Book review: 'Confessions of a Butcher'

Why is stew meat often not a good deal? That's one of the questions answered by 'Confessions of a Butcher.'

By , Guest blogger

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    A hearty, hot, meat stew is a good choice for cool fall days. But you can often save money and get better quality by skipping the stew meat.
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Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest.

I didn’t expect that I would like this book.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Vickie Smith, the wife of John Smith (the author of Confessions of a Butcher). She had stumbled across The Simple Dollar and had read through some of the site’s archives. She thought I might be interested in her husband’s self-published book, outlining some of the things he’d learned about saving money on meat purchases through his thirty year career in the meat packing industry.

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When I received it, I really didn’t get much of an impression from it at all. It was a thin volume that, when I leafed through it, seemed to mostly just list cuts of meat. Not very appealing. However, I’m starting to become a strong supporter of the self-publishing industry, so I decided to give it a read.

This isn’t going to be my usual “walkthrough” review, because that would be very difficult to do with this book. Instead, I’m going to simply summarize the three main sections of it and why they’re valuable.

The Cuts
The first half of the book essentially is a reference guide to various cuts of meat, as mentioned in the introduction of this review.

Why is this useful? First, this book is small enough that you could easily stick a copy of the book in your purse or back pocket when you head off to the grocery store or butcher shop when you’re considering buying meat. Second… well, it’s probably best explained if I quote an entry describing a cut, from page 36:

Beef for Stew
Money-saving alternatives: chuck roast, rump roast, cross rib roast, round steak, brisket, flatiron, chuck flat strip
Stew meat is made from the trim that is left over from the day’s cuttings. Even when stew meat is on sale, it may not be as cheap as many other cuts. Boneless chuck roasts and round steaks on sale will be cheaper, sometimes a lot cheaper. Find the cheapest and the leanest cut of meat and cut into cubes for stew or ask the butcher for his assistance. Now having said all that, the best meat for stew, in my humble opinion, comes from the brisket, flatiron, or the chuck flat strip. These three cuts should cost you less than the stew meat in the counter, but meay not be the best deal you can find. They will however be the best stew meat you can find.

Each entry in the book consists of the same basic elements as this entry: a list of money-saving alternatives to the cut you’re looking at, some notes on what the cut consists of and how to maximize the value of the meat at the butcher’s counter, and some recommendations on other cuts to choose. In other words, this material is a gold mine for a value-conscious meat eater, and it’s also a handy reference to have with you when you do shop for meat.

The Tips
This very short section is found in the center of the book. It essentially collects 14 key principles for saving money on meat purchases. An example (one I strongly agree with):

7. Do not buy ground beef. Wait until round steaks, chuck roasts or steaks, or any other cheap cuts are on sale, and have the butcher grind them for you. The quality will be great and, if you buy right, so will the savings.

In other words, by timing your purchases and taking advantage of the full service of a full-service meat counter, you can save a lot of money while also getting much better ground beef.

The Appendix
The latter half of the book consists of several essays, seemingly attached to the book as an appendix and quite possibly overlooked by people who pick up the book for a quick glance. The essays are quite varied, from a small collection of great recipes for leftover turkey to butcher etiquette as well as recommended “tools of the trade” for handling meat at home. This section provides almost as much value as the preceding one.

Is Confessions of a Butcher Worth Reading?
Recommending or not recommending this book is very simple: if such a money-saving meat-buying reference seems like it would be of use to you in your food buying routines, then this book is well worth purchasing. If you’re a vegetarian (or mostly vegetarian) or are very confident of your current meat-purchasing routines, then this book won’t offer much value.

I, for one, have started carrying my copy of this book in my glove compartment. The advice on specific cuts, particularly the stew meat material illustrated above, has already saved me some cash while also upgrading the quality of my meals. That’s a great resource, in my opinion.

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