How to Buy a Side of Beef

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A full side of beef represents a relatively large one-time purchase, but if your home is filled with dedicated carnivores, it can be a very practical option. Like a pantry filled with canned and pickled produce from your garden, a freezer full of beef represents long-term menu planning. You can ignore the vagaries of supermarket pricing and feed your family what you choose rather than what's on sale at a given moment. Still, purchasing a side of beef is a big decision that requires careful thought before you take the plunge.

Points to Consider

Before you take the plunge and order a side, there are some things to ask yourself. The obvious starting point is how long it will take you to eat that much meat. A side of beef typically weighs from 240 to 340 pounds, depending on the breed, so if you only eat 2 to 3 pounds of beef per week, that amount represents a two-year quantity. Another consideration is the cuts you'll receive. A side includes premium grilling steaks, but a lot more of your beef is in the form of stewing cuts and roasts. If you don't normally buy those, a side might not be practical for you. Finally, a side of beef requires roughly 6 to 7 cubic feet of freezer space. If you don't already have that much, you'll need to purchase a chest freezer as well.

Direct Retail Purchase

If you live in an area where freezer beef is a common purchase, one of your local butcher shops might offer sides of beef as a simple retail purchase. There are many ways to cut the beef, depending on your preferences, so the butcher will probably offer you a choice of two or three "cut sheets" with differing proportions of steaks versus roasts or stew meats versus ground beef. It's the equivalent of buying meat at the supermarket, but on a rather grander scale. The butcher will give you a simple price per pound, which you can easily compare to the cost of buying all those cuts at the supermarket.

Buying From the Farmer

Buying the beef from a farmer is more complex, because you're committing to a share in a specific animal. You might need to commit to your purchase as much as a year in advance, so the farmer knows how many steers to raise for sale. The farmer's selling price is usually based on its "hanging weight," the weight of the steer after slaughtering, skinning and cleaning. That price isn't as low as it looks, because the side will lose roughly another third of its weight during aging and processing. If the side had a hanging weight of 500 pounds, for example, it will probably yield about 340 to 350 pounds of freezer beef, depending how it's cut.

At the Meatcutter

You'll also pay the meat-cutter for processing the massive side of beef into retail cuts for you. Those fees typically consist of a "kill fee" for slaughtering the animal and cutting fees at a set amount per pound. You'll typically have more control over how the beef is cut when negotiating directly with the abbatoir. If you've wanted to try trendy cuts such as hanger steaks and other bistro specialties, this is your opportunity. Expect to pay a slight premium if you make numerous special requests, or if you wish the abbatoir to cure some of the beef for you. Ask for soup- or marrow- bones, oxtail or offal specifically, as many meat-cutters simply assume you won't want them.

The Value Proposition

It can be difficult to assess just how "worth it" purchasing a side of beef can be. You can almost certainly purchase the same cuts in the same quantity at the supermarket for less by shopping the specials aggressively. On the other hand, comparison shopping takes time, and your time also has value. The USDA's grading scheme is seldom applied, in part because it adds time and cost to the process and in part because it's based on the fat content of the carcass. Grass-fed beef, and lean breeds such as compact Highland or rangy longhorn cattle, fare poorly under that system but can still represent premium beef. A more decisive factor for many purchasers is simply that buying your own provides the opportunity to know your farmer and to know where your food comes from.