It is finally barbecue season, which means that many of us will soon be spending weekends pursuing butcher’s cases wondering what to throw over the flames. Burgers and dogs are the obvious choices, but these days you can find a whole slew of animal parts—lamb’s necks, venison loins, goat shoulder—behind the glass. It doesn’t matter that it is June; whatever meat you envision for your grill, you an probably find.
The question is, should you buy it? Like vegetables and fruits, meat can and should be seasonal. Beef, chicken, pork, lamb, bison, and venison meats have their individual times to shine, and buying them in season not only supports the natural life cycle of the animals, but it also improves flavor and texture.
We’re used to seeing terms like grass-fed, pastured, and free-range, which are closely related to and sometimes overlap with seasonality—if you eat locally, by default you eat in season. But on menus or on supermarket labels, knowing what’s legit and what’s just marketing can get tricky. For help deciphering the seasonal meat market, we turned to George Faison of Jersey City’s DeBragga & Spitler.
Expert: George Faison’s passion for unaltered, often wild meat has led him to become partner and chief operating officer at DeBragga, one of the tri-state area’s most respected meat purveyors, selling its products to boldface chefs like Tom Colicchio and David Chang.
Is meat seasonal?
While you can get most meat year-round, Faison stresses the importance of knowing what time of year corresponds to the best products. Here’s what he had to say.
There is variation in the taste of animal meat at different times of the year.
Faison says: Consumers can find 99%of the commodity meat production year-round, but they will not have the same taste as when it is in season. While cattle is best in the fall, heritage breed turkey is available a couple of weeks out of the year around Thanksgiving. Venison meat we only offer October through April, which is when the highest demand is. Bison is distinctive and lean year-round. People need to be plugged into when meats should be available, so that they are aware of when they should not be.
Variation in taste is caused by what the animal consumes. The cycle of the grass and other produce impacts the flavor of the final product.
Faison says: The best grass-fed cattle is available in the fall when the grass is richer with seed content to reproduce for the following year. The cows eat it and put on more fat. We see marbling in the meat in those late fall pastures that we don’t necessarily see with grass-fed beef during the rest of the year.
Part of our work at DeBragga is to show people that meat should be seasonal. We work with farmers near the Finger Lakes in upstate New York to raise Pure Berkshire hogs and lamb. They are born in April, raised throughout the summer, and in last two months, we feed them apple byproduct from the local cider production, which takes place from late August through October. The fall, when the lambs are mature and the apples are in season, is the best time to consume these hogs and lamb.
There is a blurry line in labeling grass-fed, grass-finished, and local meat. But meat that comes from other countries has to meet a strict set of criteria from the USDA.
Faison says: Sometimes a restaurant will carry beef from New York state 90% of time, but if they unexpectedly run out, they substitute it with another beef and don’t always change it on menu. There is grass-fed and there is grass-finished—those subtle differences are not always apparent on labels. But if a meat comes into our country from another country—like Canada, New Zealand, Australia, or Japan—it has to meet a strict set of criteria, otherwise the producer will lose its license. If the meat is sold in a store, you can feel fairly confident in where it is coming from.
Locality is less important the larger the animal. Instead, seek out producers who are raising animals the right way.
Faison says: Locality is important to a certain degree—for example, poultry is more perishable, so it can’t be transported as far without spoiling—but lamb and pork need about a week for rigor mortis, and beef needs almost four weeks in order to relax and tenderize enough to eat. Even if the cattle is raised in close proximity, it still needs to sit for the same amount of time. It is more important to look at how the animal is raised. The grass-fed beef from Uraguay is stunning and we bring it in to sell in the U.S. What matters is finding producers who have exceptional programs—that is what will yield exceptional product. Some of those are a bit farther away.
A reputable meat producer should be transparent about the programs they use.
Faison says: Today, food fraud is a huge issue. You can identify a respected producer because he will be able to talk about the programs he uses, how he works with the seasons, and why a product is available at certain times of the year. Take the high-mountain pasture lamb that we raise in Lava Lake in Idaho: The lambs are born in February, March, and April and are fed nothing but mother’s milk until they are old enough to move to a high-mountain pasture. Because the growing season is so short there, the grass is denser with nutrients. When the lamb is slaughtered—only in July, August, and September—it has a very distinct flavor that is attainable only by raising the lamb with this level of care and is only available during a short season.