frequently sold as ungraded or as "brand name" meat." (Makes you think twice about buying those store brand chubs of hamburger.)

"The three lower grades - USDA Utility, Cutter, and Canner - are seldom, if ever, sold in stores but are used to make ground beef and other meat items such as frankfurters." (just eeww)

Any beef that is graded by the USDA is considered edible.  Just how edible is up to you.


  1. My grocery store will cut the meat for me for free if you buy the whole loin. However, I now buy all my beef from a friend that raises cattle, so the butcher calls me to ask how I want it cut.

  2. very nice i myself bought a cheap deli slicer (50 bucks) great investment anyway put primal in freezer for an hour then slice this way the meat is firm and slices easier i get perfect even slices every time