Thursday, December 9, 2010

Buying local meat

As buying local becomes more popular, some people are starting to look for local meat, but one thing often gets in the way. They need to buy a whole or half pig or beef, and they don't like frozen meat, because they think it is inferior to fresh. In fact, one year, when we decided to process our turkeys early than usual, several regular customers said they didn't want one because it would have to be frozen.

When meat is properly wrapped and frozen, there is no difference in quality or taste. The main reason I prefer getting our meat custom processed is because they have the equipment to properly wrap and freeze it. When we have our meat done professionally, it will last in the freezer a loooong time! We found some two-year-old pork in our freezer one time, and it tasted fine. If we butcher and freeze meat, it only lasts about a month before it gets freezer burn, and then it's blech!

I suspect that this bias against frozen meat developed a long time ago when they didn't do such a good job of wrapping and freezing, and it just gets passed on from generation to generation. Also, marketers in this country know that people view fresh as higher quality, so the cheapest quality meat is sold frozen because it will last longer (and can be sold more cheaply), and the better quality is sold fresh, which perpetuates the myth that fresh tastes better. There is a lot that goes into the taste of meat, and most of it goes back to the way the animals were raised and what they were fed, as well as the breed and age of the animal. It always makes me smile when people have turkey at our house in the middle of summer and "just know it's fresh because it tastes so good!" We only butcher turkeys in November -- the Saturday before Thanksgiving, so everyone can have their fresh turkeys. 

Lockers who do custom processing of beef, pork, etc., (versus poultry) typically give you the meat frozen, and this is a good thing. If you stack 150 pounds of meat in a home freezer, it's going to take forever to freeze. The quality of a commercial freezer is a lot better than a home freezer, so the meat is frozen quickly and thoroughly. It's in wire trays, so there is air circulation around the meat. The meat is so solidly frozen that it doesn't even begin to defrost on the drive home, which for me is half an hour. If you tap it on the counter, it sounds like a hammer.

Our poultry processor gives us the meat chilled, rather than frozen, but it's a one-day process. We drop off chickens or turkeys in the morning and pick up packages of meat in the afternoon. I've heard that freezing meat the day it's butchered can make it tough, so we always wait about three days before freezing it. Freezing birds in our freezer is a fairly even process, because the birds are not flat, so air can circulate around them -- rather than flat packages of steaks and roasts, which would just be a giant cube of meat that would take forever to freeze in a home freezer.

I suspect that some people do not want to buy frozen meat because they don't know how old it is. However, when you buy meat directly from the farmer, you know how old it is. The animal will not be delivered to the locker for processing until it is sold, because it can't be frozen until it is cut up and packaged, and they need your directions before doing that.

When you buy a whole or half pig or beef, you call the locker and tell them exactly what you want -- how many pounds of ground, any patties or sausage, how many roasts, and what cuts of steak you want. If, for example, you don't want pork chops, they'll just add that to your ground or they can cut it up as stew meat. If you don't want something -- like tongue -- just tell them that you don't want it. Although we don't eat tongue, our dogs do, so we get it for them. We get everything -- we even ask the butcher for the bones, so we can give them to the dogs. Raw bones can be digested and don't cause the problems that cooked bones do, such as perforating the stomach. They can also smoke bacon and hams.

If you are accustomed to buying meat in one pound packages, the idea of having 150 pounds of pork could be daunting, but it is not as much as it sounds like. That will fit in two or three picnic coolers, so you would only need a small deep freezer. At only 25 to 50 pounds, a lamb will fit in most refrigerator freezers.

Once you get a freezer full of meat, you get kind of spoiled, because it is really convenient. The other nice thing about buying directly from a farmer is that you can go to the farm and see how the animals live, and you can ask about things that are important to you, like drug use and feeding practices. So, if you know a small farmer who sells whole pork, beef, goat, or lamb, give it a try. If you don't know anyone, check out Local Harvest or Market Maker to find a farm near you. And be sure to contact them sooner rather than later, because many sell out months in advance. All of our 2010 pigs were reserved in March, and they were not processed until November, so it may also require some planning ahead.


LindaG said...

Thanks for all the great information!

Haley said...

I've never thought that frozen meat was inferior in flavor. One reason I do not usually buy it is that it is packaged in plastic, which I try to avoid, especially when in direct contact with food. My butcher puts fresh meat in paper for me, but I really only buy grass-fed beef and lamb from a local farm (but they sell it at my grocery store so I do not have to buy a side of beef) because those are the only animals I currently know to be humanely treated (I haven't eaten commercial chicken since your post about Cornish crosses). I am probably unnecessarily overly concerned about plastic, and I wish there were a way to freeze meat without it. I am trying to get over it.

Haley said...

I have been thinking about this and realized that the meat from the local farm at my store was probably transported there in plastic, so buying that is probably no different.

Please excuse my whining here. I didn't mean to bring up random unrelated issues.

Chef E said...

Brilliant post here! I wish we had room like in Dallas, but I had to sell my commercial freezer, but still only buy local farm meats here. I have had wild game meats frozen and been disappointed, but they came in from another state that way...great post!

Tiggeriffic said...

Great information~! you are 100% all that you said.
At our grocery store you can actually see behind the counter men cutting the meat and putting the meat in trays to be put in the window display to buy. You know it's fresh...and it's good..
Thanks for you post today...
Have a great day..ta ta for now from Iowa.

Kathy ~ Cackles and Berries said...

always have had a freezer stocked full of pork, beef, venison and poultry. Plus living in the country your not at the luxury to run to the store all the time for Fresh meat. Even when we don't have a lot of many, its hard not to feel blessed when you have such bounty in the freezer!

Deborah @ Antiquity Oaks said...

Great points, everyone! And no problem thinking on my blog, Haley. My husband and I were talking about your first post before you posted again, and we were thinking that everything we've read about plastic talks about it leaching chemicals when it's heated, so thawing meat in the microwave is probably not the best idea. Just another reason to plan ahead so the meat can safely thaw in the frig or submerged in cold water.

John Leunen said...

Something else that plays a big part in the dislike of frozen meat is self defrosting freezers. These freezers run a heat cycle every day to rid the frost in the freezer and this does warm anything close to the sides, and is what causes all the ice crystals in the packaging. The manual defrost freezers are the only way to keep anything long term. The refrigerator freezers also bring odors from the fridge into the freezer and combined with the defrost cycle let the meat absorb those odors and create an off taste. We have had meat in the freezer for 2 yrs. and not had any problems with it, properly packaged in the right freezer meat will last a long time with no adverse affects.

Susan B said...

My relatives are meat snobs - won't buy anything unless it's fresh. But this same woman has meat in her freezer that is 4-5 years old, wrapped only in the plastic it came from the supermarket in. I suspect she buys a roast of a certain type when it goes on sale, as they all had roughly the same date on them, only a year apart.

I do have a friend that used to own a high end meat market. She eventually had to sell when she developed carpal tunnel from all that cutting, etc. She prefers fresh to frozen.

We have 2 manual defrost freezers and one is kept full of beef, lamb, pig and chicken...and the other has vege's, fruits,etc. I love having the freedom to just run downstairs and get something for dinner. I cut a gallon milk jug in half and use the bottom as my meat defroster. I just put the meat in the jug bottom and throw it in the fridge. It catches any thawing liquids that make the fridge messy.


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