His Knife Has Got Your Back

In our world of online shopping, self-checkout grocery stores, and home-printed movie tickets, butchers provide something almost unrecognizable: service. And not just independent local shops—butchers at Whole Foods, Safeway, and Stop & Shop will do all kinds of things for you; all you have to do is ask. Here’s a rundown:

Partially De-Bone a Bird

Old recipes sometimes call for spatchcocked birds or supremes, which may tempt you to choose another recipe. When a recipe calls for spatchcocks, it means small chickens or Cornish game hens that have been butterflied and partially de-boned so that they can be cooked flat (and thus will cook more evenly), particularly on the grill. Supremes, also called airline or frenched breasts, are boneless breasts with the skin on and the first joint still attached. The labor is free. But for supremes, some butchers (especially those in supermarkets) might require you to buy a whole chicken so that they’re not stuck with the back and legs.

Butchers provide something almost unrecognizable: service.

De-Bone a Whole Bird

De-boning a whole chicken or turkey (such as for a ballotine, where the bird is stuffed, then rolled and tied; or a turducken) is one of the only requests that may garner a service fee. “It’s so tedious,” says Josh Epple of Drewes Bros. Meats in San Francisco. “You have to concentrate a lot of time on an item you’re selling for $8.” Expect to pay between $1 and $5 for de-boning a chicken and as much as $25 for de-boning a turkey.

Order Specialty Cuts

Last summer we made the Gabrielle Hamilton recipe for country ribs with butter beans, dill, and chestnut honey from The New York Times. But we used pork spareribs, as we didn’t know we could special-order country ribs. (Those are meatier, and cut from butterflied shoulder blade chops near the shoulder end of the loin.) If we’d called the butcher a day or two in advance, we could have gotten them, along with things like whole lamb shoulder, four-inch bone-in sirloin, and pork belly.

Fill Large Orders

Need 75 strip steaks for your father’s 50th? No problem, says Bill Beagle of Chicago’s Paulina Market, and no extra charge. “If you need it in a couple hours, we could do it,” he says. “But we like a day’s notice, so we order extra for the case.”

Provide Exotic Items

If you need something like calves’ brains, a suckling pig, or milk-fed goat, tell your butcher anywhere from a day to a week ahead of time, depending on how much warning his supplier needs. Supermarkets are sometimes limited by companywide ordering policies. For example, lamb arrives in pieces at some Safeways, so ordering a whole lamb shoulder isn’t always possible. Yet a call to the Whole Foods in Santa Fe, New Mexico, turned up a suckling pig in the freezer; and with a week’s notice, Stop & Shop in Manchester, New Hampshire, said they could get one, too.

A call to the Whole Foods in Santa Fe turned up a suckling pig in the freezer.

Hold Your Hand

He’s no shrink, but your butcher is really there for you. At Guerra’s deli and meat shop in San Francisco, every holiday order—corned beef, turkey, leg of lamb—goes out with instructions for preparation and cooking time. They’ll even give you recipes. “No matter how nervous your mother-in-law makes you,” says John Guerra, “You will get through the meal.”

Fill Online Orders

Here are some butcher shops that will ship meat (some accept online orders for same-day pickup):

Lobel’s of New York, New York City. Ships whole steers and heritage meats.
Guerra’s, San Francisco.
O. Ottomanelli’s & Sons, New York City.
Paulina Market, Chicago. The site currently lists only smoked products, but raw meats are available, too.
Gepperth’s Meat Market, Chicago.

For a longer list of butchers around the country, check out our list.