Monday, January 25, 2010

Austrian Artisans

One of the unique things about meat cutting is that each culture has its way of breaking down carcasses into the final product. The US style of cutting is well established in our food service purchasing culture and chefs are used to buying cuts a certain way. But worldwide we find a variety of methods that reflect the cooking or curing style of the meat. For instance in the US we cut our pork shoulder directly in half without regard for the muscle structure. This is done because it is very fast for the processors to break down the carcass and the end resulting primal Boston butt and picnic are often slow cooked as BBQ or pulled pork. In retail, the Boston butt is often cut across the bone to make "pork steaks" and both cuts are often boned to make a huge variety of sausages. In other cultures the cuts are divided with more regard to muscle structure and natural seams.

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending one short session of Pigstock 2010, a three day seminar put on by Mosefund farm. was interesting to watch an Austrian butcher, Christoph Wiesner, break down a half of a heritage breed Magalitza hog. His techniques reflected the end use. Cristoph and his wife Isabel raise this very unique breed in Austria and sell to a number of very high quality shops and restaurants. Besides raising the pigs they are involved in making many sausages and specialties from the by-products.
So how is Austrian butchery different than the US style? The shoulder was separated similar to beef or veal isolating the shoulder clod away from the chuck roll and brisket. The shoulder is divided into the Dunne und Dicke Shulter or the "thin or thick shoulder". The cuts are often cured whole, pressed and smoked and sliced like ham. My grandparents were Austrian so I had a chance to talk about some of the terms my father, a life long butcher, uses when talking about pork cuts. We sampled homemade headcheese and bloodwurst for lunch and Isabel was cooking a skin- on section of the shoulder for dinner.
Leg cuts are cut longer to include the entire sirloin so the ham is bigger and stays more moist when cured. This is similar to the style of the Serrano of Spain and the Italian Prosciutto.

The Austrians don't cook BBQ ribs the way we do so the belly or bauchfleisch is boned with all of the rib meat left intact. This results in a much meatier belly and a thicker bacon.
The loin is typically cut away from the shoulder between the fourth and fifth rib so the shoulder is longer resulting in a long " cottage" butt section that is excellent for curing, similar to the Italian Osso di Coppa or French Echine. It is known as the Schopfbraten in Austria.
Austrian food culture, especially cured meats and sausages are influenced by their neighbors. There are some similarities to German cutting but also to Swiss, Italian and Hungarian / Slovic styles. Even though Austrians speak a Germanic dialect they have a nomenclature for cuts that are quite different than Germany. Their curing and spicing techniques are different also. The sutble differences in salting and packing will change the flavors. Austrians will often smoke their cured meats creating such things as Schinkenspeck. Plus the pigs themselves will have a flavor profile that makes the bacons and hams unique. As shown in these photos the Mangalitsa has a very thick fat covering and makes for some very tasty bacon.
Some "artisan"butchers here in the US are starting to cut in these old European styles to create unique cuts and better utilize the entire carcass. It was fun to discuss these techniques with a room full of them. Thanks to Cristoph and Isabel for the chance to talk Fleisch and to Micheal Clampffer for allowing myself and my TA, Steven, to join the cutting. He ran a great program and I would suggest anyone wanting to learn some alternative cutting styles to join a future seminar. Also thanks to the folks at Wooly Pigs for chatting about the pigs and answering questions. They are responsible for bringing in this unique breed into the US.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


This might be a topic that you don't want to discuss this time of year but I say its perfect! Over the holiday my father gave me a prime Top Sirloin Butt weighing about 14 lbs. I was planning on cutting it up, making nice steaks so I threw it in a small cooler and put it outside the back door. That night the wind blew like crazy and the temperature plummeted. The next day I went skiing in the Catskills and forgot all about the Sirloin. The temperature barely got to the teens. One more frigid night and the beef was solid! So did I ruin a perfectly good prime steak cut? Well today's post will focus on the effects of freezing meats and how and when to do it correctly.

Meat is at least 70% water so freezing it creates ice crystals. If meats are frozen slowly ice crystals grow large and break through the muscle cell struture and and damage the delicate sheaths that bundle muscle cells. This damage results in moisture loss upon thawing. When meats are frozen rapidly such as blast freezing using fans and temperatures well below zero, much smaller ice crystals are created. This results in much less damage to the cell structure. When you buy a frozen duck or turkey it was most likely blast frozen so the quality level will be higher than if you froze a fresh bird slowly in a normal freezer. Thats not to say you should never freeze, just do it carefully. I will spread out products to ensure a rapid freeze instead of freezing in a large lump.

Other effects of freezing are changes in flavor. The environment of a freezer is much like that of a high peak mountain, very cold, windy and really really dry. This dryness can result in freezer burn. Freezer burn is non-pathenogenic but destroys flavor quality. The burn occurs when meat is exposed to the air of the freezer creating a leathery layer on the outside, resulting in toughness and a stale, off taste. Freezer burn can be trimmed away. To prevent it, be sure to keep meats in air-tight packaging.

Although the act of freezing stops the growth of many pathogenic organisms it does not sterilize meat. Salmonella, campylobacter, yeasts, molds and other organizms can "hibernate" during freezing so when meats are thawed they are reactivated. Also bacterial toxins can be present even if the bacteria themselves are destroyed. Meats that are starting to spoil should not be frozen to protect them.

Certain fats, especially those in pork, duck and goose can go rancid even while in the freezer. Fats become oxidized and the flavor changes dramatically. Prolonged freezing even in air tight packaging can result in self oxidizing fat. Rendered fats are not effected as much and can be stored much longer.

What about the effects of freezing on nutritional values? The protein and fat values stay the same but some more delicate vitamins are reduced by freezing. Thiamin and vitamin C are both greatly dimished by freezing.

Freezing is a part of meat purchasing today and many foodservice operations depend on it. So what can we do to minimize its downsides? At the CIA we try to freeze rapidly as cold as possible. We vacuum package most meats and we try not to freeze longer than needed. In other words we use the freezer as a purchasing tool as opposed to a long term storage shed. Six months should be the maximum for most meats and even less for fragile high cost meats.

The other part of this conversation is thawing. The best way to thaw is slowly in the walkin. Rapid thawing at room temp can result in rapid bacterial growth. Thawing in a sink with cool running water is OK but it is wasteful and if there is any leakage in packaging the meat product is waterlogged and ruined. Thawing in a microwave is a possibility but can result in partial uneven cooking if done incorrectly and also wastes energy.

By the way, the temperature rose to 32F today so I put the Sirloin in the freezer. I'll pull it out just in time for Memorial Day weekend and no later!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cold Weather Cows

This has been a tough winter for many areas in the US with temperatures dropping each night. Cattle need a lot more roughage and feed to keep them going and fattening is more difficult this time of year. So which cattle do best? Aberdeen Angus, being dark, absorb more sunshine and are a hearty breed to start with. Scotland has its share of cold damp weather so Angus do well in cold weather. But there is another Scottish breed that shines above all other winter cattle, Scotch Highland. The Highland have thick wooly coats and are well suited for this weather. They have been known to wander outside at temeratures well below zero and they don't mind the snow due to the oily content of their hair. They are so well protected by their double layered hair and thick hides that they minimize the need for a heavy subcutaneous fat and therefore the energy from its feed can form more marbling within the meat itself and its overall yield is higher. In warm weather they sometimes shed their thick coats. These cattle are excellent foragers and can be raised on grass alone but will also perform well on a hay/grain finish. They are somewhat smaller than typical crossbred meat cattle with a live weight at about 1,000 lbs meaning the end product foodservice cuts will be about 30% smaller. This is general and there are some that are allowed to grow larger, beyond the typical slaughter age of 18 months. The smaller size could be an advantage for restaurants wanting to do a high end small but flavorful beef portion. It might be ideal for a multi-course dinner or tasting menu.

Highland beef are raised in the many states with herds found in Vermont, Minnesota, but also down into Texas. The cattle are great foragers and can live on some relatively harsh pasture. Highland have a great eye appeal when out on pasture so they are a favorite among "hobby" farmers who only want a few head. But it is gaining notariety as a viable heritage meat breed. It is now found on menus and at local farmers markets. It is a difficult animal to feedlot finish due to the amount of hair and its large horns so it isn't popular with any large scale feeding operations. Many of the small farmers are finishing on grass when in season but this time of year they need more energy so they are fed silage and grains.

As the thermometer plummets, restaurants looking to present truly seasonal dishes this one makes sense this time of year!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Today's word...Plasticized

Many chefs are looking to Sous Vide to create the great flavors without loosing moisture. Sous vide requires some basic equipment; a water bath circulator, a vacuum sealer, the right bag and a thermometer. Foods are cooked at low temperatures for long periods. Cooking is typically done between 130F - 165F over varying times depending on what is to be cooked. There is no doubt that sous vide is a highly effective cooking method. Ferran Adria has embraced the technology. Thomas Keller's book Under Pressure explains the process and gives very compelling reasons to do the slow cooking method. The technique requires exacting temperature control and can put food on the border of unsafe if done incorrectly. Conerns of cooking too low may create an anaerobic bacteria fest in the bag. Around the country many states and county health departments are requiring strict HACCP plans to be approved before cooking and some require training for the kitchen staff.

How effective is the sous vide? Well when discussing meat cookery we need to understand that when cooked very slowly coagulation of proteins resulting in breakdown of meat fibers and connective tissues can result in dramatic increases in tenderness. In this research conduct by Dr. Douglas Baldwin we find cooking a tough chuck cut at 130- 140F for 24+ hours will result in a tenderness level that will rival tenderloin. Basically it could be eaten with a spoon. His research also discusses pathogenic dangers and much more. Many chefs have discovered all varieties of tougher cuts such as lamb shanks, briskets, short ribs, pork bellies turn into mouthwatering tenderness and hold much more flavor.

Not all plastic is the same. So lets presume all is correct in the restaurant and proper procedures are being followed, why wouldn't a chef decide to put sous vide on the menu? There are those that question the bag itself. Plasticizing is the process of making plastic film pliable enough the be used as a sealable bag. This requires the plastic be "doped" with chemicals such as phthalates which have been found to migrate into foods, especially fatty foods, when heated to certain temperatures. Phthalates have been found to be endocrine disruptors acting like synthetic "hormones" in humans and animals. How these phthalates react in each individual varies but it is thought younger, developing, children are more at risk. Highly plasticized items include clingy thin plastic wrap and certain bags. Most plastic wrap contains DEHP, a phthalate that has been shown to cause cancer and a number of hormonal disruptions in lab tests. Bags designed for sous vide are coated or layered to minimize the leaching of plasticizers into the food. Non toxic coatings allow the meat to be sheilded from the plasticizers. The problem is that when misused and overheated even coated bags can leach toxins. Coatings break down at about the boiling point or higher. Many chefs, unfortunately, continue to poach high fat content foods in plastic wrap or inexpensive "zip lock" type bags. Also using thin plastic wrap to wrap up hot foods for catering events etc. can cause the reaction and leaching into foods. Mock sous vide attempts are being done in many kitchens without the health department knowing and without chefs realizing the dangers. Aluminum foil is a better choice for covering fatty hot foods. So many of you may be saying " Ah come on, everything gives you cancer!" This may be true but the fact that these chemicals disrupt hormones is most disturbing especially to us macho butcher types!

To me there is someting ironic about buying the finest locally free ranged meats and caring about how they were raised in a sustainable fashion, free of hormones etc and then putting them in plastic. Even the correct bags, if not toxic, are not reusable and they add up. It is not unlikely for a busy restaurant that has embraced sous vide to go through 1,000 bags a week! Recycling is an energy waste and not viable for plasticized bags. Meal components are individually portioned out and sealed and then served when needed.

The meat industry in general uses a huge amount of plastic bags and many are shrink wrapped in steamers. These all go to waste as well. Its not that sous vide is the only plastic that will touch your food and I don't begin to think about how to reduce it all. I think the technology is amazing but we need to think about reusable containers. Any comments?