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The butcher's guide to better grilling

You want a meat board this nice? It starts at the butcher counter.

You want a meat board this nice? It starts at the butcher counter.

In the basement of France 44, one floor below the shelves of wine, beer and spirits, Scott Filut and Peter Ireland stand on either side of a stainless steel slab, wielding long knives as they skillfully break down a whole lamb into individual cuts. The pair work quickly, precisely, almost surgically. Those knives are their main tools – Filut wears a honing rod attached to his belt – but occasionally they fire up a contraption that looks like a bigger, meaner cousin of a band saw from shop class.

As they work, Filut, the lead butcher, and Ireland, the sausage maker for the new St. Paul Meat Shop, provide a crash course in animal anatomy. Watching them break down a whole animal into the pieces that end up on your plate reveals what an intimate knowledge they have of the end product. What does that have to do with grilling? That knowledge can help you get better results and even save you money.

These folks are the experts, and they want your food to turn out great just as much as you do. “We want to know people’s stories,” say Kristin Tombers of Clancey’s Meats & Fish in Linden Hills. “We ask things like ‘How many people are you feeding? Are they big meat eaters? Is it a special occasion?’ Even if someone knows what they want, we ask questions to make sure they’re getting the best option and the right amount.”

“We are like a matchmaker service,” says Nick Mangigian, store manager at the St. Paul Meat Shop. “Sometimes you just know a cut is perfect for someone.” If it’s an unfamiliar cut, making that match may take some convincing, but if you’re smart, you’ll take the advice.

Your butcher can also offer tips on achieving the “wow” factor for your guests. Erik Sather, former executive chef at Bar La Grassa, meat and seafood manager at the Seward Co-op, and partner in the upcoming Lowry Hill Meats, likes to recommend one bigger sirloin steak versus four smaller individual steaks for entertaining. “One big steak makes more of an impact,” he says.

If you’re on a budget, just say so. “Don’t be embarrassed to tell us you don’t want to spend a lot of money. There are many cuts out there that are less expensive but offer great flavor and value,” says Mangigian. On the flip side, a whole animal butcher can also provide you with custom cuts of meat or even source a whole pig for a pit party.

The meat cornucopia at Clancey's Meats and Fish.

The meat cornucopia at Clancey's Meats and Fish.

Asked for their best tips for grilling success, every butcher came up with the same top four pieces of advice:

  1. Make sure your grilling method is appropriate for the cut of meat you’re using. A beef brisket or pork shoulder needs long, slow cooking at a low temperature, while something like a steak or a pork chop is best seared quickly over high heat and then finished on a cooler part of the grill.

    1. Letting the meat come to room temperature before cooking it is an important but often overlooked step. “If you put an ice cold steak on a hot grill, by the time the center gets to the correct temperature, the outside will be burned,” explains Filut. The staff at Clancey’s will pull a steak out of the cooler and hold it at room temperature for customers if they call ahead.
  2. Everyone also agreed that for a quality cut of meat, the only seasoning you really need is salt and pepper. “Less is more when it comes to seasoning a great piece of meat,” says Sather. But while keeping your seasoning simple is key, make sure you’re using enough salt (and that probably means using more salt than you’re used to).

  3. Buy a cooking thermometer and use it. All the butchers recommend cooking your meat until it is rare or medium rare. Small cuts of meat can cook faster than you think, and there’s no going back once your steak is overcooked. Factor in enough time to let your meat rest for 10 minutes or so once it’s off the grill. This allows the juices to be absorbed into the meat for better texture and flavor. While your meat rests, it will continue cooking thanks to the internal heat, and the finished temperature can rise as much as 5 to 10 degrees.

It's all pretty simple, but it hinges on starting with a great piece of meat. So go make friends with a butcher, ask plenty of questions, then fire up the grill.

Location information:

Clancey’s Meats & Fish

4307 Upton Ave., Minneapolis, MN

Seward Community Co-op

2823 E Franklin Ave, Minneapolis, MN

The St. Paul Meat Shop

1674 Grand Ave., St. Paul, MN