Ask The Ethical Butcher--November 2009

I put out a message a few weeks ago asking if anyone had any burning meat-related questions. I got several good ones and here are the answers. I liked doing these so much that I am going to continue this as a monthly feature. Feel free to send in your meat/fish questions and I'll answer them as they pile up.


How long before bacon goes rancid? How about the grease you pour off? How long can you cook with it if you leave it out of the fridge? What if you leave it in? Should you strain it or anything?----Andrea Frost

Wow. So first the bacon. Commercial bacon by law will have an expiration date printed on the package. If you've lost the packaging, a good bet is 7-10 days after opening the package. As for the grease, fats and oils last a very, very long time, some say indefinitely. Fat will eventually go rancid, so give the grease or the bacon itself a whiff before you use it if you are in doubt. Whether you keep the grease at room temp, in the fridge, or in the freezer is really up to you. What is important is that you strain out all the bacon bits each time you add more fat to the container. While fats are highly resistant to decomposition and contamination, the little bits of meat are not. The best way to strain the bits out is to place a paper towel over the container and pour the drippings through it. The hotter the pan and drippings are, the easier and faster the straining will be. If you decide to keep your grease at room temp, be sure to clean outside of the container very well during the hot months or you'll be inviting critters. Better yet, just keep it in the fridge during that time. Bacon grease is an amazingly versatile rendered fat, I use it to start most of my soups and stews and it makes incredible sauteed vegetables.

Why do some people like crispy bacon when it's obviously so much better when it's kind of floppy and full of juicy fat? Also, please dispel the myth that wooden cutting boards are unsanitary. Thanks. -----Cecily Upton

This question is great! It cracks me up because I admit I am firmly in Camp Crispy. Maybe if I am using it in another dish, say pasta, then and only then will I accept soggy bacon. I love the chewy, fatty, crunch of bacon. The higher the meat-to-fat ratio, the better. Actually, last winter, I stopped curing bacon for a couple months during winter when the fat distribution became too high due to the pig's winter diet-- undesirable for someone who prefers a meaty, crisp strip. Like myself and Upton, I think many people are staunchly in one camp or the other, but there are definitely loyal bacon fans who love it either way. Which side are you on?

And yes, I would very much like to dispel the myth that plastic cutting boards are more sanitary than wooden ones. I believe much of the misinformation is due to the fact that the UDSA required plastic boards in food handling environments until relatively recently. With the findings of a 1994 UC Davis study however, hardwood boards were permitted. Even so, plastic boards are the industry standard despite clear evidence that wooden boards are as safe, if not much more so, than plastic. The study compared 10 species of hardwood, 4 plastic polymers, both new and with knife marks, when exposed to five of the most common bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses. Those bacteria were: E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus.

The findings of the study may surprise those who put their faith in plastic boards and will put a feather in the hat of wooden board fans. Wooden boards have actually been found to be MORE sanitary than plastic for several reasons. Bacteria tested on new wooden boards was not present after a short time, while plastic boards allowed the bacteria to remain until the board was cleaned. Since you should be cleaning boards after cutting, this alone may not be of note. What is though, is the fact that scarred (used) boards of wood were found to have the same result, while plastic boards with lots of knife marks were impossible to disinfect when washing by hand, especially when food residues, like animal fats were present. On the other hand, most home dishwashers only reach 120-140F, not nearly the 190F required to properly sanitize. As a non-porous surface, a plastic board with a fair amount of knife wear leaves little nooks and crannies for bacteria to hide. If bacteria is not present on the wooden boards, where did it go? Wood, of course is a porous material, so it allows the bacteria to soak in. This seems like it would be a problem and is the argument many use against wooden boards, but the bacteria surprisingly stop multiplying once trapped inside and die. The bacteria does not migrate back to the surface, it can only be detected again by either splitting the board in two, gouging into the surface or forcing water THROUGH the board, obviously none of these are instances that would occur under normal circumstances in home or professional kitchens. Their conclusion after this study?

Wooden cutting boards are not a hazard to human health, but plastic cutting boards may be.”

Another California study of home kitchens in 1992 showed that those using wooden boards were only 42% as likely as average to contract Salmonella as those who used plastic. Homes using plastic boards were found to be TWICE as likely as the average to contract Salmonella. Aside from these advantages to using wooden boards, they have tradition and history on their side. They last generations and unlike plastic boards, which have to be discarded and replaced frequently due to the bacteria-friendly worn surface, wooden boards can be resurfaced to see another day, or many.

Why am I overcome with the urge to say “BOO-YA!” right now?

When meat is marinated and properly refrigerated how long does it have before it can no longer be cooked and consumed? I was trying this Korean BBQ marinade that I got offline with thinly sliced portions of boneless rib-eye. The meat was marinating for 3 days but I was afraid to eat it. I couldn't tell if it was bad because the aroma of the marinade was so overpowering (in a good way!)----Kawika Ridep

The answer really depends on the type of meat used as well as the condition it was in prior to being marinated. If the rib-eye you used was still fresh when it was marinated, it should have been fine after 3 days. In fact, it was probably perfectly tender. In winter, I marinate my stew beef for 2 to 3 days as a rule. The key is there must be a fair amount of salt and/or acidic ingredients to stave off bacteria growth and to aid in breaking down collagen. Marinating can often be used as a way to buy yourself an extra day or two on meat that is starting to lose its appeal, so if the beef, pork or lamb is already on its way out, you def want to cook it the next day. Freshness is difficult to assess with marinated meats because you can't smell the meat and often the marinade will skew the color of the meat as well. Fish shouldn't be marinated for more than a few hours as the delicate nature of the flesh means that soaking in salt or acids will actually partially cook your fish, making it unsafe to eat later. You have to rely on touch and trust your gut. Back at the shop, Bryan and I would usually cook up a very small piece of the meat in question, with a little practice you can taste when meat is off, before the point where it will make you sick. Meat that is questionable will have a sort of moist, sticky surface and will lose some of it's firmness, as the muscle begins to decompose. This is a much better sign to go off of given that smell can be hidden by the aromas of your marinade.

General tips for choosing meat at the butcher's or supermarket would be very useful. What does a best-case chicken look like? How do I pick a delicious brisket?---Leah Reilly

Well my first tip would be to go to a knowledgeable and trustworthy butcher. If you form a relationship with one who knows what they are talking about and is happy to share that knowledge, you'll be fine. They'll be able to give you any advice you need, whether it's which cut of lamb is best for the grill or how long to cook a pork shoulder. A good butcher will help you save money by selecting less expensive cuts when possible without sacrificing taste. Short of that, a bit of research and trial and error are the best way to figure out what cuts work best for you and for what purpose. For instance, without much effort you can figure out what cuts of beef are good for roasting, braising, grilling or broiling and how to recognize them in the store.

A good chicken has taut, light skin that is not yellowed, is moist but not sticky and should not smell of anything. If you are buying chicken from a shop that doesn't wrap their meats, don't be alarmed by a bit of dry skin, it's only water that has evaporated, which bodes well for you. Once again, give it a whiff. I have always thought that chicken has sort of a chlorine smell when it starts to turn, but maybe that's just my nose. Truly bad chicken is unmistakable, I am still scarred from the time I stuck my entire forearm into a box of very spoiled chicken breasts on accident (shudders).

I would highly recommend going to a directly to a butcher if you want the best brisket. Brisket comes from the chest and is thus a pretty tough slab of meat. It is often split in two or three pieces and then trimmed of fat to the extent that either the butcher feels is necessary or the customer requests. This is why it's a good idea to go to the butcher. You can decide which piece you want, or request that it be kept whole. You will also be able to ask the butcher to leave or remove as much fat as you prefer, depending on the method of cooking. For grilling you are going to want it pretty lean, whereas you definitely want to keep on a good amount of fat for braising.