Sunday, January 19, 2014

Cold Shortening

This time of year you might think cold shortening is a result of men joining the Polar Bear club but it is really something else. Cold shortening is the result of chilling a carcass too soon after slaughter. Most folks don't realize the amount of things that need to take place right after evisceration to create the maximum amount of tenderness in meat.
 First I'll do my best to explain what cold shortening is without getting too technical. When an animal is slaughtered the system for transporting oxygen to the cells shuts down, obviously. This causes pumps that move adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to shut down and allow calcium ions to
bind up proteins, all at the cellular level. This is part of the process of rigor mortis. If the carcass is chilled too fast, this condition is magnified, resulting in muscle contraction that shortens muscle fibers, making the meat tougher. Think about it, when you get cold you shiver and your muscles tighten up. Its not exactly like that but sort of. Also, there are natural enzymes that kick in after slaughter to break down and loosen muscle fibers but a cold shortened muscle will remain tougher and never achieve the tenderness levels of a properly chilled carcass. Hanging a carcass allows for some muscles to be stretched which minimizes cold shortening for some muscles.
 Preventing cold shortening can present problems for a processor. To prevent it studies show that the fresh pre- rigor carcass ideally should be kept at a balmy cave like temperature of 60F 16C for about 10 - 16 hours.  A large beef plant wants to move thousands of animals through each day can't wait quite that long so many will speed up the process by applying electrical stimulation to the carcass. Zapping the fresh carcass depletes much of the glycogen energy that would allow cold shortening to happen. I saw this at a Cargill plant years ago. It was like "CLEAR" and bam, the whole side of beef twitched. Another trick is to add a calcium chloride solution into the carcass which increases the activity of the endogenous enzymes, the enzymes that break down meat when it is aged.
 The old method of slow chilling was much more haphazard. If a carcass has a lot of exterior fat, a poor yield grade 4 or 5, the carcass will naturally chill slower, resulting in more tender meat. I can remember picking out hindquarters of beef with my dad in the markets on 14th street in NYC and he would always look for the extra fatty ones. They cost us more but the quality level was always much higher so we could charge accordingly. Plus we would buy an old bull carcass for lean beef to mix in the fat trims for our grind. That meat was tough like a shoe but perfect for grinding.
 I recently talked with John Jamison from Jamison Farm in Latrobe PA and he confirmed the 16 hour rule for keeping a carcass warm for the first part after slaughter. The USDA allows him to keep the carcass at this warm temperature for longer than what is considered normal. He says the quality of the carcass is greatly increased. Most of his production is with lamb but he has experimented with lean grass-fed beef also, with great results. It is a delicate balance between tender meat and food born illness. If a processor wants to allow a carcass to chill slowly they need to be diligent in keeping the process as clean as possible.
 Another factor that can effect cold shortening is the condition of the animal when it is alive. A calm animal that has had no food for 24hrs but not starved will be less likely to have the condition than an animal that is aggravated or stressed.
 One other experiment has been done to change the muscle structures pre-rigor. We normally hang a carcass by the gambrel on the back leg. This stretches certain muscles guaranteeing they cannot develop cold shortening. But what if we hang the carcass in different positions? This would allow for the stretching of muscles typically allowed to shorten. This opens the door for small processors to do some custom things. It is very difficult for a large processor to change the way they hang carcasses because everything is geared to the chain speed and equipment used to break down everything.
 A bit of history also. Farmers that slaughtered their own meats often did it in the fall when the temperatures would range from just above freezing to about 60F. An old timer that knew what they were doing would slaughter on a warm morning and hang the carcass for a few days in the barn with the temperature slowly lowering. Perfect condition for tenderizing.
 A friend of mine shot a deer this fall just when the weather turning a little warm. He typically hangs it for about a week before I cut it for him. He was worried about the warm temps and I told him to relax, he did and so did the muscle structure of his deer. It was one of the most tender wild caught meat I've ever worked with.
 So as the temperature once again plummets this week keep in mind not to cold shorten, leave that to the polar bears.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

COOL or Fool

COOL....Country Of Origin Labeling.  In late November the FDA implemented a new rule that states any whole muscle meat item must declare where it originally came from. Simple right? You walk into a market or you are ordering ground beef for your restaurant and you simply say I'd like US grown beef and there it is on the label. WHOA! Hold your horses! ( that's another topic!) This law only applies to "whole" muscle cuts. Any processed meat does not require the labeling. Any ham, bacon, bologna, hot dog, breaded meat, seasoned meat, sausage, etc does NOT require any sort of origin labeling. Ground beef does require a COOL label but if the meat is processed in any way, such as precooked or seasoned, it does not.
 Both Canada and Mexico are fighting this new law because they believe it violates free trade agreements. We've been buying a lot of meat from both of those countries for a long time and most consumers would never know it. In fact we've been buying a lot of meat from other countries. Here is a quote from the USDA web site "U.S. beef imports in 2012 totaled 2.22 billion pounds, or nearly 8 percent higher than in 2011. Imports were stronger year over year from Australia (+45 percent), New Zealand (+8 percent), Mexico (+56 percent), and Uruguay (+39 percent). Australia and Canada supplied the largest imports of beef to the United States, at 655 and 537 million pounds. Among the remaining top beef exporters were New Zealand (495 million pounds), Mexico (242 million pounds), and, jointly, Central American countries (Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras at 140 million pounds)." 2.2 billion lbs.!! And this is just beef, we also are seeing some huge hog farms in Mexico and that country's exports are growing.  This is big business and some large processors stand to lose some market share if the law stands. We also export a lot of meat to those countries.
 But who is losing if this law goes away? Well the law potentially helps cattle growers here in the US; those hard working ranchers that have been hit by a number of tough conditions over the last few years. Droughts in Texas, freak cold snaps and snow like in South Dakota this fall, floods like in eastern Colorado, all part of our meat supply. Large meat processors would rather hedge against our cattle growers by importing 2 - 3% of the meat they process. Many large companies are fighting this law and state that it is unnecessary government regulation. Their statements claim food safety laws in Canada and Mexico are fine and we don't need to worry about meat imports. Here is an article in the online publication Stitata about the use of the Beta-Agonist Clenbuterol found in Mexican meat....... "Consumption of clenbuterol contaminated meat has caused 56 cases of clenbuterol poisoning in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan. The cases were treated promptly and all recovered. In order to prevent a wider contamination, officials seized 72.5 kg of meat. Clenbuterol is a drug that is used to treat asthma. In some formulations, it increases the creation of muscle and is sometimes used to increase the muscle mass of animals such as cattle, pork or sheep. Clenbuterol residue remains in the body for a long time (months) after consumption and can affect lung and heart function." There is a lot of corruption and looking the other way when it comes to regulations in Mexico but this type of abuse of chemicals is a concern globally! The Canadians aren't without scandals as well. Here is an article about E-Coli tainted product headed for the US.   Even in our own meat supply we find things that need to be addressed so how can we, as a nation, allow meat from other countries without at least giving the public a heads up?
  But this law only regulates a portion of the meat brought into the US. All of the processed , value added meat does not need labeling. So if a giant pork company like Shuanghui, which now owns Smithfield, processes pork into value added hams, they do not require a country of origin labeling. Chinese produced pork could be sold in the US as a Smithfield product. This company was also caught abusing beta-agonists and yet our lawmakers determined that it would hurt our economy if we further regulate. What is to stop multi-national companies from shipping whole carcasses out of the US and processing them overseas and bringing them back as US product, even under the existing law? Nothing!  In reality further regulation would only hurt the bottom line of a foreign company. All of the fast food burgers sold in the US do not require any label about country of origin because the meat is cooked.  Our US processing plants and the workers in them are effected by this and we need to seriously consider COOL for all meat products. The law isn't stopping companies from bringing in the simply identifies the sources so that chefs and consumers can make their own decisions. Only a fool wouldn't agree with COOL.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Round, Rump and Sirloin

US Style 
  I recently had a student from Australia and we were going over the beef primal and subprimal cuts in class. It gets complicated enough for my US students and they sometimes struggle to memorize every cut but this guy from Australia was at a further disadvantage. In England or any country that is influenced by it such as Australia or New Zealand, beef is cut differently than in the US and the names for each cut are not the same either. Many of the English terms don't exist in the US. In fact around the world we find different cultures dividing meats in a variety of separation points on the carcass. In this article I will attempt to explain some of the English cuts and compare them to the US style. I'm not sure why, here in the US, we strayed from the English cutting styles but it might date back to early times when we rejected many English traditions after our war for independence.

  Here is a short list of cuts that are "translated" from English.
English Style
I'll list the US style first followed by the English.
Top Round = Topside
Bottom Round = Silverside
Shank = Leg
Knuckle = Thick Flank
Top Sirloin = Rump
Foreshank = Shin
Striploin = Sirloin
Export Rib = Fore rib and part of striploin
Plate = Thin Rib ( sort of )

The confusion between the two cutting styles happens when certain terms are used for different cuts. The most confusing is the difference between the striploin and the sirloin. The US striploin is often cut into the very popular NYstrip steak. In England it is known as the sirloin and cut into sirloin steaks. The trouble with that is in the US we have a different cut known as the sirloin from which we cut sirloin steaks, more specifically, top sirloin steaks. Very confusing....especially for those who travel or need to purchase meats for restaurants in other countries. I often see menus here in the US featuring a grilled "sirloin" or NY "sirloin" when what is actually being sold is the striploin. This may be the result of  Our US sirloin is known as the rump in England. The rump is used for steaks or roast there but here in the US we find a "rump" roast. More confusion...the rump roast here is actually the thicker end of the bottom round! In Canada the cuts are fabricated the same as here in the US but we find instead of using the term "round" for the back leg, they use the term "hip". All the rest of their terminology is exactly the same as here in the US.
  An excellent resource for researching the different beef and other animal cuts from around the globe is a book written by Howard Swartland, published by Nottingham University Press called Meat and Muscle Cuts. But the only way to really get a feel for how meat is divided and named in another country is to go and see it done in a butcher shop or processing plant.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

To Wash or Not To Wash

 The other day I had a group of students start their class day by opening a few beef shoulder clods that were in vacuum bag. I was in the class, away from the sink where they were opening. I walked out to find them rinsing the beef off with cold water. I immediately called everyone together to explain why this was a bad idea. I asked why they were doing it and the response was "I thought it was making the meat safer".
 The idea of washing meat is certainly not a new one. For years home cooks were told to wash poultry and that would make it less likely to make their family ill. Many an unscrupulous restaurateur has rinsed chicken that is starting to turn with a mixture of salt water and lemon juice, jeopardizing the safety of their customers simply to save a few bucks. Deer hunters have often hosed off their catch to remove excess hair after removing the hide. But would it be normal to see someone rinsing off a steak or chop?
 Back to the rinsing of fresh poultry. A large percentage of chicken or turkey will have some bacteria pathogens on its surface. Does rinsing it off in your kitchen sink remove that bacteria? The reality is rinsing basically spreads the bacteria further around the kitchen as it drips. But that's not to say when you open a poultry bag that you can't rinse off the excess juices to slightly freshen the bird. That may be something you do for flavor reasons but it does not reduce the bacteria counts and should be done with caution to be sure not to cross-contaminate the whole area. It is always wise to wash down the area with soapy water with a cap of bleach in it. Here is a short article on the problem with rinsing. ( it also has a great old clip of Julia Child )

  What about red meat? If an item is stored in a vacuum bag for a few weeks it will purge out liquids that resemble blood. The purge will surround the meat and when the bag is opened the user will be tempted to rinse it. Red meat should never be rinsed. It dilutes flavor and is certainly not needed. Red meat is better trimmed as opposed to rinsed. Removing a thin layer of the fat and exterior membranes will be enough to clean it.
 On the much larger level, how are processors rinsing meat products? Almost all meats are rinsed at some stage in their production. For poultry, birds are stunned, bled and then dipped into hot water to loosen their feathers. The feathers are then plucked off by machines. Needless to say the birds are not clean at this point. The birds are then eviscerated and finally chilled. All of this process is very fast, just a few minutes from start to finish. At the chilling stage most birds are dipped into an ice water bath. Poultry companies have rinses that are applied along the way to reduce pathogens, primarily Salmonella and Campylobactor. The rinses in the past contained elevated chlorine counts but recently there are different products that are now used. An article in the Washington Post explains the process modern poultry companies are using  Today we see less chlorine and more peracetic acids and cetylpyridinium chloride (also found in mouthwash). This is what chicken and turkey companies are doing to reduce pathogens.
 What are beef companies doing to clean their carcasses? The major scare for beef is strains of E-Coli and the prevention starts with washing the carcass with very hot water before the hide is taken off. After evisceration the split carcass is either washed with hot water and steam again or sprayed with a mild lactic acid. These pasteurizing methods are effective, especially for beef of higher quality that is then chilled for a day or two.
 But the truth about cleaning is meat is going to have pathogens. Sure we can say animals should be kept in cleaner environs before heading to market and they may help but bacteria loves meat and the way to control it is always proper handling and cooking.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Teachable Tasks

Butcher?? In the old European systems of teaching this and other trades, students were immersed in
the craft as apprentices. They spent their time helping with the very basics, never touching the very expensive end of the craft. Time was spent cleaning, prepping, or simple tasks that wouldn't require much skill. There was always lots of repetition, doing a task many, many times to achieve accuracy.  It took a few years to move from apprentice to journeyman where the student was considered competent and could move from job to job with their craft, knowing they brought a specific skill set. They would continue learning, observing various styles that their own original master may not practice. Finally the journyman could become a master by showing their skills and passing tests in front of their peers. Once a master, they could start their own business with an understanding by creditors and customers that this person has the skills to succeed.
 In many restaurants or in many modern meat cutting situations it certainly does not require the skills of  the old style master butcher. The old masters were versed in live animal selection, slaughter techniques and offal cleaning. Those skills today wouldn't be necessary in most artisanal shops or a restaurant that purchases entire carcasses. A smaller shop that buys full carcasses would need a complete skill set to know how to maximize the yield and what to do with each cut. A restaurant that buys the whole animal would require someone that knows how to make it work into quality portions. A modern day "master" may be someone who understands butchery and cutting skills and has a complete knowledge of all of the bone structure and natural seams. They would understand the yield possibilities of the entire carcass.
 But in the modern era of meat being cut into subprimals, or even further, into pre-portioned cuts, back at processing plants, what skills do we still need to teach? What reasons are there for a retailer or restaurateur to cut any meat? Does it make sense to spend time valuable labor on something that can be purchased already done? These are questions chefs and retail managers need to answer for themselves. I have my own views on this subject but mine are tainted by the fact that I already have the skills and have been breaking down full carcasses for years. So here are some pros and cons of cutting in house as opposed to buying pre cut.

  • Labor costs 
  • Space to produce the product
  • Space to store all the cuts
  • Skill level of staff
  • Equipment required
  • Food safety
  • Cost savings
  • Whole muscle cuts
  • Custom creative options
  • Advertised on menu or price list
  • Teachable tasks
An example of a teachable simple task would be cutting a boneless 0x1 striploin into portion steaks. I never understand why any restaurant would purchase these as portion cuts. It takes no more than 10 minutes to trim the fat, remove some connective tissues and slice the individual portions and the typical savings by doing this in house are 10 to 20 %. The same goes for beef tenderloin. Very basic fabrication and not only that, a lot of tenderloin pre-cut portion cuts are bonded together using transglutiminase so they aren't true whole muscle cuts. The task of trimming basic sub-primals into portion cuts not only saves money in many cases but also creates a sort of pride by the cutter. The chef that cuts their own steaks will have more pride in that product.
 So what about the whole carcass? Is breaking down an entire beef side a teachable task? This is more debatable. This requires a lot more skill and some serious time. Beef is the most difficult when it comes to whole carcass use. If no band saw is present it requires a lot of difficult handsaw work. We do the side of beef in class and "bench break" the entire thing on a table but it is no easy task. Beside the physical work involved, there is also the matter of a lot of extra fat and trim that needs to be used in balance to the valuable steak cuts.
 Pork on the other hand is much more logical for in house butchery. A half hog can be broken down in just minutes. All of the parts can be used including the fat and many cured products can be made. Even if some errors are made during the breakdown, extra trim can be used for sausage or terrines.
 A lamb carcass is relatively easy but again the use of each cut must be balanced. There is a lot more leg and chuck meat in comparison to the rack and loin chops.
 A lot of the cutting tasks we might consider are visible on You Tube. I've used many clips as a study guide in class and the fact that you can show someone how to do a cut over and over is very helpful.
  All considered, there are many teachable meat cutting tasks that are ignored in many restaurants and retail stores and if the chef or manager would apply them they may find an increase in value.

Monday, July 8, 2013

pH and Heat = PSE Meat

Mangalitsa with slight PSE condition

Michael Clampffer, known for his superb Mangalitsa pigs and very fine cured products, asked me a question the other day. He had been experiencing a touch of PSE in a few of his pigs and was wondering why it was occurring. They were handled very well and did not travel far for slaughter. For those who don't know, PSE stands for Pale Soft and Exudative and is basically an imbalance in the pH level in the meat, making it a pale color and very watery, jello-like texture. Its cousin, RSE is basically the same thing but without the paleness (Red Soft Exudative). These conditions usually exist in over-lean pigs that are typical in a large production farm system and also where pigs might be stressed. The condition is also associated with the use of feed supplements such as Paylean but that is another article already discussed in this blog. Here is an article by Dr. Temple Grandin's on the subject
examples of pH values and related water loss
  So why were Michael's pigs, which are fat and happy, living in wallows and eating a varied diet basically free from stress, getting this condition? My suspicion is heat. Currently in the Northeast we are experiencing a heat wave caused by a blocking pattern known as a Bermuda High. Temperatures have been in the nineties everyday but that is only part of it. It is very humid as well. This can put a strain on the pigs but if they have cooling wallows, such as those found where these Mangalitsa are raised, they will be just fine. But the hot weather also puts a strain on refrigeration and this could result in the thickly fatted sides not getting chilled fast enough. I'm not sure of the temps at the slaughter house where Mike is taking his hogs but I do know that my days of owning a restaurant and dealing with walk-ins in summer were always challenging. If pork is not chilled rapidly, PSE can be the result.
  Another issue might be the conditions for the pigs while waiting in a holding pen. Most large hog plants have a sprinkler system that cools the pigs and keeps them from being agitated, which is another cause of PSE. Stress before slaughter is a major problem with pork quality. But Mangalitsa are not normally prone towards stress and the people handling them were all experienced. So maybe the walk-in is having trouble chilling rapidly due to the humidity, maybe the hogs are just a lot warmer before and during slaughter, but whatever the cause the real question is what to do with the lower quality meat.
 The large processors deal with PSE on a regular basis. About 10 to 40% of large farm hogs will result in various levels of PSE depending on the season and genetic background of the herd. So what do they do with all that lower quality pork? Here is a web site that gives ideas of what can be done.  This article discusses how processors can utilize PSE with some success. The use of phosphates to make the meat more palatable has been done to pork products for many years but for a small niche market high end producer like Michael, this is probably not an acceptable alternative. But the article also explains how if salted correctly PSE pork can be successfully aged and dried. It doesn't go into specifics and I think it would be up to the processor to figure out the subtle differences in recipe or drying techniques that would lead to a quality dry cured product.
  Another option is to make sausage. As long as the pork is not being used in a fragile dry cured sausage where water content is crucial, it can be used for most fresh or cooked sausage recipes, especially if mixed with non-PSE pork trimmings.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Texas Longhorn Cattle in the Catskills!!

 Its a steady rain and 65 degrees on a June morning here in the Catskill Mountains of New York. That's a far cry from the weather in San Antonio today, where it is 94 and very sunny. Not that it doesn't get to be 94 here but the contrasts between the two places is obvious.
  On our way to western NY, my son and I take Rt 17which passes through a lot of hilly country with some farms mixed in. There are a couple Angus farms and dairy operations with lots of Holsteins. We sometimes take a scenic route off of 17 which takes us past the Papacton Reservoir and then through Downsville NY.  On the edge of Downsville there is a huge pasture-covered hillside. And there right along the edge of the fence we saw something that made us stop the car and grab the camera phone; pure-bred Texas Longhorn cattle with their huge horns and an indifferent expression of "Watchya'll lookin at?"
 Tom and Julie Markert own the Triple M Ranch in Downsville NY and also the beautiful Old Schoolhouse Inn and Restaurant. They have over 250 head of pure bred Texas Longhorn cattle on site and they use the cattle for their famous longhorn burgers and other special meats on the menu, including short ribs. The cattle are fed on pasture for most of the time but finished on corn feed for about 90 days before slaughter just to provide some extra fat. The grain is all locally grown and these cattle live in one of the most pristine areas one can imagine. Here is a photo of one of their prize stock bulls.

 Longhorns fell out of favor with cattle growers in the west years ago due to the fact that many growers switched to stocky meat breeds from England and Europe. They are a unique breed in that they are very hearty and can fend off predators but are actually an easy going breed that can be trained to ride! Longhorn can live off scant pasture and do very well in hot dry climates. Their meat is leaner than most beef cattle but they can be fattened to a certain extent to get some marbling. They are one of the oldest breeds of cattle in the world claiming ancient ancestry to Spanish Iberian cattle. First brought to the Americas by the early Spanish explorers in the 1500s, they are considered the closest thing to wild cattle that we have in the US. The fact that they are difficult to move around in chutes and gates makes them an unpopular choice for many growers but a lot of Texas ranchers now keep a few as a symbolic connection to the past. Their horns are valuable and ranchers such as the Markerts, sell the ornamental horns.
  Since 2010 there is a USDA certified program for Certified Texas Longhorn Beef with a criteria that focuses primarily on pure bred genetics and not so much on marbling scores like most Angus programs. The idea was to keep the breed pure so processors could market Texas Longhorn without it being mostly cross bred with another cattle breed.
  Next time you're in Downsville NY, bring your fishing pole and then stop by the Old Schoolhouse Inn and try an authentic taste of the old southwest, right here in the southeast of NY.
  Another note....bring your camera because not only do the Markerts raise Longhorns, they also raise Watusi cattle which have even larger horns!!