A few months ago, a reader asked me to explain the difference between grocery-store meats and meats from a custom meat market. What I found is that the "butcher shop" - the term I grew up with - is an endangered species. Increasingly, they are few and far between. Lucky for us, there are still a few local businesses to provide us with custom meats, chicken and fish. Since moving to Danville, I have enjoyed the consistently fresh cuts of meat of Lawrence's Meat in Alamo. I especially like their outdoor grill where they turn their own meat into hamburgers and tri-tip sandwiches cooked to your liking. I also enjoy visiting Kinder's Custom Meats in Danville. (Having a cookout? Save yourself some grilling time and reserve their deliciously grilled baby back ribs, available on weekends.)
So what makes meat from a butcher shop so special? To find out, I contacted Ed Lawrence, owner of Lawrence's Meats. Lawrence's Meats has been around for 102 years, for 100 of those run by the Lawrence family. Ed grew up in the business, working for Lawrence's since the age of 5. The business was originally in Walnut Creek with a full barn/corral for cattle and even its own slaughter house (near John Muir Hospital) until 1962.
In 1987, the business moved to Alamo, where it is located today. Lawrence says: "We pride ourselves on selling choice and prime grade beef, lamb, pork; natural chickens, high quality fish and fresh produce. We also offer a full service deli, off-site catering and an outdoor grill that cooks our own meats to order seven days a week."
He offered some history: "In early years, shopping was divided between dried goods and meats. Until refrigeration, meats had to be slaughtered, butchered and sold fresh. The knowledge and skills of the butcher were revered. Eventually, the costs of raising cattle, storage space and refrigeration along with a lack of experienced meat cutters hurt the business. Consumers wanted fast and easy access; they wanted one-stop shopping. Today, none of the larger grocery stores break down their beef from 'carcass cattle.' Instead, they use boxed beef. Consequently, the butcher shop is gradually fading away."
According to the USDA, labels on beef sold in supermarkets today do not have to indicate where the beef was raised. The meat could be from the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Argentina or some other country. In fact, what one country's government considers "choice" graded beef may not be the same as what the USDA grades as choice. However, if it is graded "choice" beef in that country, it is automatically labeled "choice" in the U.S.
Moreover, 99 percent of the beef sold in grocery stores comes from one of three main meat processing companies. The processing companies break down carcasses and vacuum-seal parts in plastic bags within 24 hours, then ship "boxed beef" in primal, sub-primal or case-ready cuts (e.g. New York steak). "Boxed beef" usually moves into a supermarket display case within two to four days of the animal's killing. Unfortunately, this beef has received no dry aging.
What is dry aging? Decades ago, butchers discovered that beef carcasses, left hanging for days, became more tender and flavorful. In dry aging, two things happen: one, moisture from the animal's muscles evaporates to leave a stronger concentration of beefy taste; two, natural enzymes in the meat break down tissue and proteins. Dry aging tenderizes the meat significantly and involves hanging meat "whole" or in part carcasses in a temperature- and humidity-controlled cooler for seven to 28 days. Most of the impact of dry aging occurs in the first 14 days.
Dry aged beef was the norm for many years but, with the science of vacuum packaging and refrigerated transportation, the dry aging process has been abandoned by all but the faithful butcher, who maintains the tradition of dry aging and cutting from carcasses. A local meat market almost always sells American-raised meat and, often, the meat has been raised locally. Further, butcher shop meat is usually dry aged for seven-14 days to guarantee more tender cuts of meat. However, always ask questions about the source of the meat and dry aging.
As for Lawrence's, Ed says: "We use quarter form carcasses to age and cut our meats so we can control the quality of our products. Lawrence's beef has a two to three week age time and we offer customized cuts, freezer orders and specialty items (e.g. buffalo, alligator, ostrich) within 48 hours that the average grocer cannot. We have a longstanding tradition at holidays of customers reserving their prime rib and turkeys weeks in advance."
Dry aged meats are often a bit higher in cost, sometimes as much as 25 percent more. Air circulation is essential in dry aging and the evaporation causes shrinkage. Typical shrinkage is 10-15 percent. Beef can be wet aged in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag to enhance tenderness but it will not have the familiar dry aged flavor. But because refrigerated storage is expensive, only high-end steak and rib cuts are generally wet-aged.
As my conversation with Ed Lawrence drew to a close, he proudly shared other benefits of a local butcher: "We have a loyal clientele who know that the Lawrence name is synonymous with quality and full service. Our staff is extremely knowledgeable and can educate or discuss meats, cuts, etc. They're also good cooks themselves, who readily offer cooking tips and ideas."
It's clear that non-boxed and dry aged meats may cost you a little more but a refined palate will discern the difference in flavor and tenderness. You may not do all your shopping at a meat market but, when the occasion calls for custom cuts and extra special quality, it's good to know that your local butcher shop is still around the corner. In between time, stop by for a freshly grilled cheeseburger or flavorful baby-backed ribs to remind yourself what treasures we have in this area. See you there!
Jacqui lives in Danville with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lawrence's Meats of Walnut Creek
225 Alamo Plaza # B
Open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. daily; prepared food available 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Kinder's Custom Meats
105 Town And Country Drive, #G, Danville
Open M-F 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m.