Big grocery bills are frustrating, but paying for poor quality animal proteins is even worse. The risks of purchasing tough steak, gristle-pocked ground beef or pork so pumped with salt water, it’s dense as a brick, go way up when you’re grabbing meat or fish from a supermarket case.
One solution is to head to a local butcher for quality cuts. Another is to order a box of top-quality, responsibly raised proteins shipped straight to your door. Think dry-aged, grass-fed, free-range, wild-caught, antibiotic-free meats, poultry and fish. Boxes filled with all manner and quality of butchery abound.
Mail-order meat companies typically charge more than supermarkets — sometimes a lot more — but the products are reliable, convenient and often restaurant quality. In addition, they offer omnivores access to artisan cuts and to meats raised by small, ethically minded farmers who adhere to eco-friendly, humane standards.
To find out if the price trade-off is worth it, we took on the (enviable) challenge of grilling our way through offerings from five companies, each with a specific focus.
The best subscription butcher boxes feature proteins that deliver first-rate flavor and texture. Steaks are aged and perfectly marbled, pork has deep flavor, fish is ultra-fresh and chicken is lean and tender. Lesser boxes are packed with ordinary cuts that are respectable but not exceptional. Here’s what we found.
American and Japanese Wagyu steaks, perfectly cured bacon and meaty party wings put this eco-focused company at the forefront for those seeking ethically-raised proteins from small, artisan farmers. The source of every protein is provided on the website, and the selection includes heritage pork, bison, lamb, seafood and even turkey.
Standouts include the most perfect bite of Pederson’s Natural Farms uncured applewood smoked bacon and moist, pasture-raised chicken wings from Cooks Venture Heirloom Chicken. And their commitment to sustainability — their packaging, for example, is recyclable — is also commendable.
Downside: With so many products, it’s important to pay attention when ordering. Grass-fed beef, for example, is naturally less buttery than pasture-raised or grain-fed. Wagyu will be fatty, whether it’s a steak or a burger.
Price: This is one of the few companies that tells you exactly how much per pound you are paying. Considering the quality, those prices are reasonable: $22 per pound for New York strip steak, $8 for ground beef and $13 for thick-cut pork chops.
Details: One-time orders of $150 or more are shipped free; recurring orders of $125 or more do so as well; www.crowdcow.com.
Rating: 4 stars
Impressive butchering and meaty cuts make this box a natural for home grill chefs. The company’s nose-to-tail butchery focus makes it a great resource for unusual cuts, such as heart steaks, marrow bones and Korean short ribs. Animals are raised without antibiotics or hormones. Beef is grain-finished, then dry-aged. And meats are shipped fresh, not frozen.
The fat, juicy pork chop and a thick-cut dry-aged New York strip steak with intense beefy flavor are standouts.
Downside: The country sausage, chorizo and bacon are decidedly salty.
Price: Steaks can be fairly pricey at $20-$35 per pound, but cuts such as pork belly ($10) and dry-aged ground beef ($8) are moderate.
Details: Shipping is $25 with an order of $125 or more; no subscription required; www.porterroad.com.
Rating: 3½ stars
This company specializes in grass-fed and finished beef, cage-free pork and organic chicken, but also offers seafood, bison, bacon and sausage. The variety of products is unmatched. Juicy, over-sized grass-fed burger patties, super-smoky bacon and the best Italian sausage ever are the stars in this box. And who can resist the offer of “free bacon for life” (or as long as you subscribe)?
Downsides: The only individual prices provided are for add-ons. Avoid the salmon burgers as they taste like fishy garlic.
Price: Quality meats at an affordable price: $7.50 per pound for ground beef and $16 for six large, grass-feed beef patties.
Details: Subscription boxes range from $99 to $300 or more; www.butcherbox.com.
Rating: 3 stars
Prairie Street Prime
Catering to the top-end, kosher crowd, this company specializes in luxury cuts not available in supermarkets. Double-cut kosher lamb chops look fatty, but they are bites to remember. Just as over-the-top-tasty: the massive, bone-in Cowboy ribeye.
Downsides: It’s difficult to find the weight and origin of most cuts. Steak sizes vary, but prices are set, which means the price per pound is highly variable.
Price: Kosher meats are more expensive due to the strict certification standards. Nevertheless, at $25 for a pound of ground veal and $95 per pound for lamb chops, this is not budget-friendly. If cost is not a consideration, this is a great resource for party cuts, such as prime rib and rack of lamb.
Details: No subscription necessary, but be aware that shipping fees to California start at $75. Orders of $750+ ship free. prairiestreetprime.com
Rating: 4 stars for quality; 3 considering cost
This long time, mainstream company offers an exhaustive lineup of fish and seafood, as well as steaks, plus appetizers, side, desserts and even a wine list. Juicy, decadent filet mignon burgers, tender, bacon-wrapped filets and crisp, buttery apple tartlets are all standouts. And this is a great resource for a no-fuss barbecue meal with all the trimmings.
Downsides: Pork chops and steaks are thin, making them easy to overcook.
Price: Reasonable pricing on everything from burgers — filet-mignon burgers are $5 each — to sides.
Details: No subscription necessary, but $99 is the minimum order. A $149 box ships free. www.omahasteaks.com
Rating: 2 stars
Reviews are based on product samples purchased by this newspaper or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at [email protected] Read more Taste-off columns at www.mercurynews.com/tag/taste-off.
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