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Zero to one: how much beef should you buy?
Estimating consumption and addressing storage
Buying beef in bulk for the first time can be daunting because there are a number of variables that play into this decision. Am I buying too much meat? Do I even have the space for it? In the interest of demystifying this process, I have put together a simple Venn diagram that identifies the three primary questions you’ll need to answer before beginning your search for the right farmer:
How much meat will I eat?
First, you’ll want to estimate how much meat your household will consume. Make a rough guess at how many pounds of meat your household eats in an average week and multiply that by the number of weeks in 9-12 months. Well-packaged, vacuum sealed meat can easily last 12 months in the freezer without significant loss of quality, so staying within that timeframe ensures you’ll consume the meat at its best.
Here’s an example: two people eating meat 4-5 times per week might consume around 3 lbs. in that time. Multiply that number by 50 weeks to arrive at an annual estimate of 150 lbs.
We’ll come back to some more concrete examples and guidance, but first let’s create some context for the other parts of this discussion.
How much freezer space do I need?
Next, you’ll want to figure out how much meat you can actually store. It’s likely that you’ll need more freezer space than you currently have and should consider acquiring a chest freezer. Even if you already own one, you’ll find that having spare freezer space is useful for defrosting. A good rule of thumb is that you need 1 cubic foot (cu. ft.) of freezer space for roughly 35-40 lbs. of meat. This number can vary depending on how many oddly shaped cuts you have,1 but the formula works well enough to get a ballpark estimate.2 This number can also drop down if using boxes to compartmentalize (which I highly recommend, more on chest freezer organization strategies coming in a future article.
So even if you have room in your standard kitchen freezer for a quarter cow, it’s still probably worth considering a chest freezer. They are a great investment that expands your capacity for buying in bulk. And not just for your beef: you’ll also have more room to store prepared meals, unlocking the capacity to make large quantities without being obliged to eat the same things all week. If you live in an apartment where the only spot for it would be the living room, you’ll be faced with that personal decision (“honey, what do you mean this large white box doesn’t fit the decor?”). But if space isn’t an issue, the freezer’s cost can easily be justified by the money you’ll save by buying in bulk.
Chest freezers come in two main styles: top-loaders and upright. The top-loaders are usually cheaper and can allow for maximal space utilization, whereas upright freezers are superior from an organizational standpoint, as you won’t need to dig for buried items at the far reaches of the unit.3
As of early 2023, new chest freezers were selling for around $40-50 per cu. ft., but you can often find excellent deals on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist. If you look for freezers that are only a few years old, you can find a great price for a unit with plenty of life left in it. For example, I recently acquired a like-new 17.5 cu. ft. Frigidaire top-loader for $22 per cu. ft.
Should I buy a “frost-free” freezer or is that just a marketing gimmick?
Many newer models will have a “frost-free” feature, but honestly you want to avoid them. In order to deal with moisture building up on the sidewalls of the freezer, these “frost-free” models will shut off long enough to let the moisture drip down the sidewalls and pool at the bottom. While a seemingly handy solution, it results in considerable temperature fluctuation and could compromise the long-term quality of the food you are storing. It’s really not that hard to defrost manually a couple times a year.
How much meat will I get in a share?
There are a few principal weight measurements you’ll want to know when making a bulk beef purchase. Live weight refers to the weight of the animal at the time of slaughtering. After the slaughter, the hide and hooves are removed and the animal is gutted, reducing the weight by around 35-40%. The reduced weight is called the dressing percentage.
With the dressed carcass now at its hanging weight, it is placed in a dry-aging cooler where it will hang for 12-21 days on average. During this time enzymes in the carcass begin to break down the connective tissue, resulting in a more tender final product. There is also a loss of around 8-10% of carcass weight to moisture evaporation.
Finally, the butcher will process the animal according to your cut sheet, and those choices will determine your final take-home weight. For example, if you choose bone-in steaks, you’ll end up with more weight than if you opt for boneless.
Here’s a rough example:
A grain-finished steer is slaughtered with a live weight of 1200 lbs.
After skinning, gutting and prepping for dry-aging, the hanging weight is 750 lbs.
The beef is dry-aged, resulting in moisture loss. The butcher cuts it to your specifications, yielding a take-home weight of 500-550 lbs.
Below is a detailed breakdown of how this scenario might play out from the University of Tennessee's Institute of Agriculture:4
A note about buying quarters
If you buy a quarter, you will be sharing one side of the animal and will not end up with all of the cuts. And because you are sharing the side with another customer, you will likely be asked to default to a standard-cut approach, allowing the butcher to divide the side evenly – this is also known as a “split side”. In rare instances, you might be able to request a front quarter (chuck and rib sections) or a hind quarter (loin and round sections). The only way to ensure you’re getting all of the muscle groups is by ordering a half.
OK, so what’s the takeaway here?
This baseline information should make it easier for you to determine which share size to purchase. Just understanding the various terms used when referring to weights will make it easier to help you navigate this process. As for gauging freezer space, here’s some useful advice: always overestimate how much you’ll need. Having failed to do so once, I urge you not to make that mistake. Use the breakdown below as your reference guide:5
Primal Cut Sheet is a reader-supported publication featuring ideas, resources and insights on sourcing and cooking animal protein.
The Purpose of the Primal Cut Sheet
This is part of an ongoing monthly series that aims to provide you with all of the information you will need to start buying high-quality beef in bulk directly from a local producer. Future topics will include how to connect with your local producers, deciding between grain and grass-finished beef, and, finally, a full breakdown of a butcher’s cut sheet to help you get the most value from your purchase.
If you’re looking to buy in bulk right away and would like some personalized assistance, I also offer 1:1 consultations to help you navigate cut sheets or answer any other questions you might have:
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A simple example: tomahawk steaks will require more space than ground beef.
For reference, a standard kitchen freezer has between 4 to 7 cu. ft of storage space.
Use cardboard boxes to compartmentalize your top-loader freezer to get the best of both worlds. I’m a big fan of the larger produce boxes you can find at Costco and Sam’s Club.
Meal estimations are based on a 1/3 pound average portion size.