Q&A Ask the Expert

A sit-down with meat man Ed Ryan, resident butcher, owner and great-grandson of Michael J. Ryan, founder of Ryan’s Market in Wickford.

What are the trends in retail steak today?
Boneless pieces are big. These days, people are opting for ribeye and strip steaks. Anything from the short loin is perennially popular. Tenderloin—which happens to be my least favorite piece of meat—is huge. Thirty years ago, people wouldn’t pay that much for a cut with such little flavor, but lean meat and tender meat are in high demand.

What about brand-name beef? Are more people asking for Kobe or beef from American boutique farms? Butchers don’t get a lot of requests for private-label beef. Private farms may sell to a few restaurants or personal clients, but they don’t have enough cattle to pull in the retail market. Kobe—or Wagyu beef—is the anomaly in terms of how beef is raised. It’s a completely different process, one usually reserved for the restaurant market.

What are the benefits of aging and which cuts of beef should be aged?
All cuts should be aged at least a week, even the boneless ones. The truth is, sometimes we get an animal in less than a day from slaughter, and it’s just too fresh. But wet-aging, to me, is ridiculous; the meat sits in a vacuum bag and loses all of its juices and flavor. Dry-aging is in a controlled environment, usually under 40 degrees, although if you can get the humidity up to a constant 85 percent, you can let beef sit at about 45 degrees with enough ultraviolet light to prevent mold growth. This is the real aging process—water evaporates but the flavor concentrates. If left long enough (optimal is six to eight weeks for a short loin), the fat will begin to infuse the beef with a nutty, mellow flavor. Once cut, heavily aged meat needs to be eaten within two days or you’ll start to see mold.

What should a consumer look for when buying fresh meat?
Color is not necessarily indicative of quality. Supermarket meat, as I call it, is often bundled up in containers and pumped with small amounts of carbon monoxide to keep the color. If you’re buying from a reputable butcher, aged beef can be considerably darker and taste just as good. Look for marbling in a strip or ribeye. Prime steaks also should always have great marbling.

Are prices steady year-round? What factors determine market prices?
Prices are usually determined by demand, so summer grilling season brings higher prices in short loin pieces and ground meat. The holiday season calls for a lot of rib roasts, so the fore quarter goes up. Sometimes, when demand is low, breeders will reduce the number of animals they slaughter so as not to waste their profits.