Sunday, August 13, 2023

Underutilized cuts? Overvalued cuts?


I’ve heard the term whole carcass utilization many times by many chefs and culinarians. The need to not waste any meat in a carcass is an absolute necessity in these days of higher prices. If your goal is to buy a whole animal and break it down to use every part then you need a logical plan. Although the meat industry gets a bad wrap for waste, this is exactly what they do. They break down the whole into market cuts, not leaving out any part. The dilemma for them is how to get the most value from each section. The bottom rung of the ladder is if a cut is not being sold above the market price of ground meat then grind it. But that’s not the only concern. Some cuts are so small and difficult to isolate and therefore never make it as a market cut. In the beef animal you have cuts like the pectineus, which sits on the side of the top round. It weighs no more than a pound. Or the oyster that resembles skirt steak but weighs maybe half a pound. I’ve isolated the pork brisket which is also small.. The meat packer isn’t going to isolate these, package them and market them unless there is a guarantee they’ll be sold. Their research teams are constantly looking for ways to increase value but it’s hard to justify a cut that represents one pound out of a 800 lb carcass.

 Small market local butchers can go outside the box, literally. A craft butcher at the retail level can isolate these unique cuts and suggest them to special customers for top dollar. They have the chance to sell one off items and create a desire with menu ideas. The special cut can have a placement in a showcase that can feature it in the limelight. A customer might enjoy the cut so much they may consider reserving it for the next time a whole carcass is broken down. 

 A chef in a restaurant, on the other hand, needs multiple portions of a cut to have a consistent menu. If they decide to do whole carcass then the menu may need many overlapping dishes that don’t include the specific name of the cut, such as braised beef or pulled pork, but also many more complex dishes. These and many other dishes don’t require a specific description, just a consistent presentation. This requires a knowledgeable waitstaff to explain the dish. No one needs an explanation for rib eye or rack chop but they make up a fraction of the carcass. Selling all of it equally is much more difficult. Experimenting with multiple cuts using the same basic cooking method to try for a consistent outcome is difficult and can be expensive if it doesn’t go well. An example is trying to make a thin sliced grilled item from both the top round and knuckle. Both might be tender enough but have slightly different textures or cooking times. Both require some cutting skill to trim correctly to an appropriate thickness. 

 Back to the big processors. Another phenomenon I’ve noticed is the once underutilized cuts have now gained popularity. Cuts that were once considered a step above grind are much more expensive. Examples such as inside skirt steak, boneless short ribs (chuck flap), teres major, sirloin flap (bavette) pork shanks, all are now what I consider high priced items. So where are the under priced deals? Larger cuts from the round continue to be inexpensive. Beef top round, bottom round (gooseneck), knuckle, fresh ham of pork, pork picnic, lamb shoulders, all are low priced. But these cuts present lots of marketing and cooking challenges. They tend to be tougher or overly lean. They have little name recognition or if names are used they indicate low value and quality. So what’s the alternative? The large processor can always grind. The craft butcher can cut in inventive ways or offer cooked items such as roast beef, cured ham etc. The chef/restaurant might consider looking at recipes for these cuts and finding overlapping uses, or thin slicing and quick cooking.  Using skills to entice the customer can enable the use of more of the entire animal. One thing I teach my students is there are two ways to make a menu; 1) think of the dish and buy the meat for it or, 2) look at the purveyors sheet and find the least expensive items and create a menu using that. 

 I know this is general information without being to specific and prices are always changing, but use of an entire carcass is not easy. We didn’t get into any of the byproduct but I’ll post another article about that soon.