1. The color of the meat
The right color depends on the type of meat you are buying. Red meat should be dark in color, and can vary between purple, red, and brown. If it’s brown, it simply means it has been exposed to oxygen. It will still be safe to eat! Pork meat should be a light blushing pink color, while game meat should be dark brown.
You might have noticed that the color of poultry varies somewhat and this is because their diet affects their meat color. So, the color of fresh poultry can range anywhere from blue-white to yellow!
2. The smell
Not everyone (even meat-eaters) like the smell of fresh meat, so many home cooks find it difficult to establish whether the aroma they’re smelling is a normal raw meat funk, or whether it’s spoiled. But smell is actually the best way to determine whether the meat is still fresh. If the smell is in any way pungent (or smells like rotting flesh), then stay away!
3. Look for clean cuts
You can easily spot good quality meat by the way it’s butchered. Look for smooth cuts that are uniformly sized, and stay away from jagged edged meat. This is especially the case when buying poultry. Lower grade poultry are not always butchered well, which means care is not taken when removing joints and bones. If you don’t like small bones in your chicken, then opt for higher grade cuts.
3. The meat surface
If you look closely at red meat, you will notice meat fibers. The grain of the fibers will tell you whether the meat is tough or tender. Coarse meat grains, with many visible muscle fibers, means a tough meat with lots of flavor. Choose these cuts for low and slow cooking. When buying beef tenderloin, you will notice the lack of these grains, meaning the meat will be tender when cooked.
4. Meat fat
Meat with white flecks and streaks of fat distributed throughout the muscle, will be juicier and tender. This fat is called marbling, and the finer the marbling, the tastier. Wagyu beef is prized for its marbling and is well-known for its flavor and tenderness. These types of meat are also more expensive.
5. Meat texture
Beef meat should be firm, dense and dry. The muscle fibers should be tightly packed and be uniform. If meat looks like it’s going to fall apart, it could be due to poor handling or poor quality. Poultry meat should also be firm and dry. If the meat is slimy or sticky, then rather stay away. This stands for all types of meat, whether you’re buying beef, lamb, chicken, or pork.
6. The sell-by date
Best before dates have more to do with quality than food safety. The manufacturers are basically telling you that the product is at its optimum freshness before a certain date. After that date, the food item can still be consumed, but it’s up to the consumer to decide whether it is still safe to eat.
If you are not planning to cook immediately, try to buy meat with the latest best-before or sell-by date. In that way, you can keep it in your fridge for a few days without running the risk of spoiled meat.
7. The use-by-date
The use-by-date is important, since it’s an indication of how close the meat is to being spoiled. You should always consume meat before, or on, this use-by date. After this date has passed, it’s very risky to consume.
Meats such as ground beef are especially risky. Not only is there more surface area exposed, but it also went through more processing and handling. So, it’s more prone to spoilage than a piece of steak.
8. The packaging
Look at the packaging for any sign of damage or dirt. Although it does not necessarily influence the meat quality directly, it does give you an indication of how the meat was handled. If you see dirty marks within the packaging, your meat was likely handled with the same dirty hands. Likewise, if the package is damaged, it is open to be contaminated by outside elements.
9. The storage
Something not many people look at when shopping for fresh meat, are the fridge and freezer storage. Why does this matter? Well, temperature control within a facility is extremely important to ensure your meat stays fresh. If you notice that the fridges are slightly warmer than usual, or you see water dripping from the freezers, there could be a technical issue, which means your meat might not be so fresh.
10. Ask your butcher
You have a meat expert right behind the counter, so make use of their knowledge. If you’re uncertain about all the aspects of meat, ask your butcher for advice. They will be able to advise you on what to look for, what the right cuts are for your dish, what the freshest meat in store is, how to cook it, and may even give you a discount if you buy in bulk!