Sunday, November 13, 2011

Silverskin Blues

The other day we had to denude 15 boneless pork loins to make a bunch of clean 4 oz. cutlets. Part of the process is to peel off the silver collagen on the outside of the loin. First I trimmed off the thin fat layer and then carefully inserted the knife under the collagen and peeled it off in strips trying to minimize the amount of meat taken off. This takes time and skill.

Removing collagen from the outside of cuts is something we teach at the CIA for cuts that are going to be sauteed. Denuding beef tenderloins for saute or carpaccio, veal leg sub primals for cutlets or scallopine, pork loins for medallions, or lamb loins for noisette, is part of the skill set a trained chef or butcher needs for creating refined meat portions. The skill also applies to fish butchery. Peeling a salmon is a common task that our students learn in the seafood class. Peeling a salmon and denuding a porkloin are cleaned very differently with the salmon laid skin side down and flat on the table while the loin is peeled skin up. So while peeling the loin I decided to see what would happen if I flipped it over and tried to clean it like a salmon. After a few gouges and mis-fires I got the hang of it. Instead of a thin section removed I got almost all of the silver off in one shot. It was not easy but it was fast! So next time your peeling a thick collagen band off a piece of meat, think like a fish butcher and flip it over, skin side down.

Large processors no longer peel either siver skin on meat or salmon skin. Today we have automated skinning machines that can do the job in seconds. The salmon skinner is super fast and requires basically no skill. Meat skinners require a little skill and the worker must where special gloves that shut off the machine if contact is made.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Knife Knowledge

The other day I sharpened an antique knife for a friend. It was a small butcher knife that read "High Carbon" on the face. It was stained and old looking but the handle was in great shape. Once I put it to the 4000 grit stone the edge came back to life and the thing was like a razor when I finished. I brushed a tiny bit of mineral oil on it and gave it back to my friend.

Recently I had a student ask if they could bring in their own knives rather than the school issued brand. I said it would be fine as long as they were suitable for butchery. The next day he came in with two very expensive Japanese knives that were made of "layered" steel. The edge was amazingly sharp and the knife worked very well.

The discovery of high carbon steel was truly an amazing breakthrough for knives and the ability to harden them made for much longer lasting edges. Knife blades are a combination of metals that all combine for specific purposes. There are a variety of metals used, but the primary one used today for most commercial knives is steel. Steel is composed of a variety of ingredients which can change the structure of the edge. Here is a list of knife blade ingredients used to create steel:

CARBON - a mineral that is added to iron to change it into steel. Carbon helps harden steel. The higher the carbon content, the harder the steel and the finer you can get the edge.

MANGANESE – also adds toughness and ability to harden.

CHROMIUM – Steel will rust and corrode and chromium boosts adds resistance to corrosion and staining.

VANADIUM - creates a fine grain in steel when heat treated.

MOLYBDENUM - used to increase toughness in steel and allows for more flexibilty

TUNGSTEN – a very hard metal that creates a fine yet dense steel structure.

Steel “recipes” are patented and owned by specific knife companies. Many Japanese, German, American and Swiss companies for instance own their steel patents and create knives that are unique to them. A layered knife is basically a very hard brittle steel at the core surrounded by softer steel to support it and give it some flexibility and stain resistance. A quality knife will have a combination of metals that will provide a quality edge that will last but also resistance to destructive acids, salts etc. found in many foods. Company trade secrets and techniques for creating these edges mean that the prices can be very high. A super quality Japanese blade can cost over $1,000 for a chef knife. But there are many knives well under that price that do a great job. Personally I use a bunch of different brands of reasonable knives that are typically used in the meat industry. Brands such as Victorinox, Sanelli, Giesser, Frost, Dexter all put out decent knives for low prices( $20 - $40). They all hold an edge pretty well but are by no means the same as the layered knives previously mentioned.

Along with the type of knife metal, the edge and body may have texture added to enhance the knives performance. Many knife companies now sell knives that are scalloped or “hollow” meaning there are a series of scalloped sections along the body extending to the edge. This provides for less friction when cutting and can also result in a sharper edge. This is a different technology than a “never dulling” serrated edge, such as that found on some bread knives. Serrated knives will damage meat so its best to leave them off the butcher block.

Beyond the steel edge another factor to consider is the knife handle. First compare handle materials. Some knives come with a smooth grip ebony handles. These will work fine if your hands are dry and fat free but often can get slippery. Some of the very expensive knives I’ve worked with had a riveted ebony handle I found too thin and uncomfortable for butchery, like the wrong shoes! Smooth handle knives are good for vegetable cutting and repetitive chopping but not the best for tight gripped butchering.
There are knives with plastic handles that vary in thickness and density. I often look for a textured handle like those found on a mountain bike grip, large and easy to hold with a great grip even if a little wet. Others will have a molded hard plastic that may feel a little unnatural if your hand is the wrong size.
Another option is the wooden handle. These can develop some texture over time and have a natural worn-in feel. I grew up cutting with wooden handled knives and they feel natural to me. But wooden handles can be damaged by prolonged moisture exposure so they need to be kept dry and an application of mineral oil is a good idea from time to time.
I’ve also worked with a very expensive Global knife from Japan. This single molded steel handled knife was basically one piece of hardened steel forming the handle and the blade. The handle is textured with little divots and was built into the knife. It had a good feel and the edge was incredible but it was cold and got a little slippery when wet. I couldn’t get a really good grip on it unless I kept my hand dry. Many chefs swear by these knives so again, it’s a matter of choice. Here are the basic choices for knife handles:

Hard textured plastic : durable, lightweight, many styles
Soft textured plastic: great grip, wear slightly faster, very comfortable
Riveted hard ebony: durable, many brands are thin, slippery when wet
Textured metal : very durable, cold, slippery when wet, will not burn!
Wood: damaged by moisture, “breaks in” to your hand, warm

To decide if a knife fits your hand, grip it like you are shaking someone’s hand and if your fingers fit snug and extend all the way around to the soft part of the palm the knife fits. A knife handle that is too small will feel slightly loose and will have the fingers overlapping when wrapped around the handle. A knife that is too small can lead to slippage and also fatigue. A knife that is too big can also be dangerous and can lead to loss of grip and fatigue. You’ll know when a knife is too big if your fingers don’t wrap around it securely. It will feel bulky and awkward. This can result in a dangerous loss of grip. When purchasing a knife be sure to sample a few to make sure the fit is good. Some knives have a sloping handle that enables the cutter to “choke up” on the knife and actually hold the blade with the thumb and forefinger giving the cutter more control. This technique is used for fancy smaller cuts like those done on poultry.

Whether you buy a knife for $10 or $1,000 be sure to understand what that knife will do for you. Its like skis or bikes ( can't help but think about those) If you buy a $8,000 downhill mountain bike to ride the railtrail you are simply wasting money.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Grass Fed Fat?

About two years ago we got in a local beef that was range fed. I wanted to show the class what a grass fed beef looked like and how it tasted. This one was a deep red color and had so little fat I thought it was an old dairy cow. It was a Scottish Highland breed which is supposed to be a great grass feeder, being small and able to eat a lot of forage. Obviously the grower didn't exactly know how to raise beef and was just tapping into the "local" marketing.

Last year I had the opportunity to see Red Devon beef that were raised outside of New Paltz, NY. The pair of stocky steer had been feeding on a lush pasture for most of the summer and looked very healthy. About three weeks later I was at Fleisher's in Kingston and they were cutting the Devons. The exterior fat was thick and the rib eyes were loaded with marbling, to the point of excess. I got to sample a small piece and the flavor was complex and delicious while the tenderness was also very good. ( View the photo below)

Last week I attended a seminar put on by the NY Beef Industry Council. It was hosted by Brookfield Farms near Hartford NY. The farm is owned by Ami Goldstein (a CIA grad!) and is managed by her daughter Jen. The seminar was wide ranging and focused on various aspects of the beef industry. But what I found interesting was the Jen had begun rotationally grazing the cattle and found that they were fattening on grass and only needed a little grain towards the end of their feeding to finish them to a very high quality.

Finally I toured one of the world's finest meat purveyors, Debragga and Spitler in NYC, where my former TA Kevin McCann is a manager. He showed me a bunch of dry aged perfect super prime beef and also some dry aged Wagyu. We were walking through one cooler and he stopped by a really well marbled carcass. "This is pure grass-fed from the Finger Lakes region" he said. It once again proved you can fatten on pure grass. ( view photo of Finger Lakes grass fed)

The preception of grass fed is that it will be very lean, tough and dry tasting with a strong gamey flavor. There have been a lot of articles written on the taste differences with chefs or tasters likes and dislikes. Its always the same, grass fed vs. grain fed but no real info on what sort of grass fed. I find grass fed varies greatly depending on how and where it was raised. You wouldn't simply compare French wine to a US wine. You would be much more specific, region, grape etc. Tasting grass fed beef is similar. You need to know what breed it is and where it came from, how was it pastured. Summertime grass or well fermented haylage can provide the nutrients needed for fattening. Breed figures into it but most of your typical meat breeds will do OK on grass ; Angus and heritage breeds that are not in the mainstream do very well. Breeds such as Red Devon, Belted Galloway, Scottish Highland all can fatten on grass. But the grass is the important part. High energy grass that is not overgrazed will yield fat cattle. With the summer season in full swing and the farmer's markets starting to rev up, look for some quality fatty grass fed. Tell those that are trying to sell the super lean stuff to make some grind.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pale Soft Exudative Pork

On days when we talk about pork in class there is often an acronym, PSE, used to describe low quality pork. The other day, while working on pork, we found at least 25% of the classes pork butts were very soft and mushy without much marbling. I stated that these were PSE and would not be a very high quality dining experience when eaten. PSE or Pale Soft and Exudative refers to the initial color and texture of the meat and is not caused by microbes or virus, it is more of a condition. In pork, fat and meat should be firm when chilled and the color can range from a light pink to a darker, almost red color and still be considered quality. Some breeds will have a lighter color and also the age and diet of the animal will have something to do with it. But PSE pork will lose some of its natural color and become a light blotchy pink. Its meat will be soft and jello-like and the fat will be very mushy also. If you place an opened cut of PSE pork in a pan it will ooze ( exudate) moisture and in a vacuum bag will exhibit excessive purge. When cooked PSE pork will dry out much faster when cooked and will not hold a brine or process well.

PSE is caused by a sudden drop in pH levels during chilling which causes cells to leak out moisture. The fact that PSE pork has a low pH actually means it is preserved somewhat. The level of pH is part of what is considered when curing meat such as salami. Pork with a pH of around 6 is ideal where PSE pork is nearer to 5.

So what causes the sudden drop in pH? Hogs will sometimes get a condition known as PSS or Porcine Stress Sydrome. This is usually a heritable condition that has been passed on through the gene pool. Pigs that typically have PSS have what is known as the Halothane gene, and will be prone to the disease but will not always dsiplay it. Normal pigs that don't have the gene for PSS sometimes become super stressed when transported or placed in new pens before slaughter and will also turn PSE. Its a tricky thing. PSE is caused both by genetics and also environment. Weather also can be a contributor. Hot humid weather tends to trigger it too. Any dramatic weather changes can cause it. The incidence of PSE are higher in summer months than in others. Stunning and slaughter facilities can contribute to it too. If pigs are stressed at the time of slaughter they can show it at a higher rate. Pigs that are miss handled even for a short time right before slaughter can show signs.

Some farmers claim that hogs that are more sensitive to stress are those that have no entertainment. The hog in the wild is a scavenger that needs to root out its food and dig up earth. They bask in the sun when its not too hot and create wallows when it is. If they are stuck in concrete pens they get bored and understimulated leading to a stress prone pig. Hogs that are given more stimulation tend to be easier going when it comes to slaughter time.
Not all PSE is the same. There are varying levels of it. A hog that goes through slaughter may appear normal but may end up showing some PSE condition in its final cuts. One side of the pig may have it while the other not so much. Severe jello - like conditions are almost always from pigs that have the PSS gene whereas slight PSE will be in normal pigs that were handled poorly before slaughter. Also the chilling temperature can have an effect after the hog is slaughtered. If the temperature is not brought down quick enough, PSE like conditions can set in. There is also another condition known as RSE ( Red Soft and Exudative) where the pork is looking more like quality pork but still has the mushy texture. I have seen this quite a bit lately too.

So why were 25% of the pork butts at some level of PSE or RSE in my class? The pork came from the midwest and it could be the recent swings in weather had some effect. Maybe that particular load came from hogs that could have been jostled around in the truck. But there could be a systemic reason for it. In the late 1980s hogs that were considerably leaner were introduced into herds. These hogs tended to be carriers for the halothane gene, thinking they would be better producers of lean. This web site explains the entire problem quite well. The Landrace pig known for its fast growth and leaner muscle was found to be a carrier of the gene more often than other breeds. This breed still influences our herds today. This is not to say that all Landrace are going to have PSE or that any of the popular heirloom breeds can't have it. Any pig can have it but the trend towards leaner hogs has certainly increased the instance of stressed hogs. From my observations the small market heirloom breeds I've worked with lately simply don't have it. They are solid and the fat is super firm.

Another issue could be the use of hog food additives such as Paylean which are designed to increase muscle mass. Ractopamine is active ingredient that is used to create the larger hogs. In general Paylean makes pigs prone towards stress if handled poorly. If overused or used incorrectly it can create fatigued hogs that are no longer ambulatoryrequiring more aggressive methods to get them to slaughter. Paylean does not cause a pH drop or color change directly but if the hog is more prone towards stress because of it then indirectly it could have a negative PSS effect. The effect of super lean pork is a dry cooking product even if it isn't exudative.

Here is the website from Paylean and they state that it has no negative effects on pork color or tenderness and helps to improve yield scores. My issues are with overly lean pork. Too lean and no flavor, that simple.

Another protection against PSE is to inject sodium bicarbonate into the carcass right after slaughter to adjust the pH level. This effectively stops the effects of PSE. Hormel Corporation is licensed to produce sodium bicarbonate treated pork for certain products.

Whether you buy large name pork or pork from a local farmer PSE can be an issue. I've seen pork that had great marbling and solid fat in the same bag as jello pork. I wish large companies would isolate the higher quality non-PSE pork and sell it as such. I find that my local producers are raising a very high quality but very fatty pork and rarely see any PSE. My nephew raised hogs that we slaughtered and chilled. One had a slight exudation probably due to the chill time but its flavor was far superior to any pork I've eaten this year. They were very happy hogs indeed.

Monday, January 24, 2011

COCHON 555 NYC 2011

Back in December my friend Michael Sullivan, the butcher from The Inn at Blackberry Farm, asked if I could get some volunteer students to help at the opening of this year's Cochon 555 on Jan 23rd 2011. Cochon 555 is a ten city tour competition and it's purpose is to bring awareness to heritage breed pigs and small market farmers. It features five outstanding chefs, five breed of pig and five quality vintners all combining for a great time. At each tour location a winner is selected by a panel of judges and they will later compete at the final in Aspen to see who is the king or queen of pork! The founder of Cochon 555, Brady Lowe, then asked if I would like to conduct a demo and be one of 20 judges for the event. Hard to resist!

The event was amazing. The five chefs were given their hogs about a week or so ahead and were asked to prepare a nose to tail menu. The rules are pretty basic, prepare as many dishes that utilize the whole pig and present it with an explanation. The chefs presented at the judges table, giving a description of each item. The NYC chefs included Bill Telepan from Telepan Restaurant, Sean Rembold from Marlow and Sons, George Mendes from Aldea Restaurant, Peter Hoffman from Savoy, and the winner of this round Brad Farmerie from Public Restaurant. All presented amazing dishes and showcased their creative abilities with numerous braises, terrines, soups, crisps, pastries, pork infused everything!

Part of the mission of Cochon 555 is to showcase heritage breeds of swine and the assortment of pigs represented didn't disappoint. The pork used were all from unique niche market growers using their own particular feeding styles. There was Berkshire from Raven and Boar which was raised similar to pigs used for Parma ham, feeding them whey from cheesemaking. The Mangalitsa pig came from Mosefund Farm which Michael Clampfer feeds a diet partially of barley and acorns. There was also a Rede Wattle from Heritage Foods USA, an Old Spot pig from Flying Pig Farm and a Duroc cross from Fleischer's of Kingston. There was also a couple of butchery demos, one by yours truly featured a milk fed "porcelet de lait" mid sized pig from St. Canut Farm in Quebec which was provided by D'Artagnan distributors. The other was a competition demo between two Lowell Carson and Jose Manuel Alarcon featured a large Berkshire raised by Mark Newman of Newman Farm.

Twenty two students from the Culinary Institute of America joined the action as volunteers. The meatroom MIT Spencer Lee helped organize it and we all met at the location, The Lighthouse at Chelsea Pier. The students did a great job helping with the chefs in the kitchen, preparing appetizers, serving and generally were there when hands were needed. In return they got a chance to mingle and network with the chefs, farmers, winemakers and all of the guests.

Besides the heritage pork dishes there was a fine display of cheese presented by Murray's Cheese and wonderful charcuterie fromDebragga and Spitler. There was also some Black River Caviar Oesetra from Uraguay and Island Creek Oysters but I somehow managed to miss that tasting.

The wineries were also well representedby Copain Wine Cellars, Alysian winery, Elk Cove Vineyards, Failla Wines and Scholium Project. I enjoyed the Savignon Blanc from Scholium Project. It was slightly cloudy with super strong apricot tones that made you think it was going to be overpowering but it was very pleasant and went very well with the rich pork.

On a final note Bobby Hellen of Resto brought in a roast half hog that was carved and served on a waffle that was sooo delicious. My own demo pig, the porcelet was boned and rolled with porcetta spices and roasted. Its skin was a perfect wafer thin crisp.

Cochon555 moves on to Boston next weekend and then on from there. Check out their site.