Newsday food writer Erica Marcus explores Wild Fork Foods in West Hempstead. The national chain, which specializes in frozen meats, also has a Lake Grove location and an upcoming Plainview location. Credit: Randee Daddona

If you turn your nose up at buying frozen meat, meet Wild Fork Foods. With almost 50 stores in North America, Wild Fork offers frozen, vacuum-sealed meat in an endless variety of animals, cuts and grades. Until recently, Long Islanders could only order from its website but the company (which is owned by JBS S.A., the world’s largest meat processor) has opened retail locations in West Hempstead and Lake Grove with a Plainview shop slated for July.

Wild Fork appeals to two distinct groups of shoppers. Folks looking for meat staples at competitive prices will find choice bone-in strip steaks at $9.49 / pound, three pounds of 85% lean ground beef for $9.98, whole chickens are $1.98 / pound and boneless skinless chicken breasts are $4.47 / pound. This crowd will also thrill to the many pre-seasoned meats and prepared meals.

Then there are the people who are looking for the rare and the exotic. They’ll find Berkshire pork bellies, Wagyu tomahawk steaks, whole suckling pigs, alligator loins and “specialty meats” from tongue to tail. It’s a wonderland for meatheads. Here's what shoppers should know:

EMBRACE FROZEN MEAT

Frozen meat cases at Wild Fork Foods in West Hempstead.

Frozen meat cases at Wild Fork Foods in West Hempstead. Credit: Randee Daddona

Freezing, which lies at the heart of Wild Fork’s business model, does not compromise the nutritional value of meat. And, when it’s done quickly and at a very cold temperature, ice crystals don’t form so there’s no discernible effect on texture either. Jonathan Taylor, Wild Fork’s head of operations and e-commerce in the Northeast region, said that as soon as meat is portioned into retail cuts (steaks, chops, roasts), it is blast-frozen at -40 degrees. At the store, freezer cases maintain a temperature of -9 to -12 degrees. Bring your own freezer bags to keep your purchases cold on their way home (Wild Fork also sells very attractive versions).

MASTER THE ART OF DEFROSTING

Because every frozen item’s journey ends in your kitchen with proper defrosting, planning ahead is critical. Very thin steaks and chops and boneless chicken parts can be left on the counter for up to two hours — usually enough time to ready them for cooking — but, according to the USDA, that's the upper limit for how long meat should be held at room temperature. Otherwise, defrost everything in the refrigerator.

Steaks and chops less than an inch thick will probably need 12 hours; thicker ones, or big chunks destined for kebabs, might need 24 hours. As for larger cuts, it’s the shape, not only the size, that will determine how long it will take: A 3-inch-thick piece of brisket will defrost faster than a plump eye round. For thinner cuts, figure on 4-5 hours per pound, large roasts may require 5-7 hours per pound.

To safely defrost meat at a quicker pace, you can seal it in a leakproof package (meat at Wild Fork comes this way) and submerge it in cold tap water. (You may have to set a weighted tray on top of the meat to keep it submerged.) Change the water every 30 minutes. A 3-to 4-pound package may take 2 to 3 hours. For whole turkeys, estimate about 30 minutes per pound. Once defrosted, cold-water-thawed foods should be cooked immediately. 

TAKE AN ANATOMY LESSON

Signage explains cuts and cooking methods for beef at Wild...

Signage explains cuts and cooking methods for beef at Wild Fork Foods in West Hempstead. Credit: Randee Daddona

It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the choices at Wild Fork, and it can be hard to figure out the best method of preparing each of them. Most items carry cooking information on the labels, and the staff is also trained to offer cooking advice. The beef and pork charts displayed over the freezer cases are helpful. You’ll see a diagram of a steer (or a pig) divided into its primal and cuts (chuck, ribs, loin, round plus brisket, shank and plate) and, just adjacent, a list of all the retail cuts that come from each primal. Next to each retail cut is a symbol that tells you whether it’s best suited to braising, grilling / broiling, smoking, pan-searing, roasting or stir frying.

HEAD FARTHER AFIELD

Elk medallions at Wild Fork Foods in West Hempstead.

Elk medallions at Wild Fork Foods in West Hempstead. Credit: Randee Daddona

You’ll find meats at Wild Fork that are rare at supermarkets and that even most butchers need to special-order. There's picanha, a rich, flavorful cut popularized by Brazilian steakhouses such as Fogo de Chao. The French call it “coulotte,” but most American butchers have, until recently, ignored what they call “top sirloin cap” or “rump cap.”

Sometimes “rare” means little-seen parts of common animals. Wild Fork explores the specialty cuts that are getting ever more popular with the rise of nose-to-tail cooking. Look for beef marrow bones, honeycomb tripe, oxtails, hearts, kidneys and tongue, veal sweetbreads and crosscut shanks (osso buco). The ultimate nose-to-tail purchase here may be the whole suckling pig.

Sometimes “rare” means rarefied breeds, as in Berkshire and Iberico pork, which is used to make the finest Spanish hams. (For something doubly rare, try the pork cheeks from Iberico pigs.) Wild Fork does big business with Wagyu beef. Once Wagyu referred only to super-marbled beef from Japan — so veined with fat that the red meat looks pink — but now the name is applied to both Japanese cattle and to animals descended from them that graze elsewhere. Wild Fork carries Japanese Wagyu with the additional A5 designation (connoting the highest grade), as well as Wagyu from Australia. None of this comes cheap: A5 New York strips are $119.98 / pound; Australian tomahawks are $54.98 / pound.

And sometimes “rare” means animals we don’t eat very often. At Wild Fork, bison, venison, rabbit, ostrich and even alligator are at your fingertips.

KNOW YOUR LABELS

At the supermarket or at the butcher, the two most common beef terms you’ll run into are prime and choice. All meat in the U.S. is graded by the USDA and prime, which represents less than 5% of all beef, is awarded that designation based on the amount of “marbling” — the intramuscular fat that, when cooked, will melt and lend flavor and a luxurious mouth feel. Choice is below prime on the fat scale, then comes select or, simply, USDA inspected. (If meat is not labeled, it’s usually either of the last two grades.)

You’ll find prime, choice and select at Wild Fork along with dry-aged, organic, grass fed and the breed-specific Black Angus. Many cuts come in all the “flavors” and combinations thereof. For example, there are six varieties of strip steaks: A5 Wagyu, Australian Wagyu, prime, choice, choice Black Angus and “enhanced.”

GET OUT OF THE RED (MEAT)

Sworn off red meat? Pescatarian? Besides all the conventional chicken you can shake a stick at, you’ll also find Sasso red heritage-breed chickens, ducks (whole, legs and breasts, smoked and even duck fat), geese, quail and pheasant.

In the seafood case: shrimp, small to jumbo; cooked and raw, peeled and head-on, wild and farmed. Buying frozen shrimp makes sense because virtually all the “fresh” shrimp you see at the market were shipped frozen and defrosted on site. Ditto snow crab legs, lobster tails and Chilean sea bass. Firm-fleshed fish such as cod, swordfish, mahi mahi and Alaskan sablefish (black cod) also do very well frozen.

SHOP BEYOND MEAT

Whether you’re a vegetarian or just looking to round out your meal, if it’s frozen, it’s probably here. Wild Fork doesn’t carry as vast a selection as Trader Joe’s, but all categories are well represented. Among vegetables, peas, carrots and spinach are three that take especially well to freezing, as do pre-diced onions and fried plantains.

Keys Fisheries, the restaurant-market-marina on Marathon Key, supplies the Key lime pie that shares the case with macarons imported from France and flan from Brazil. As for breads: brioches (and brioche buns), baguettes and croissants, dinner rolls, King’s Hawaiian sweet hot-dog buns, ciabatta and naan. And here’s a bonus tip for defrosting any bread you want to make extra crusty: Run the bread under the faucet so it’s wet (but not soaked) and then pop it into a 400-degree oven until it’s hot and crisp.

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