Yesterday I helped bring a baby calf into the world. Today I was at the other end of the spectrum, taking a trip to our butchers to see four sides of our beef cut into retail cuts. The circle of life. (Apologies if you now have scenes from The Lion King flashing before your eyes!).
For the last few years I have been the point person for selling our family’s beef. Whether it’s friends from college or people from the gym, I have a pretty good pool of people who are interested in locally-raised grass-fed beef.
If it’s not obvious, I LOVE beef. I like to cook it (all of it, including the odd bits!), I like to eat it, I’m interested in the ethics of it, I’m keen on the impact of local grass-fed beef for the economy and the environment, and I’m interested in the potential health benefits of grass-fed beef. Oh, and I’m all about saturated fats.
When I talk to friends and potential customers about our beef I can talk about our animals, recipes, or anything else on the list above, but when it comes to discussing the traditional bits of the animal I sometimes find myself woefully unprepared. Yes, I can explain that you either get T-bones and Porterhouse or Filet and Strip Steak (those are the options when it comes to the loin of the animal- we’re not going to discuss grinding it!), but quite how you break down the round, chuck, and rib is a topic I sometimes skirt around (though I don’t skirt around skirt steak- it’s probably my favorite cut!).
Today was the day the butchers were cutting the last four sides of our beef, which had been dry aging in their cooler for the last two and a half weeks. I just started an EMS elective that has me doing six 12hr shifts and I had today off, so I asked my butchers if they would mind me hanging out and hopefully learning a thing or two as they finished the work on our animals. They kindly obliged, and I think they actually quite liked having a young lady around the place to liven things up!
When I first showed up they were half way through butchering the first side, which was now broken down into a number of primal cuts. Primal cuts are large sections of the animal that are then cut down further into retail cuts. Some of the names will be familiar. “Chuck” is the shoulder, “rib” is the next area back, followed by the “loin”, “sirloin”, and then the “round”. On the underside of the animal, starting from the front, you have “brisket”, “plate”, and “flank”. You also have the shanks, and some people break the sirloin down further. The round is broken into a top round and a bottom round. These are all names you may see slapped on a piece of meat in the supermarket, but seeing a carcass go from a hanging side to a retail steak helps put it all in perspective.
The butchers we go to have been in operation for 75 years. They service the local farming community, and are butchers for people who raise a single animal for themselves as well as farms that are sending multiple animals to the butcher every week. While there has certainly been an increase in nose-to-tail eating, I think my “paleo”/“foodie” customers are still somewhat in the minority in their preference to have tail, shin and marrow bones, and offal… “Everything but the squeak”, one of the old guys said. These guys are good at doing simple, standard cuts, and if we ask for something special they try and oblige, but requests for flat-iron steaks and flap steaks have gone unanswered. When I made a plea for the hanger steak today they gave me a questioning look, but obliged (I think many of their customers don’t even want skirt steak- the horror!).
Some beef options- the loin can be cut into T-bones and Porterhouse (bone in) or Strip Steak and Filet
Roasts, steaks, or stew…
One of our other topics of conversation was the difficulty of USDA inspection. Our butchers have a USDA inspector onsite 8hrs per day, 5 days per week, but for smaller butchers that is a burden they can not shoulder. Likewise, while our butcher has stayed up to date with regulations and standards, some smaller butchers have not been able to keep up and have dropped their USDA inspection or closed. It also seems that the mountain of paperwork is a real burden- taking the boss one full day per week to handle.
Talk of USDA was a bit demoralizing, but it was fun to chat with the butchers about meat. I recently had a patient on the floors who had been a butcher (he was 85). We talked about a number of things over his extended hospitalization, but if I really wanted to get him talking all I had to do was get him talking about meat… Ask him about his favorite steak and he was off telling you about the best way to age things, the best part of the country for raising beef, and how he liked to cook things. On the other hand, one of the guys I worked with today admitted that he sees too much meat during the day and doesn’t care for it much at home (this was not my problem- I was very keen to head home to a steak lunch).
I also asked the various butchers about their thoughts on grass-fed beef. They laughed and said it was all the rage, but if they wanted something grass-fed they’d just walk outside and eat the grass themselves- give them corn-fed beef any day! They commented that grass-fed meat smelled different, looked different, and tasted different. When I asked one of them how our grass-fed meat faired in comparison to other grass-fed animals the guy gave me a shocked look and said “This is grass-fed? I had no idea… All grass-fed? How’d you get all that fat on it?” It is true that our beef had quite a bit of fat on it*, and for grass-fed meat had quite a bit of marbling. British Whites are supposed to do well on grass, and my mother is very proactive with rotational grazing, so hopefully this is a testament to how good grass-fed meat is good meat!
Seeing a side of beef broken down into retail cuts is quite sobering. For every 1000# animal there are only a few pounds each of skirt steak and flank steak. For those who like these cuts, and eat them on a regular basis, it’s good to realize quite how limited they are (and to be thankful that there are those who don’t care for them!). As delicious as some odd bits are, a commitment to eating nose-to-tail frequently means eating a lot of roasts and ground meat…
*As I said, there was quite a bit of fat on our steer. I asked the guys to save me a couple boxes of trimmings so I could render it down for tallow. I’ve done this the past few years. It’s a messy task, but grass-fed tallow isn’t easy to come by and I like to use it in cooking and as gifts!