The Meat We Eat

The Meat We Eat

I’ve talked before about the River Cottage Meat Book being the the end all be all of meat-related books – and I stand by that.  But as my groaning bookshelves can attest, the world is absolutely full of great books covering all aspects of the meat business – raising animals, sourcing, cutting, marketing, whatever.  One of my favorites is The Meat We Eat, a four pound tome of a reference book that has been a constant companion to many flashier books in the butcher’s library.  It’s dry – you’d be more apt to confuse this for a textbook than for the River Cottage Meat Book (can we start saying RCMB?  I mean, I won’t but maybe let’s think about it).  The Meat We Eat makes up for in sheer depth of knowledge what it lacks in polish; you come away from it’s 1112 pages with information that spans just about every aspect of the business from harvesting methods to HACCP plans and microbial safety.

 

Yup, it’s technical.

An interesting note about this book is that the first edition was published in 1943.  Over 14 subsequent editions, it’s evolved with the changing state of the meat industry in this country.  It’s still very commodity-centric – if you’re looking for info on grassfed, pasture raised meat, look elsewhere.  The benefit of stark “best practice” type info is that you can see how things are done on a large scale, and integrate that in a way that best suits your current situation.  This book is clearly aimed at professionals in the business.  At home enthusiasts might find the information fascinating (assuming you’re a giant meat dork, which is totally cool with me), but there is probably very little you can actually DO with the knowledge you’d gain from reading it.

As it’s written by meat scientists, The Meat We Eat is very heavy on the scientific aspect of meat production.  There’s more info than you probably ever wanted to know about growth of Staphylococcus Aureus, or depilating hog carcasses.  Unlike almost any other book on the market, this one has footnotes that direct you to studies relevant to what’s being discussed.  It’s one thing to discuss the use of emulsifiers in sausage production, it’s another thing altogether to point readers to Mitraki, et al.’s relevant paper on protein folding defects in commercially available polypeptide binders. Yeah, have a dictionary handy.

At the end of the day, my recommendation isn’t for anyone to read The Meat We Eat straight through.  There’s just a ton more important things you could be doing with your time.  The beauty of this book is that it’s such a broadly focused reference that just about any meat related question you may have can be answered with a quick trip to the index.  From there, you have enough information to move on to more specialized sources – the Marinanski’s books on sausages or Adam Danforth’s great books on slaughter and breakdown.  If my last post inspired you to go out and pick up the River Cottage Meat Book (and it should have), then you could do much worse than putting The Meat We Eat right next to it on the shelf.

Chuck Breakdown Video

I picked up a GoPro for “work” and I’m still getting familiar with it.  This is pretty raw, anything I post in the future should be slightly more polished.  The cool thing about the cutting table at work is there is a pipe directly overhead that’s perfect for mounting, so I hope to do some more of these.
Whole Flat Iron Steak

Meat Cuts 101: Flat Iron

 

NAMP Number: 114D
Muscle Name:  Infraspinatus
Other names:  Butler’s Steak, Oyster Blade Steak, Top Blade, Patio Steaks, Paleta, Espaldilla de Planchuela, Puffer Steak
Cooking style: Quick – a trimmed down flat iron is barely a 1/2 inch thick.  Sear it good both sides and call it a day.

It seems like spring is finally arriving to my sleepy corner of PA.  The birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, and most crucially – my beloved Weber has finally reappeared from the snowbank it spent the last 5 months hiding inside.  It’s reemergence has put grilling firmly in my mind and at this point I’ve been thinking about firing up the grill so much I can practically smell the charcoal.  What’s great about the grill is that it’s a great way to cook just about any cut of meat you can think of.  There are certain cuts, though, that just cry out to be grilled; they are so well suited for the insanely hot, dry sear you get from charcoal that it’s almost a shame not to grill them.    For me, almost no steak grills up better than the Flat Iron.

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Going whole bird

Chicken is by the far the preferred meat of American consumers.  The average American eats over 80 pounds of it a year, versus just 50 pounds of beef, and 45 or so pounds of pork.  But if you’ve been reading the news, it hasn’t been a really great week to be an American chicken consumer. Washington Post ran an article about the hulk-like increase in broiler chicken sizes, and Nicholas Kristof came out with a pretty damning op-ed for the New York Times about inhumane chicken slaughter practices.  At the heart of the matter is America’s obsession with chicken breast meat.

The average American chicken consumer is a lot like me as a teenager; they’re obsessed with breasts, and they’ll do anything to get their hands on them.  Years of poultry industry marketing have positioned white meat as the “healthy alternative” to beef and pork.  The dark meat from the legs and thighs of the chicken itself has been shunned.  Chickens are fed hormones and growth promoting high-intensity feed in the hopes of maximizing the breast meat. The “healthier” label is almost entirely BS, by the way, in terms of calories and saturated fat, dark and white meat are almost identical, and the dark meat has more vitamins and iron (the iron coming along with the increased amount of myoglobin, a protein that provides energy to heavily worked muscles, and also lends dark meat it’s dark color).  And yet, almost five billion tons (that’s billion with a “b”) of dark meat gets exported each year, as there is almost no market for anything other than completely lean white breast meat.

You know where all that dark meat goes?  Well among other export markets, almost a billion pounds of it is going to Russia: 


That’s right, this guy is eating the best parts of all your chicken.
All of this skyrocketing chicken consumption has lead to increasingly intensive practices in poultry production.  You don’t have to be a bleeding heart PETA member to look at the way chickens are “farmed” in the conventional system and realize that it sucks. It sucks for the chickens first and foremost – they spend the vast majority of their short lives in cramped houses with thousands of other birds.  A 10-15% die-off rate isn’t unheard of, and the ones that do make it to slaughter have ammonia burns and broken bones due to the fact that their unnaturally giant breasts cause them to fall over and wallow in the filth of the chicken house.  This system also sucks for the consumer.  Factory “farming” has certainly driven down prices on America’s beloved white meat, but at the end of the day if you think that $0.80/lb chicken is anything other than complete shit, you’re kidding yourself.

You don’t have to take my word for it, though.  Just take a trip to your farmer’s market or local butcher who specializes in better quality meat.  Look for a chicken raised on pasture, not just cage-free.  The farmer or butcher should be able to tell you everything you need to know about breed, living conditions, and feed.  If they can’t, keep walking.  The trick to cooking a well-raised bird is to season it as little as possible.  I like mine with plenty of salt and pepper on the outside, and half an onion in the cavity – that’s it.  Truss it tightly and start it off in a hot oven for a good sear.  Turn the heat down and cook for about 20 minutes a pound.

Or, you could always shove a can of Sixpoint up it’s backside and glaze it with mustard.
If that chicken, a chicken raised on pasture and not pumped full of poor quality feed or antibiotics, isn’t the best chicken you’ve ever eaten, I’ll personally refund you your money.*  The reasons for this are twofold.  First of all, chickens raised on pasture are going to be slower growing breeds, as the giant bulky birds from conventional indoor operations wouldn’t last very long outside.  These breeds are generally better tasting because there is a more equal distribution of myoglobin, and the nutrients that come along with it.  Second, chickens raised on pasture can scratch and root up bugs, worms, and grubs – high protein snacks that chickens go absolutely nuts for and end up adding greatly to the flavor of the finished product.

More to the point – or actually this is the point – Americans would do well to start purchasing the whole chicken whenever possible.  A whole chicken is always going to be cheaper per pound than pieces, especially boneless skinless breast.  For the price of a couple pounds of boneless breast you can usually pick up an entire bird.  A quick trip to youtube would get you quartering the chicken in no time, or you could roast it whole and use the meat for a ton of different dishes.  Either way, a whole chicken yields a carcass which can be made into delicious chicken stock – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Yeah, these are turkeys. But look how happy they are out on grass.
* Just send a self addressed envelope to: 121 ImNotActuallyGivingYouAnyMoney Lane, Anytown USA.

Meat Cuts 101: Trim


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Ground beef for days.

Okay, I’ll clear this up at the outset: “Trim” doesn’t really qualify as a cut of meat by even the loosest definition of the word.  Essentially, trim is just any bit of meat left over from the butchering process – as a steak is cut and shaped, trim is generated. Because trim is a necessary byproduct of the whole animal butchery process, it is just as important to eating sustainably as is a thick, well marbled Ribeye.  For me, how a butcher shop generates, processes, and sells their trim speaks volumes about not just their commitment to sustainability, but also to their own creativity, ingenuity, and passion about what it is they are selling. Yeah, it’s that important.

Think about it like this, when we get in a whole beef steer and break it down into sellable cuts, we usually end up with about 75% of the weight of the animal as “usable meat” – meaning anything that isn’t bone, fat, or waste (membranes and stuff you don’t really want showing up in your Sunday roast).  Of that 75%, half would be sold as whole muscles (steaks and roasts), and the other half would be trim.  To illustrate my point, let’s look at a beef chuck:

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Table-sized beef chuck waiting to be broken down.

That particular chuck (AUID: 226PS1, from a local PA farm – if you’re keeping track at home) weighed 143.8 pounds, and yielded 48.6 pounds of trim vs 52.4 pounds of sellable steaks and roasts – the rest of the weight going to bones for stock and fat for rendering.  Here’s how the cuts ended up looking:

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Chuck, deconstructed. The pile to the right is the trim generated from cleaning the muscles on the left.

If this is all getting a bit technical, the upshot here is that simply buying steaks from a sustainably raised animal may not be enough to support the system.  Plenty of my customers come into the shop looking for high-value middle meats: Ribeye, NY Strip, Tenderloin, and of course I’m happy to oblige.  But one animal may only yield 40 or so pounds of the big ticket steaks, while at the same time generating 150-200 pounds of trim.  As a whole animal butcher, dealing with trim becomes a paramount concern.  I’ve spoken before about sausage as a way to increase value and make something delicious.  There’s also much more obvious way for me to sell trim: grinds.

All too often grinds get the short end of the butcher shop stick.  It doesn’t matter if it’s ground beef, pork, lamb, beef&bacon, whatever, people’s gaze seems to slip right past these cheap and delicious alternatives to big hunks of meat.  It’s a shame really, because grinds are not just a sustainable way to utilize every part of an animal, they’re also a great way to stretch out an already over-taxed food budget.  One of the biggest complaints you hear about high-quality meat is that it’s too expensive – and that’s certainly true, meat raised without antibiotics or hormones out on pasture simply takes longer and costs more to get up to market weight.  But many times those same people are complaining about the $30 a pound beef tenderloin, while ignoring the $5 a pound ground beef right next to it.  Two pounds of ground beef, turned into something delicious like bolognese sauce, taco meat, or sloppy joes can easily and cheaply feed a family of five – no expensive tenderloin needed.

Working to ensure that every person, within every budget, has equal access to to sort of clean, well-raised meat that I sell is a passion of mine.  Just as working with small, local farmers benefits my community, feeding people who might not have the means to pony up for a $40 steak has just as much impact.  Ground meat is an excellent way for a butcher to sell a great quality product for a great price, while also utilizing every part of an animal who’s life he greatly values

Oscar's Smokehouse in Upstate NY

How to be a more informed meat buyer

Going to the butcher shop can be intimidating.  If all you’ve known is pre-packaged big box supermarket whatever, the sheer sensory overload of a full meat case can leave even the strongest person catatonic.  But the good news is that just by going into your local butcher’s place you’ve already made the biggest step towards getting great meat, the trick is just to avoid being paralyzed by choice.  Here’s five-ish tips that I think can help anyone become a more clued-in meat buyer.

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The Good Book

It’s currently high conference season, which means I’m on the road more often than not the past few weekends.  Since I haven’t been in the shop as much these last few weeks I figured I could forgo the meat cuts for a week and talk about a book that almost never leaves my side.  This book has changed my life completely, and I think given the chance, it could change yours as well.  It’s a hefty tome, full of ancient knowledge made relevant to the modern day.  In many ways this book can prescribe a way to live your life, or at least a way to live it slightly better.  I’m talking of course about the holiest of all books (for a butcher at least):  The River Cottage Meat Book.

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Meat Cuts 101: Oxtail


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Oxtail reconstructed.

NAMP Number: 1791
Muscle Name:  No idea, the main bones are the coccygeal vertebrae though, so there’s something
Other names: Cola de Res, Queue de Boeuf (French), Ochsenschwanz (German, obviously)
Cooking style: Low and slow.  Real low, and real slow

A couple weeks back we explored the “nose” portion of the nose-to-tail equation, this week we’re dealing with the business end.  Oxtail is a forgotten cut of meat that is too often lumped into the same category as offal.  That’s a real shame because unlike the soft organ tissue of offal -which can admittedly be a bit of an acquired taste for an unfamiliar cook – oxtail is muscle and bone, just like everyone’s beloved ribeye.  Okay, so it’s probably a bit of a stretch to compare oxtail to ribeye, but cooked properly an oxtail on it’s own can be a delicious hearty meal for a cold winter’s day, or it can provide a great base for soups and stews.

So what’s up with the name?  Traditionally oxen are any bovines trained as a draft animal, although eventually the term has come to refer solely to castrated males over the age of 4.  Agrarian societies have used oxen since 4000 BC to plow fields and pull heavy loads because they’re extremely docile, incredibly strong, and easy to work with; not at all like horses – those flashy troublemakers.  The benefit of working with oxen is once they’ve outlived their long operational usage – up to 15 years in some cases – they can be a great source of delicious meat.  What does all this have to do with oxtail?  Nothing at all.  These days you’d be hard pressed to find an ox on any farm in a developed country, I’ve personally never even seen one.  At some point though the term oxtail began to be applied to the tail from any beef animal; male, female, castrated, uncastrated – I’ve even seen something labelled “veal oxtail” which makes literally no sense.


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Tail still attached the hindquarter. This gives a good idea just how long these guys actually are.

A cow’s tail is constantly in motion and incredibly strong.  A farmer I once worked for had a new pair of sunglasses smashed against his face after  he got a little too close to the back end of a steer.  At the risk of getting too in depth here, think about a cow’s deficiencies in the wiping department, and the prevalence of flies on a farm – you’d have a pretty well-worked tail in that situation too.  For this reason, the tail is packed with short dense muscle fibers and tons of collagen.  Couple that with a pretty high bone to meat ratio and it soon becomes clear that a grilling cut this is not.  An oxtail, much like a shank, needs a long, slow cook in a liquid to properly hydrolyze the collagen into gelatin, and to break apart the muscle into soft palatable fibers.  When I lived in Crown Heights one of my favorite take out dishes was curried oxtail from Gloria’s; they started cooking the curry first thing in the morning, and by the time they served it later that night it was so incredibly tender the meat would melt in your mouth.

Getting an oxtail from your butcher should be fairly straight forward.  Unlike actual offal, the tail freezes well, so at the very least you should be able to grab one from the freezer.  The tails themselves can be over 2 feet long, tapering from a thick 2-3 inches at the base of the tail (the sacro-coccygeal junction for you bovine anatomy nerds) to just a half inch diameter or so at the tip.  Clearly that’s not going to fit into a standard dutch oven, let alone all the looks you’d get with the tip poking out of your shopping bag; that’s why most butchers relish the opportunity that oxtail presents to bust out the rarely-used cleaver and chop the tail into sections.  A shockingly obscure fact is that a reasonably sharp knife will cut between the vertebrae like butter; no hacking needed, just a little precision.  If you ever come across an oxtail left whole, I strongly recommend bringing it home as is and separating out the vertebrae yourself – it’s an incredibly satisfying project.  Just trim off excess fat and examine the tail for white seams marking the splits between bones; press your knife straight down through those and you’ll be braising in no time.


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Interesting fact: The diameter of the vertebrae will differ, but they’re always the same length.

Beer Braised Oxtail

2 Oxtails, cut into manageable pieces 
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 Onions, chopped  
3 sticks of celery, diced
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
4 healthy sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
2 cans dark beer (just use Guinness, there’s really nothing better for braising)
1 pint good beef stock


1.  Brown the oxtail (preferably in tallow) in a heavy, oven proof pan, then remove and sweat the carrots, onion, garlic, and celery until soft.

2.  Add the beer and use a spoon to scrape all the delicious caramelized bits off the bottom of the pan.

3.  Add the oxtail back in, along with the thyme, bay leaves, and beef stock and simmer gently for 3 hours, or until the meat is fork tender.

4.  Once the meat is done take it out of the liquid and remove the meat from the bones.  It should be very easy at this point, but if it gives you any trouble a little more time simmering will change that.

5. Drain the cooking liquid through a fine strainer and reduce over medium heat until it thickens slightly.  Add salt and pepper to taste and serve over the now boneless meat.  Goes great with delicious dumplings or sourdough toast.

Try a little tenderness (or maybe try something else)


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For tenderness, you can’t be beef tenderloin. But is tenderness the end-all benchmark for meat quality?

As a butcher, one of the most frequent topics I get asked about is about tenderness.  You can do your best to explain the provence of the animal, or the skill used in butchering them, in the end though it always seems to come back to “yeah, but is it tender?”  Tenderness in meat has some serious baggage attached to it.  In the past, only the wealthiest people could afford “middle meats’ which are the cuts we now call ribeye, NY strip, and tenderloin.  These muscles were naturally very well marbled and tender, and these properties became something to aspire for in your meat – especially for the peasants left gnawing on tough cuts like short ribs and brisket.  To this day a customer looking to buy a cut to impress a date or show off at a cookout is more likely to ask for the most tender cut, versus the most flavorful.  In my estimation this is a tragedy, as I’d take a well cooked, deeply flavorful cut of meat any day over a mushy mostly tasteless tenderloin (yeah I’m calling you out tenderloin).

The science behind what makes meat tender is (to me at least) pretty interesting, and I feel a worthy bit of information to add to the flavor vs. tenderness debate.  To begin with, let’s look at basic muscle structure.  At their most basic level, all muscles are composed of sarcomeres, which are combinations of myosin and actin proteins combined into long filaments all arranged in a similar direction.  These sarcomeres are bundled into larger filaments called myofibrils, which are themselves bundled into yet larger filaments known as fascicles.  It’s these fascicles that you can see when you look at a very coarsely grained cut of meat, like a hanger or brisket.

If I haven’t completely lost you yet, here’s where all that info begins to have relevance to the topic tenderness.  Actin and myosin within sarcomeres play a role in muscle contraction.  For this reason, muscles that frequently contract (aka, move) or are required to do strenuous work (i.e., stand) are made up of sarcomeres that contain much more actin and myosin than muscles that don’t really do much (tenderloin, I’m looking at you again).  For this reason, sarcomeres in more tender cuts are skinnier, as they don’t need to accommodate as much of the actin and myosin proteins.  Skinner sarcomeres lead to skinner myofibrils, which lead to – you guessed it – skinnier fascicles.  That’s why a tenderloin has an almost microscopic grain structure and a shank looks like a cross section of a trans-atlantic telecommunications cable.


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These Tri-tips have an easily visible grain structure.

***Interesting aside:  When an animal dies, actin and myosin bond to form a complex called actomyosin.  Actomyosin is very rigid and locks the muscles in their extended position for a period of time until the first stages of decomposition begin to breakdown those proteins.  You might know this process as Rigor Mortis.  Rigor Mortis can be shortened or even skipped if an animal receives a large amount of electrical current shortly before death – a practice discovered and championed by Benjamin Franklin, who had a thing for electrocuting turkeys to death.***

So what’s my issue with tenderness?  I like a tender steak as much as the next guy – I don’t know too many people who would turn down a juicy, well marbled porterhouse.  But the problem with the popularity of middle meats is that there are so few of them.  When you look at a whole steer, only about 25% of it is what would be considered tender – once those cuts are gone you’ve still got a bunch of flavorful, interesting cuts that would make an excellent meal.  Nothing is more disheartening than losing a customer over a lack of tenderloin when there are piles of skirt, bavette, or top round in the case.  With all of the great cuts available, middle meats can end up being a bit boring in the face of a well prepared cut from elsewhere on the animal.

There are some ways to increase tenderness (if you really must)


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This ribeye is hanging out in the dry age cooler, letting enzymes do their tenderizing work.

Dry aging

Dry aging is very in right now.  The process, which involves letting large subprimals hang out in a humidity controlled refrigerator and letting enzymes break down over time, concentrates and enhances flavor while also increasing tenderness.  In a perfect world all meat would be dry aged for as long as possible before consumption, but there are trade-offs, such as a pretty significant decrease in weight – which cuts into your margins as a butcher.  The beef that I sell in the shop hangs for two weeks before going into the case, and the strips and ribeyes in the photo go into a dry age cooler for another 3-4 weeks.


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The Jaccard does a great job of mechanically tenderizing meat without smashing it into pieces like a traditional tenderizing mallet.

Mechanical tenderization

The concept of mechanical tenderization is to break down a large, tough muscle into something smaller and therefore a bit more tender.  Think of a short rib hamburger.  On it’s own short rib cooked to mid rare will be insanely tough and chewy, but run it through a grinder a couple of times on a small die and you’ve got access to all of that great short rib flavor in a much more tender package.


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Brisket is a very tough cut of meat, but after 11 hours in the smoker it’s meltingly tender.

Cooking

Want to preserve tenderness? Cook your meat right.  Tough muscles need to be cooked low and slow, and steaks need to be kept from overcooking.  Stop overcooking your meat!  Once a steak heats beyond mid rare and starts heading for medium territory, the muscle fibers contract heavily and juices being to leak out.  Train yourself to like your meat little more on the rare side and you’ll be enjoying tender steaks in no time.