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.