Costco is at once a wonderland and a hellishly vast maze of obstacles (read: other shoppers with giant, overflowing carts all getting in each other’s way). My household only signed up for membership in the
cult store once we’d purchased an actual house with room to hoard things, and now we go primarily for dog food, army-supply amounts of toilet paper and paper towels, monster packs of string cheese, and oversize jars of fantastic (and fantastically priced) almond butter. There are a few other staples we stock up on, and always several impulse buys; we’ve gotten electronics there too, but we usually skirt the steak and other meat options. The quantities are just so big. And we don’t eat a ton of meat in general, so it doesn’t seem to make sense, but with professional chefs praising the quality of Costco beef, it is tempting to try it out.
There are several factors to consider when deciding if it’s logical to buy your steaks at Costco. The three most important are probably cost, quality of meat, and the sheer amount of it, which are all intertwined. Then there’s also the matter of what’s in stock at your nearest Costco, and whether you can even get inside to shop. So let’s try to break it down.
Money is no object…is something not a lot of people can actually afford to say. A basic Costco membership is $60 per year, which isn’t too bad as long as you shop there enough to make it count. According to one Clark Howard producer, buying tires, wine, movie tickets, and baby formula (among other key items) at Costco definitely makes it worth the annual fee, and saves you lots of money in general, versus buying these things at other stores. Getting gas at Costco is another smart move, and prescriptions are usually way cheaper there (both medicines and corrective lenses). Even milk by the gallon is a better deal that adds up if you go through a lot. But of course, it all depends on what exactly you’re interested in buying, and how much of it you can realistically consume. Non-perishables are safe bets, as long as you have room to store them, but things with shorter shelf lives, like fresh vegetables or gargantuan hunks of cheese, can easily go bad before you use them all. Even Costco employees admit some things aren’t worth buying at the store. Happily, steak is not on that list—well, not by name. It is a perishable, but one you might actually have occasion to cook all at once (Memorial Day and 4th of July barbecues come to mind), or which you can otherwise preserve.
As to the cost of the steaks themselves, in general, all Costco meat prices will be cheaper per pound than at specialty butcher shops and certain grocery stores like Whole Foods and Aldi, but potentially on par with or even more expensive per pound than what you’d pay at, say, Safeway or Walmart (especially when those other stores are running sales). To determine if you’re getting the best deal, though, you have to pay attention to the quality of the meat, not just the price/weight ratio. Certain cuts, like filet mignon, will always be more expensive, no matter where you buy them, compared to far cheaper varieties like flank steak. But the grade of the meat is also important.
Costco stocks both USDA Prime and USDA Choice cuts. USDA Prime certification is awarded to a relatively small fraction of all U.S. raised beef—the standard number cited for several years was 2%, but now the Prime label is given to more like 3 to 3.5% of all U.S. beef, meaning it’s easier to find in stores these days, Costco included, although it’s still more expensive wherever it’s sold. Prime beef basically has the highest amount of marbling (i.e. intramuscular fat evenly distributed throughout the meat, making it more tender and juicy) and is younger. USDA Choice is the next step down, thus more affordable, but is still great quality beef; in fact, some sources suggest it may be the better option, because while it may not be quite as tender, there’s a bigger, beefier taste, and a lighter hit to your wallet.
What specific cuts you find in your local Costco will vary; some shoppers suggest you’re more likely to see extra-impressive cuts on weekends when the store is busier, but you’re pretty likely to always spot old favorites like rib-eye and sirloin, two steaks that happen to be great for grilling. At the time of this writing, in the Portland, Oregon area, Costco has boneless USDA Choice rib-eye steaks for $10.99 per pound and boneless USDA Prime rib-eye steaks for $18.99 per pound; by comparison, a local Kroger store (Fred Meyer) lists boneless USDA Choice rib-eye at $12.99 per pound and a local Whole Foods has it for $13.99 per pound. Neither of those stores had USDA Prime rib-eye on offer, but if they did, it would certainly be more expensive than at Costco. Some other low prices spotted at Costco: USDA Choice New York steak for $9.99 per pound; USDA Prime New York steak for $13.99 per pound; and USDA Prime tenderloin steak for $19.99 per pound.
A lower price per pound is great, but when you have to buy in bulk, the total price can still be a bit of a shock. Economically, it helps to buy whole roasts or loins and carve them into steaks yourself, but even then, they’re usually hefty, and hence, more expensive as a single purchase (not to mention more work for you). For an extreme example, on the Costco website, you can find imported Japanese wagyu boneless rib-eye roasts for $100 per pound—but you have to buy 13 pounds at once, so you’re dropping $1,300. (For comparison, 12-pound American wagyu boneless rib-eye roasts from D’Artagnan are currently discounted to $33.33 per pound on the Costco site. The same meat, already cut into steaks, is also on sale on the D’Artagnan website, for $59.99 per pound. Even once all sales are over, the price differences between stores, origins, and cuts should still be noticeable.) If any amount or form of wagyu is out of your price range, $43.75 per pound for USDA Prime dry-aged rib-eye steaks from Chicago Steak Company sounds much better—but (online) they come in 8-count packages, so that’s still $349.99. Luckily, shopping in the store and buying the Kirkland labeled steak will net you significantly lower prices and more reasonable amounts of meat; the average package of steaks of all varieties in my Costco seemed to be around five pounds, with outliers both lighter and heavier. So a pack of Choice rib-eye steaks would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $50. That’s obviously worth it to many, end of story.
One other factor to keep in mind, though: most of Costco’s steaks (at least the ones sold under the Kirkland Signature label) are blade-tenderized, or needled, meaning they’ve been mechanically punctured to make them more tender—whether that should be necessary to do to Choice and Prime beef is up for debate, but the fact is, they do it. This has the potential to drive surface bacteria deeper into the meat, so to be safe, you should cook these steaks to the recommended internal temperature of 160 degrees. If you like your steak rare, you can ignore the suggestion and chance it, but food safety standards strongly advise against it. If you buy a whole roast or loin to carve into steaks yourself (and handle them properly, of course), this won’t be a concern.
What might still nag at some is why Costco has such low prices, and there are several reasons, outlined here. They save money by not advertising and not offering anywhere near the number of different items that traditional stores do, which is partly why they’re able to keep markups low. But when it comes to meat, with some exceptions, there is generally not a ton of transparency about its exact origins. Many stores and specialty butchers that do tout the provenance of their meat—which is usually also certified organic and humanely raised—unsurprisingly, will charge more for it, since it’s more expensive to rear and more highly valued by customers for whom those factors are important. Costco’s policies regarding animal welfare don’t offer many details about beef in particular, except to say that they “subscribe to and support the Five Freedoms of Animal Well-Being,” and that since 2005 they have required “animal welfare audits at slaughter in accordance with the American Meat Institute Recommended Animal Handling Guidelines,” with all animal welfare auditors auditing their suppliers being PACCO certified. In contrast, Whole Foods, for just one example, provides more specific information about their beef sources and standards.
If you still think Costco steak sounds like a no-brainer, there’s just one more thing to consider. If you won’t be able to cook all that steak right after buying it, you’ll probably want to freeze it—only, what if that ruins the quality of the meat, thus making the savings worthless? According to some sources, freezing meat can actually make it more tender, but that’s apparently only true for certain cuts (like strip loin). Freezing steaks (and any other meat) will definitely negatively impact the flavor and texture if you don’t wrap it well, and/or if you keep it stashed in the freezer for too long. Vacuum sealing your meat is the ideal option if you need to freeze it, but if you don’t have the set-up for that, try this tip: set the raw steaks on a baking sheet lined with a Silpat or parchment paper, place the tray in the freezer for a couple hours until the steaks are fully frozen, then tightly wrap each one in plastic, and finally, place the securely wrapped steaks in a firmly-sealed plastic bag with all the air pressed out. It’s a little more work than chucking them right in a Ziploc and then on top of the ice cubes, but it’ll help prevent freezer burn and protect your investment (and make you happier when it’s time to eat). When you’re ready to cook some, you have to make the choice between properly thawing the steak, or simply cooking it straight from frozen, but that’s a matter for another day.
So, should you buy your steaks at Costco? The answer is that famous cop-out that also happens to be true: Only you can decide!
If money is no object (and you live in an area where it’s feasible), getting your steaks and other meat from a trusted, skilled, local butcher is probably always the best bet, but if you want high quality at a lower price per pound, aren’t worried about dealing with excessive quantities, obscure origins, or blade tenderizing, and you can get in to shop at a Costco, then make haste to their meat department.
If you’d like to peruse their steak options in person but aren’t a member (and don’t want to commit to becoming one just yet), you can get in the door with Costco gift cards—but you might need to ask an existing member to purchase them for you first. Or just tag along with a kind friend or family member who holds the keys to the Costco kingdom. Failing that, try ordering from Costco through Instacart or Google Express where available (that is, if markups, delivery fees, and surcharges still seem worth it). And whenever you do finally get your hands on some steak, wherever it’s from, find great ways to cook it here.
Header image courtesy of Costco.