Walking into a butcher’s shop can be intimidating. Over here, massive hunks of meat dangle from the beckoning fingers of metal hooks; over there, a catalog of carnivorous delights resting on wax paper beneath Windexed glass. There might be some sawdust sprinkled on the floor; there’s most definitely a man in an apron Jackson Pollacked with the blood of some recently-carved beast. It’s easy to snatch a number from the red dispenser, and fall into autopilot (“two pounds of ground round, please”). But rest assured: Whether a sustainable whole-animal house or a been-there-for-a-century beef-and-pork bastion, the right butcher shop — the one to be sought out at least — is a place built on the back-and-forth. The person with the cleaver? As much a culinary guide as he is meat cutter. Invoke his expertise and he’ll educate you on everything from obscure cuts of meat and arm you with all you need to make the meal of your life. We surveyed resident butchers from Boston to the Bay Area for March's Guide to Butchery. Here, our experts weigh-in on the five cuts of beef everyone should be ordering.
1. Bone-In Rib Eye
Celebrating a promotion? Treat yourself to a rib-eye. James Peisker, of Nashville's Porter Road Butcher Shop, calls it a "big, swinging dick cut of meat" and "one of the juiciest, most flavorful in the entire animal." He's not kidding: Carved from the sixth through 12th ribs, it's ringed by a thick band of fat and beautifully marbled. Grill it if you want, but pan searing is best: all that glorious fat makes it prone to flare-ups. A pox on your house if you cook it past medium rare.
2. Skirt Steak
A long, narrow belly cut, the skirt enjoys a zesty marinade and is never happier then when tucked into a soft tortilla. Grilled, it's a can't-miss cookout favorite. Always ask for the outside skirt, not the inside. "It's thinner and has a lot more marbling, which gives it a beautiful, iron-rich flavor," says Pat LaFrieda, owner of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors in North Bergen, New Jersey
3. Short Ribs
Cut into chunks and braised, this beefy expanse just above the belly becomes fall-off-the-bone tender; sliced flanken-style (cut to expose a few sections of bone) and bathed in marinade, it makes hot coals swoon. Use leftover bones, or wear 'em as a necklace — whatever works.
4. Sirloin Cap
This lean, angular standout from the hindquarters of the steer is incredibly marbled, with a moat of fat that imparts a distinctively rich taste. "It has more chew to it than the sirloin (from which it's sliced) but is far superior in flavor," says Peisker. Coat it with a rub or dunk it in marinade before flame grilling.
5. Flat Iron
Sliced from the shoulder and marked by a line of connective tissue, this is beloved by the cleaver cognoscenti. Why? It's intensely flavored and gloriously idiot-proof. Says Jeremy Stanton of The Meat Market in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, "This is the second most tender cut in the steer, and will remain so even if well done." But you know better than that, right?