The typical Chicagoan grills out a lot and with the Fourth of July tomorrow and being celebrated all week, many will be grilling out ASAP. I’ve been to the various local butchers and often wondered do they have product that much better than a “normal” grocery store? Is the cost worth the product? Can I even get what anyone would want for a typical afternoon of grilling? I ask many questions.
I enlisted the help of some friends who love to eat and talk food as much as I do. You may know them better from their twitter personas - @Cousingary is a lover of beer and sarcasm, @hugegaldones takes stunning pictures of everything food and his expressive son, @stockyardpalate is all about local sustainable goodness and high expectations for dining out and a new friend @echmiel who loves to eat out and knows quality from crap. I don’t think they all knew what they were getting in to when they agreed to take part in my crazy idea of taste testing grilled meats from EVERYONE. The goal was to see who has or doesn’t have the best product for the price and the experience.
The goal was to grill all the normal stuff you’d expect to find on any summer grill – chicken, strip steak, burgers, bratwurst and Italian sausage. The seasoning would be neutral just salt and pepper. We’d each take a turn grilling the prescribed meats while the others ate blind. We’d rank from best to least, 1-5, and then take the average per round to determine a winner and use that in the end to find an overall grilled meats champion – low score wins.
Here now is the story and result of our taste experiment at MEATAPALOOZA!
All of the chickens were bought whole with the exception of Whole Foods which allowed for just a half. The two from the specialty butchers, PQM and Butcher & Larder, came head or neck on. The sizes varied a bit with the darker overall birds coming again from PQM and Butcher & Larder. We broke the chicken down to grill the breast, thigh and leg separately.
Huge was up first and cooked the 5 birds well. With the tasting begun, we all dove in and attacked the breasts first. There was a noticeable flavor difference amongst the five. But, when it came to the thighs and legs the difference went away and we agreed as a group they all tasted nearly the same with little to no differentiation. As a whole, the larger birds coming from PQM and Butcher Larder were deemed too big to possibly cook in the beer can chicken style but the other three would have been just fine.
The results on the taste test based primarily on the flavor of the breast because the leg and thigh were all the same:
- Butcher & Larder and PQM won out with an avg of 1.8 – cost of $18 for PQM – cost of $15 for Butcher Larder.
- Paulina was third with an avg score of 3 and a cost of $8.50.
- Jewel and Whole Foods tied for last with a score of 4.2 – cost of $7.99 for Jewel – cost of $10.40 for Whole Foods
With the basic seasoning, the pricier birds won out. But, when I posed the question of – slather those birds in a sauce or rub would you still pay the higher price? - the answers came back no. We’d all look for a more reasonably priced bird or just get thighs and legs to grill since they tasted similar. Those expensive chickens do have a place if you were to roast them whole. But, for a basic summer grill out, the answer despite the flavor of the breast was no to probably not the value for the costlier bird.
I was next up to cook the steaks. Visually these were some of the most unique looking pieces of meat. When we bought our steaks, we all asked for a simple strip steak not offering or asking for any special instructions. The size of the steaks ranged from 7.55 to 22.20 ounces. The cost per pound was also drastic with a high of $33.77 to a low of $10.95.
The flavors on these were also very different. Three of the five were grass fed and the others didn’t have any special designation. One in particular from PQM was very grassy/haylike in flavor some found rather “unique.” The Jewel steak while having an ok flavor the shitty cut ruined its chances. The texture on Paulina’s massive steak wasn’t great either.
The steak results:
- Whole foods eked out a win with an avg score of 1.60. The cost was $17.87 per pound and the size was 15.50 ounces.
- Butcher & Larder came in second with an avg score of 1.80.The cost for this bad boy came out to $22 per pound and weighed in at 8.90 ounces.
- PQM took third with an avg score of 3.40. The cost per pound was $33.77 and the steak weighed in at 9.75 ounces.
- Paulina was a close fourth with an avg score of 3.60. The cost was $26.34 per pound and this whopper was 22.20 ounces, nearly a pound and a half.
- Jewel came in last with an avg score of 4.60. The cost was $10.95 per pound and the thin cut only yielded 7.55 ounces.
Whole Foods surprised us with the win but it looked great and tasted just as good. The PQM steak could be off putting to some and for one taster ranked last. The scores should reflect how far back everyone was past the first two. Considering the cost difference between the Whole Foods and Butcher & Larder was 50%, the cheaper cost was a nice bonus on the winning Whole Foods steak.
At this point, we all were feeling a twinge of the meat sweats. The beer started flowing and we geared up for the last two big tastings. Burgers were up first.
This had to be one of the most anticipated tastings for me because it’s one of the most grilled items and there can be a lot of bullshit when it comes to burgers. Burgers are a mix of meat to fat. When I hear Kobe or Wagyu, I roll my eyes and refuse to pay the mark up. Jay did an admiral job dealing with some very unique meat serving up some tasty burgers.
The color on the various burgers was drastic and ranged from pink to purpley red. The texture for a few was also different in that some were firm and one loose and falling apart – all were ground very differently. Would this be rated based on taste and texture preference? Not all burger meat is the same obviously but these 5 had a wide range of preference.
The winner was:
- PQM with an avg score of 2.20. The cost per pound was $5.87.
- Second, was Butcher & Larder with an avg score of 2.40. The cost per pound was $6.40.
- Paulina came in third with an avg score of 2.8. The cost per pound was $7.24.
- Jewel and Whole Foods tied for last with an avg score of 3.8. The cost for Jewel per pound was $4.10 and Whole Foods was $6.99 per pound.
We all commented we were shocked PQM was as cheap and as good as it was. You don’t see the ground beef out in the case so you have to know to ask for it. The scores in this group was the first time we saw no runner away winners. The first place winners were the highest scores yet and the closest from first to last. If the meat isn’t ground well, you could catch a piece of chewy cartilage and that put one person off. I also don’t think many would have guessed the pub burger from Jewel would rank as well as Whole Foods.
When most people grill out, the sausages are typically Bratwurst or Italian. I was tempted to throw in Johnsonsville but didn’t. PQM didn’t have an entrant in this because they have only a limited number that they do so you have to special order or get lucky. For those of you who may throw in a stink about this, imagine going in that afternoon and having to stop someplace else. Kind of annoying considering you’d expect them to have some normal sausages.
Eric had the not so enviable job of cooking last. Most of us were ready to be done eating but with the finish line in sight, we loosened the belt notch one and dug in. It’s also where it got very interesting. Some Brats tasted as you’d expect and others were almost mealy or tasted like a breakfast link. Similar to the steak, this could be a personal preference issue to see who would win.
- Whole Foods narrowly won with an avg score of 2. This brat tasted like the typical brat.
- Jewel brand was second with an avg score of 2.20. SHOCKING, two people ranked it first!
- Butcher Larder came in at third with an avg score of 2.40. This sausage was dry and one person mentioned mealy. It seemed like something was off. One person did rate it tops but most saw it as a solid 3rd place choice.
- Paulina came in last with an avg score of 3.20. This tasted more like a breakfast link than a brat. For the variety and tradition of sausage at Paulina, this was a surprising finish.
Price was pretty much the same and not a big difference amongst the lot. Between the top three choices, it was a definite pick’em based on personal preference.
Some were spicy and others not so much. But the flavors again were diverse and the picks on this even closer!
- The top choice was a tie between Whole Foods and Butcher Larder with an avg score of 2.25.
- Paulina came next with an avg score of 2.50.
- Jewel brand came in last with an avg score of 3.
In the end, the sausages were a total coin flip. None stuck out as a clear cut champion and the variety of flavor and texture was across the board. The recipes were all very different and apparent in the final product. Thankfully, the price wasn’t a big difference so depending on what you like you won’t be missing out or paying a steep premium.
We bought about the same amounts of everything and there were leftovers from each store and taste challenge.
- Butcher and Larder - $61.45
- Paulina - $47.75
- PQM - $47.75 – with no sausages
- Whole Foods - $30.92
- Jewel - $23
The discussion did come out about local farmers vs large box stores. We all had a different opinion and you’ll see in the conclusion it did weigh in on how we’d shop. For some, this is a big passion and issue on how they purchase their food. For others, budget and convenience are more important.
At this point in the evening, we were all exhausted. Nearly four hours after we started we’d finished. We began to chat about the implications of what we’d just accomplished. The perceived gap wasn’t that big from one place to the next on certain meats. Would the normal person need to care about our findings? We almost began to have more questions then we started with.
The final winner was Butcher & Larder as the overall winner with and without the sausages. They were also the most expensive by about 10% over PQM. Paulina and Whole Foods were a close third and fourth but when the sausages came in to play Whole Foods moved well ahead statistically. Jewel remained took up the rear but when it came to sausages they held their own.
When we asked what is the one stop shop, quickly Butcher & Larder came out but when asked would you pay a 50% premium over Whole Foods. Suddenly, the answers got a bit more thoughtful. As a group, if we were grilling for a group of 10 we’d all go to Whole Foods as a one stop shop. If we were grilling for a smaller group of 4, we wouldn’t mind spending the extra money and hit Butcher and Larder.
One thing noted about PQM is that it’s a bit difficult to shop. It’s not a place you’re going to get in and out of if you need a variety of things. They need to hand cut the steak, get the ground beef, and it just takes a lot of time. If you’re in a rush or with kids this may not be such an easy place to shop. We also agreed the cases at Butcher and Larder and PQM can be a bit difficult if you need to know what to ask for. That can be a bit intimidating for some.
For chicken to grill with a rub or sauce, shop where you want and is easiest for you – go thigh or drumsticks and save some money. Strip steak you should hit up Whole Foods but if you want to show off and spend more Butcher & Larder isn’t a bad choice. For burgers, ask at PQM for the ground beef or Butcher & Larder. When it comes to sausages, don’t overthink it and get it from where you’ll be closest.
I hope this has helped and if it hasn’t I apologize. I admit there is no easy answer but it was fun coming to that conclusion. I’m the type who will shop at various places so now I know where to hit and for what. Keep an eye out for some future “taste-offs” where bacon, ham, pork chops, roasted chickens, fish, lamb and deli meats or whatever else we can dream up or you suggest is front and center.
So what do YOU think? Have your shopping habits changed or will you still shop like normal?
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at email@example.com. Joe also contributes to Eater.com Chicago and mydailyfindchicago.com