USDA Choice filet mignon beckons from the Rohnert Park Safeway butcher case, promising an extraordinarily tender indulgence of buttery texture and succulent beefiness — for $23.09 a pound.
Yet in the cooler nearby, a Choice New York Strip is on sale for $5.99 a pound. It’s certainly less tender, and sturdier in flavor, but the price can’t be beat. You toss it in your cart and figure well, frugal is good. Especially as beef prices have been climbing, because of droughts that have reduced cattle numbers globally. In Australia, one of our nation’s largest importers, beef prices are up 40 percent this year over 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Fine beef doesn’t have to be out of reach, however, and often can mean even better value if you shop around. At Sonoma County Meat Co. on Sebastopol Avenue, near the intersection of Highway 12 and US 101 in Santa Rosa, Rian Rinn and his wife, Jenine Alexander, have specialized in local, grass-fed beef since opening 18 months ago.
“Not to be pretentious, but our rib-eye is the best I’ve ever tasted,” he said, sourced from Oak Ridge Angus pasture-raised in Knights Valley. “It’s finished with barley from Bear Republic Brewing in Healdsburg after they use the grain for beer and has incredible marbling.”
It costs $18.99 a pound versus Safeway’s same-day price of $16.49 for a generic-sourced Choice rib-eye.
As costs soar for cuts that traditionally are even less expensive, it’s increasingly important to pay attention to quality, Rinn believes. The better the meat, the less needed to truly satisfy.
For a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet, an adult needs only 5.5 ounces of lean protein, according to ChooseMyPlate.gov. U.S. consumers already have begun reducing their beef consumptions as vegetables and other protein sources take over center-of-plate positions.
Reading labels is a good place to start. The USDA grades beef as Prime, Choice, Select and Standard, which is frequently sold as ungraded or as store-brand meat. The higher the quality, the better the flavor, thanks to more marbling of the intramuscular fat that gives the meat its melt-in-the-mouth quality. A little goes a long way with Prime meat that can average 50 percent of its calories from fat.
Knowing where your meat comes from is the next step. At Oliver’s Markets in Santa Rosa and Cotati, for example, shoppers can select from Oliver’s Choice Natural Beef, Oliver’s USDA Prime, Humboldt Grassfed Beef or, just introduced in September, beef from Mindful Meats. The Point Reyes company works exclusively with pasture-based organic, non-GMO verified dairy producers in Sonoma and Marin counties to harvest retired milk cows.
Then, be sure to cook your investment correctly. When in doubt, ask the butcher.
“I can’t stress how important it is to let prime rib come to room temperature before roasting,” Rinn said of cuts that range from $19.99 to $23.75 a pound. “If you put it cold in a hot oven, it shocks the meat, contracts the proteins, forces juices out and toughens it.”
For a real bargain that tastes anything but, Rinn recommends his grass-fed chuck roast, at $8.99 a pound. He browns the seasoned meat, sears carrots, onions and leeks, and does a long, slow braise with tomato paste, garlic, red or white wine, herbs and beef stock.
The acid in the tomato helps tenderize the meat, while beef-friendly herbs like basil, thyme, sweet marjoram and rosemary add flavor layers. Rinn also likes a thick salt crust on his prime rib, rubbed in well so it penetrates the meat and alters proteins to add flavor and tenderize.