Large quantities and low prices are the hallmarks of price-club shopping. And as the grilling season gets under way, that's exactly what most backyard barbecue enthusiasts are looking for.
We visited the meat departments at Costco, BJ's and Sam's Club, Long Island's three price clubs, to suss out each one's strong suit. There is no winner here - all three offered everything you'd need for a successful party - so you needn't purchase a second or third membership. (They are all pretty reasonable in their annual fees: Sam's Club is $40; BJ's, $45; Costco, $50.)
For meat-shopping expertise, we relied on Phil Rizzardi, founder of the international barbecue federation BBQ Brethren (bbq-brethren.com), pit master of the award-winning barbecue team Brothers in Smoke. He also cooks a lot in his Nesconset backyard.
Since he founded BBQ Brethren in 2003, Rizzardi has become ever more selective about the meat he buys, and he readily acknowledges the virtues of butcher shops and specialty markets, where the organic, grass-fed and heritage-breed pickings are more plentiful, and where he can handpick each individual steak and chop.
"But if I'm feeding 15 to 20 people - or more," he said, "I go to the price club."
1. Jennie O turkey tenderloin, garlic and herb-marinated
$13.87 for 3.75 pounds (two pieces)
"These are very good," Rizzardi said, "and require no prep work. You just cook them on indirect heat - about 275 degrees - until the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees. Then let it rest. These are great to have around for when a party of 10 suddenly grows to 20."
2. Beef butt tenderloin
$10.48 a pound
Rizzardi was taken by this rarely seen cut of meat, the "fat end of the tenderloin." He said it would be "perfect for a family of four. Cook it a short time over high heat then move it over to indirect. Cook it until it reaches 125 degrees, then let it rest."
3. Beef flank steak
$5.96 a pound
Between the two most popular "fajita steaks," Rizzardi prefers flank to skirt ($4.98 a pound) because it has a firmer texture and a "steakier" flavor. Both cuts "take on seasoning intensely" and require no more than 30 minutes with a rub or marinade. "These cook really quick, don't turn your head. And don't let them rest or they'll overcook. Take them off the grill, let the smoke clear and eat."
4. Pork country-style ribs
$1.88 a pound
Country-style ribs aren't ribs at all, but sliced pork butt (which is to say part of the shoulder). "There's no bone and lots of meat," Rizzardi said. He likes to cook these using a combination of the grill and the oven: Grill the meat, over indirect heat, until it reaches 150 degrees. Then put it in a pan and almost cover it with liquid (apple juice, tomato sauce) and seasonings, cover tightly and braise in a low (300-degree) oven for about an hour, until the internal temperature is 190 degrees. At this point the pork is going to be very tender. Take it out of the liquid, dry it off and finish it on the grill. Then serve with the sauce.
5. Pork top-loin chops
$2.98 a pound
Rizzardi saw a great deal of variation among the packages of boneless loin chops. Some had an even pink color - the hallmark of a chewy chop - but others were extremely well marbled. "These would cook up very tender," he said.
6. Tyson chicken thighs
$.98 a pound
For grilled chicken pieces, Rizzardi prefers thighs with both skin and bones. To prepare them, he puts them skin-side down and then trims off the two strips of fat on either side, without cutting off the skin. He also trims off "that little nut of meat that is barely attached." He'll rub seasoning under all the skin and then draw it up over the skinless side of the thigh - there's usually plenty of extra skin - to make "chicken pillows."
7. T-bone steaks
$8.67 a pound
T-bones and porterhouses are both cut from the short loin and contain two types of meat, the strip and the filet, separated by a T-shaped bone. Porterhouses come from the rear end of the animal and have a comparatively generous amount of filet. That's why they command a higher price. T-bones are from further forward and have a smaller filet. It drives Rizzardi crazy when he sees "porterhouse" labels on steaks that are actually T-bones, but here at Sam's Club, the opposite was true: Many of the T-bones had enough filet to qualify them as porterhouses.
1. Botto's sausage patties (sweet and hot)
$11.99 for 4.5 pounds (12 patties)
"I love these," Rizzardi said. "I make sausage burgers and top them with some grilled pepper. I don't know why the meat tastes different from when it's in the casings, but it does."
2. Prairie Fresh pork spareribs
$1.99 a pound
"These are nice and meaty," Rizzardi said, "with good marbling, and a nice fat cap." He inspected all the packages in the case and found no "shiners," places where the bone shows through the meat and indicates "the butcher cut them too close to the bone."
3. Beef brisket flat, untrimmed
$3.49 a pound
Rizzardi was very impressed with this nicely marbled 6-pound specimen. "Most brisket is too lean and over-trimmed," he said. "I'd consider joining BJ's for this."
4. American 'EZ-Cut' lamb loin chops
$7.99 a pound
Rizzardi usually avoids lamb from Australia and New Zealand, which is more common at the price clubs. "American lamb is slightly more expensive," he said, "but it has much more flavor."
5. Prairie Fresh boneless pork loin
$2.29 a pound.
Rizzardi was impressed by most of the pork at BJ's. He found these 6- to 7-pound loins nicely marbled, the fat cap "nice and white."
6. Jimmy Dean sausage $4.39 for 32 ounces
"We call this 'the fatty,' " Rizzardi said. "Roll it in your favorite rub and barbecue on low, indirect heat until the internal temperature is 160 degrees."
7. Shoulder Boston butt
$1.59 a pound
"This is perfect for pulled pork," Rizzardi said.
1. Sirloin steaks
$5.99 a pound for prime
"Sirloin is my absolute favorite steak," said Rizzardi. "The flavor is much beefier than strips." He thought that $5.99 was a good price, but noted that most of the packages contained one larger and one smaller steak, and that one was usually more marbled than the other. "At the butcher, you can say, 'I'll take that one and that one,' but here you gotta take what they give you." His advice is to buy a couple of packages so you have at least two of each size.
2. NY strip steaks (top sirloin)
$12.99 a pound for prime; $7.99 for choice
Rizzardi noted a huge variation in fat-marbling among the choice steaks, with some of them having nearly as much as the prime. "These steaks," he said, pointing to some extremely marbled ones, "are the very 'top' of choice, right below prime. They are a great buy for $7.99. These others - with their even red color and no white marbling - are going to be very chewy."
3. Beef tenderloin, trimmed
$14.99 a pound
Even though it is more expensive than the untrimmed tenderloin ($9.39 a pound), Rizzardi prefers the trimmed. Unless you are a skilled butcher, trimming your own tenderloin will result in a lot of waste. You can grill this whole, or cut it crosswise into filet mignons.
4. Coleman organic boneless, skinless chicken thighs
$3.99 a pound
Dark meat holds up better on the grill than white meat (the same brand of boneless, skinless breasts is $5.99 a pound) and this chicken would be ideal for kebabs. (For grilling thighs, Rizzardi prefers bone in, skin on.)
5. Costco's own flank steak with lime-cilantro marinade
$6.99 a pound. You get 2 pounds.
Rizzardi doesn't usually go for pre-marinated meats, but said these were "outstanding." Another good pre-marinated product is Costco's garlic and onion pork loin for $2.99 a pound.
6. Premio pork sausages (sweet and hot)
$13.99 for a 6-pound package
These sausages are fairly local (they are made in Hawthorne, N.J.), and Rizzardi likes both the hot and the sweet varieties.
7. Johnsonville brats
$7.99 for 3.5 pounds
Rizzardi often serves this brand of bratwurst. "You put them in a beer bath with some sliced Vidalia onions, a couple of cloves of garlic, bay leaves and a small jar of Frank's hot sauce. Heat them up on the stove, then let sit while you do everything else. They'll cook through in about 30 minutes. Then move them to the grill for a few minutes to get some marks on them. Men love these."
Here are some price-club meat-buying tips from New York state barbecue champion Phil Rizzardi.
In the meat case, there is a lot of variation from package to package. Make sure you look through the entire case to find the best. Meat should be neatly cut, have an even color (except for the white fat) and spring back when you press it with your finger.
Look for the fat
A steak whose meat is uniformly red (or a pork chop whose meat is uniformly pink) will be "tough eating." Look for the fine white lines of intramuscular fat, "marbling," that makes meat tender and good-tasting. With larger cuts of meat, such as beef briskets, or pork loins or ribs, look for a "fat cap," a layer of fat. Fat should be bright white, not yellowish.
It's not that the steaks or chops need to be big, but they should all be the same size and thickness for even cooking. Price clubs often package a smaller piece with a larger one, so consider buying a few packages and then grouping them by size, freezing a portion for later use.
Given a choice, Rizzardi will go for the vacuum-sealed meat over the cuts in the plastic-wrapped Styrofoam trays. Just make sure, he says, the vacuum seal is intact; there should be no air in the package.
HOW TO FREEZE MEAT
When buying meat at a price club, you often wind up with more than you need for the meal at hand. Here are some guidelines on safe freezing, drawn from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Freezing and Food Safety" fact sheet.
Keep a thermometer in your freezer to ensure that the temperature is always 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Food kept at 0 degrees will always be safe; only the quality will suffer with lengthy storage.
You can freeze meat, poultry or fish in its original packaging, but this type of wrap is permeable to air and may permit freezer burn over time. For prolonged storage, overwrap food with plastic freezer wrap or in a resealable plastic freezer bag, getting as much air out as possible. Freeze unopened vacuum packages as is.
Freezer burn, caused by contact with air, does not make food unsafe, merely dry in spots. Cut freezer-burned portions away either before or after cooking the food.
How long can i freeze food?
Because freezing keeps food safe almost indefinitely, recommended storage times are for quality only:
Roasts, steaks or chops (raw): 4 to 12 months
Ground meat (raw): 3 to 4 months
Cooked meat: 2 to 3 months
Whole poultry (raw): 12 months
Poultry parts (raw): 9 months
Sausage and bacon: 1 to 2 months
Poultry (cooked): 4 months
Fish (raw): 3 to 8 months
Shellfish (raw): 3 to 12 months
Once food is thawed in the refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze it without cooking, although there may be a loss of quality due to the moisture lost through thawing. After cooking raw foods that were previously frozen, you can refreeze the cooked foods. Freeze leftovers within 3 to 4 days. Do not refreeze any foods left outside the refrigerator longer than 2 hours; 1 hour in temperatures above 90 degrees.
There are three safe ways to thaw food: in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. It's best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Small items may defrost overnight; most foods require a day or two, and large items, such as roasts or turkeys, may take longer, about one day for each five pounds of weight.