Thursday, August 19, 2021

Meat Prices Up/ Meat Quality Down

 This post is talking strictly about the large commodity meat industry and not about small local processors. In the past few months we’ve seen a steady increase in meat prices on the commodity level. Large meat processors are limiting production due to a variety of reasons, Covid related mostly. There is speculation on the farmer level that this may be intentional to drive up prices but that is not the focus of this post. but prices have certainly gone way up in a year. An example would be boneless beef striploin 0x1. Last year at this time they were $6.09 per lb. and this year $7.52, wholesale price. Before our summer break at the CIA we cut a few of these. The price was high but I found another issue. The regular Choice cuts we bought seemed to be below grade, more like Select. This is a small sample, but before the pandemic we were finding a lot of mid to high choice strips mixed in the box, some bordering on prime. Some articles are stating cattle are smaller and being pushed to market faster. Feed prices are up too, due to environmental issues. This might be pushing more cattle into lower choice level. Of course there have been some instances of cheating, such as the A.Stein case in Brooklyn where the purveyors were specifically changing the labels from Choice to Prime last year but that is certainly not common. It seems like more beef are hitting the low scores, legally. 

In this photo we see the basic range of Choice and the one on the right is what I’ve been seeing lately. Higher price, lesser quality. You can still buy mid to high Choice through one of the more expensive certified programs and be guaranteed the quality but those prices have gone even higher. A lot of that product is also being sold on the internet sales market which has grown over the pandemic. The high end internet sales bloomed as people stayed home but wanted the steakhouse quality steak and a lot of companies pivoted to those sales last year. 

 I see some similar things with the pork industry. High prices on certain items and some fairly low quality. most pork is not USDA graded so there is mainly the processors quality standard that dictates how good it is. I’m not saying quality standards have slipped but as plants become strapped for workers and places are trying to do more with less, quality seems to back slide some. I found some pretty poorly cut primals and some mushy “RSE” pork. Also, some of the pork was huge, probably a result of plants slowing down and hogs getting oversized. 

 The meat industry, as a whole, struggled through different parts of this pandemic, but some companies have certainly not been hurt financially. The higher prices and slower production have created a formula for some pretty hefty profits but as quality declines and prices stay high, people will adjust eventually and that could change everything….maybe for the better.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Cochon 555 2020 Reflection

Hello Everyone,
It’s been a while since I last posted anything here. Now that I’m stuck at home enjoying my “summer break” during this crazy crisis I thought I’d rev up my old two finger typing technique and restart this blog.
  Last Sunday, March 8th, before all the shut down on large groups in NYC and everywhere, I once again had the privilege and honour to judge and attend another Cochon 555 event at the Altman building in Manhattan. The dishes were superb, as usual, at this annual event. The chef’s creations and inventive excellence shows why the pig is a perfect nose to tail menu item. The event celebrates heritage breed pigs and its main focus over the years has been to showcase the attributes of quality heritage pork and small farmer contribution to the growing of these animals. Craft’s porchetta, Little Park’s Adobo Ribs, Hudson and Charles pressed pulled pork, Bar Boulud’s Fete du Cochon, and Almond’s Pâté almond were just some of the bites that stood out for me....and there were plenty others.
Cochon also features a whole hog butchery demo and this year featured Liz Clarke from Sullivan County Farms which delivers local meats and farm products into NYC. The pig was sold off to the attendees and some of my students assisted.
 So heritage breed is no longer a new thing in restaurants. We see it advertised on many quality trending menus. So what has changed in the pork industry overall? There are some restaurants that develop a relationship with smaller farmers and local distributors like Sullivan County. Others buy from established meat purveyors that have also brought in local or regional heritage breed pigs. Companies like Fossil Farms and Debragga and Spitler, Dartagnon, distribute very high quality pork. These mid-sized companies are where most chefs in NY find their heritage pork.
 Some bigger companies have tried to muscle in on the heritage/ high end pork market. The biggest is Smithfield/ Farmland with their Prime Pork brand which was once called Duroc Pork for the dominant breed used to create it. This pork is fed no growth promoting beta-agonists which insures more marbling etc. ( Why they grow their other pork with growth promotors is another question, and possibly another blog post later) Snake River Farms, known for their Wagyu beef, also does a high end Kurobuta pork which is basically Berkshire. These products are available nationwide and by large distributors.
  Do customers really look into where their pork is from or what it is fed? Are chefs willing to spend the extra to support local”ish” farms? I think as many customers in quality restaurants move away from a meat centric diet and eat less of it, they are willing to spend extra on something really good when they decide to eat it. The heritage breed market may have flattened out a bit but it is still strong and hopefully, once we get over this crazy virus time, we can get back to enjoying the good stuff.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Meat Hook Brooklyn NY

  A couple weeks ago I got up early and braved the tangled roads,bridges and construction to visit with the butchers at the Meat Hook in Brooklyn. I've known about the place for a long time and been meaning to get there to see whats going on. They are located within the confines of the Brooklyn Kitchen store on 100 Frost St. Meat Hook features some amazing dry aged grass fed beef, small farm pork and poultry, unique sausages and a ton of prepared products including their own lardo, marrow butter, smoked bacons. Ben Turley was glad to show me around and explained how and where they get all their meats. The concepts of Meat Hook include absolute integrity when it comes to being able to tell their customers how and where their meat is raised. They do this without being pretentious or "preachy". Ben explained the relationship between the shop and their customers as "Here is our product. Its really good and we like it. Its kind of expensive but we understand if you don't like it or don't want to afford it." They don't scream "how can you even consider eating anything but or local product?" But their product is really good! The pork had lots of marbling, the grass fed beef had good color and some marbling and lots of intermuscular fat. The sausages were well made and loaded with flavor. The Szechuan Sausage was great and the Toasted Fennel and Garlic was a fine choice. They were making a green Chorizo called Toluca when I showed up. That one was superb. All their stuff is made in-house and not off sight unless it is made in their close-by sandwich shop location.
  The Meat Hook Sandwich Shop is about three blocks away from the main location and offers really nice large sandwiches, quality beverages, and good sides. They roast all their own meats and use locally sourced baked goods. If you find yourself in Brooklyn, head over to the shop and buy some quality grass fed steaks and then walk over to the sandwich shop and get a killer lunch sandwich.

 The Butcher Shop
100 Frost Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 349-5032
Monday - Saturday 10AM - 8PM, Sunday 11AM - 7PM

The Sandwich Shop
495 Lorimer Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211
Monday - Saturday  11am - 9pm, Sunday 11AM - 4PM

Monday, August 3, 2015

Readings....Year of the Cow

The other day I was getting some work done on my driveway. The guy running the excavator was waiting for a load of stone and we got to talking about food. He recently bought the machinery from a small butcher shop in Hudson NY and now he and his family cut and process all of their own meat. He buys beef from a local grower and breaks it all down into meal size parts. Many people today are considering this type of purchase which goes back to a much earlier time of subsistance farming. Most are buying locally raised meat and having a small processor break it all down and package it for the freezer. Meiler's in Pine Plains does this and so do some other small local plants.
 Back in the early summer I was contacted by a publisher about a book that was just coming out, Year of the Cow by Jared Stone. Its a story of a TV producer in LA that buys a large chest freezer and then finds a farm thats producing some quality beef and buys a full steer. Its a great story of nose to tail cooking presented not by a chef but by a quality home cook. Jared loves cooking and is willing to take the time to slow down from his very hectic life and actually cook! Jared slowly cooks his way through the beef for a whole year, preparing all sorts of delicious braises, steaks, jerky and some unique offal dishes. The book is also about how his family changes the way they eat and what the effect is on their health and energy level. It as much about eating whole foods as it is about eating local. He describes his lifestyle changes and how his energy levels go up when he changes what he eats.
 I hear and read about people who want to eat local and how its the right thing to do. Many race out to their high end market or stop by a booth at the farmers market to buy some local meat. They will ask "do you have any striploin or rib eye steaks?" and then balk at the pricetag. Most people don't realize that the precentage of beef that is the recognizable high quality steaks (striploin, tenderloin, rib eye) make up only a very small fraction of the full carcass. The lrgest parts are the huge solid roast sections of the round and the complicated muscle layers of the chuck, both of which don't make the same quality level steaks as the previously mentioned. But they can be made into steaks if tenderized or used as braising slow cook steaks, which have tons of flavor but require cooking knowledge. This book gives some great ideas.
 Year of the Cow is published by Flatiron Books NY NY and can be found on Amazon for about $16. Its a quick summer read and will make you hungry.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Divide and conquer...or not?

I like a nice rib eye steak. I like it thickish and cut from the chuck side. I like it with some rich intermuscular fat (fat between the muscles) and I like it grilled at a high heat over hickory coals to give it lots of crust. I season it a day ahead with salt, pepper and chopped garlic. That fat drips down into the coals and flares up in a smoky swirl. It goes perfect with a large salad of greens out of the garden and some nice basic apple cider vinaigrette which helps cut the richness of the steak. That, and a nice glass of Montepulciano (12 bucks for the big bottle!), is a perfect steak dinner. This may be a meal I have 4 or 5 times a year. Is it healthy? I'm not sure, nor do I consider that part of it. The fat is rich but I'm not eating this everyday. I suspect the processed fat in french fries or nuggets, with its antifoaming agents, is also harmful.
 Enough about what I like, lets discuss the trend in foodservice to take traditional steak cuts and divide them into smaller pieces that all seem to resemble a tenderloin medallion. We do this in class all the time. I've been teaching how to divide the top sirloin butt into medallions for the past ten years, showcasing the baseball steak and attempting to convert even the cap into medallions. ( If you are not following this here is a link) This cut, traditionally, would be a large slicing steak. I still think that is a great way to cook it, with some exterior fat left on the edge.
 Another presentation is to denude the striploin and divide it in half the long way and make striploin medallions. This is a way to cut the steak thicker and not serve such a huge portion. The trouble with this is that the steaks can sometimes look like a half moon.
 We also see the rib eye being divided. This process involves taking the cap or inner deckle off and isolating the longissumus dorsi ( which is basically the same muscle that runs along the entire back of the animal and is the striploin). The problem with this is the nuscle that is isolated for medallions is conical in shape and difficult to portion into even looking cuts and the cap ( deckle) must be sold as a seperate piece.
 A big part of all this dividing thats going on is chefs wanting to serve smaller, thicker cut portions. This may make sense but there really needs to be some serious yield testing done on these. Every cut I mentioned requires a lot of trimming and denuding of fat. These, other than the tenderloin, are the most expensive cuts you can buy. Taking them apart, trimming them into "unnatural" shapes really cuts into the profits if you aren't charging enough.
 Another reason I think the beef industry likes these innovations is that beef in general has gotten larger over the years and many chefs were complaining they cannot cut a nice thick steak at a reasonable weight. This way of cutting enables the beef industry to grow monster size cuts and not worry because chefs will be cutting everything in half.
 I am not the one to suggest whether these cutting styles are a good idea or not. Chefs need to cost and experiment with these cuts to see if they are profit worthy. But don't forget fat is flavor.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Cochon 555...turns that butcher loose!!

Over the past 5 years I've been involved with the Cochon555 events that travel around the country. I typically get a bunch of student volunteers to help out at the NYC event and have helped with demos there and in Vail. If you are not familiar with Cochon check it out here  It is an amazing competition that features five area chefs preparing five heritage breed pigs and also five quality vintners but also other great foods and distilled drinks. The chefs create numerous nose to tail menu items and their creativity is totally unleashed.
  Brady Lowe, the grand idea master who came up with this incredible party, is an advocate for locally raised and heritage breed pigs and one of the main goals has been to showcase the farmers as well as the chefs. It really is a truly great time had by all.
 There is one part of the event that trumps all others for me, and that is the butchery demo. Each event features a whole hog being cut up by a star/craft butcher. The butcher typically works with heritage breed pork on a regular basis and gets a chance to show their skill to hundreds of on lookers. This is the cool part... the hog is whole, unsplit and the butcher can cut it any way they like! So how many ways are there to cut a pig? Don't you just cut it into primals etc just like the big companies? Absolutely not. The styles I've seen at these events allow the butcher to go beyond the norm and let their culinary mind take over to create cuts that you just don't see in a supermarket or purveyor's box. The commodity pork we see presented out there doesn't follow seams or leave any fat on cuts. The breakdown doesn't take into account muscle shapes. But at Cochon they TURN THAT BUTCHER LOOSE!! and the resulting work is truly unique to that person.
 Over the years I've broken down many quality local pigs and I typically show my students the standard commercial cuts so they can recognize them when they buy it but we talk a lot about alternative methods. I've also cut pigs at my nephew Austin's after we do a slaughter. In both cases I don't use a band saw and barely use the hand saw.
 The term "artisan" butcher gets kicked around a lot. What makes a butcher artisan? All of the butchers I know or have known over the years were hardworking tradesmen or craftspeople if you must put a label on them. They cut to fill showcases or prepare meats for grind, sausage, charcuterie, salumi etc. They do it with speed and dexterity and not always thinking about "art". But on this Sunday Jan. 25th 2015, Erika Nakamura will be the artist, front and center at Cochon 555.... and I'll be watching with my glass held high!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Beef Impact Study....Not New News

 Ruminants are not efficient eaters! If you feed a pig some carbs it will put on fat and grow quickly. The same goes for chickens and most other poultry. But beef? They eat and then ferment their foodstuffs and produce all sorts of gas. They take much longer to reach full size. They drink a lot of water and the feeds they eat require irrigation, fertilizer, harvesting, storage and lots of energy! Here is an article explaining the study. It states beef causes at least 10 times the impact on the environment than other meats. This is not really new news. The question of whether or not to eat meat is one that many people are considering today but it may come to another layer, not whether or not to eat meat but if you decide to eat it, what types have the least impact? This study shows how much less poultry and pork require much less feed and water per pound. They don't require pasture lands and can be raised in a lot of environments.
   Here are a few other things to consider. If you don't eat meat, and choose strictly a vegetarian diet what is your impact? Certainly there is a reduction in greenhouse gases and this fact is as an absolute. But how and what are you buying? How far away did your food come from? Its ironic to state you don't eat meat because of the impact on the environment but then buy olive oil imported all the way from Italy, drink wine from Chile or Spain, eat lettuce produced in California in winter, cook with chopped garlic that originated in China. What about the processed foods? Breads, crackers, boxed cereals, all packaged in plastics etc. An example is the super nutritious food, Quinoa. Its attributes are fantastic but it is grown in the high Andes Mountains. How does it get to us? Our food's environmental impact is enormous and meat is a major part of it, but we need to consider many things beyond the farming impacts. We need to consider travel and packaging.
  Back to beef....I would like to see a study on the impact of raising beef on pasture compared to grain finished. Beef raised close to the consumer, without the feedlot and the crop impacts that go along with that, in areas that can support pasture raised beef. I'll bet the impact would drop considerably. There are a lot of conflicting papers and articles on this subject. On one hand you have the conventional beef industry claiming grass fed impacts just as much as regular beef because it takes longer for cattle to reach their market weight. This may be true but they are not considering breed and pasture quality. There are breeds that will finish better on grass than others, Red Devon comes to mind. These cattle are smaller which, as a chef , I find appealing. Beef size has gotten huge in the past few years. On the other hand, studies that are designed to refute the pluses from grass feeding also come from the vegetarian side. Grass feeding impacts the planet, that is for sure, but there are different styles of grass feeding. If you finish the animal on stored "grass" which can be a number of feeds and the resulting impact will not be that much different than feedlot beef. If you use this as your model then it won't show a big difference between the two styles. Real pasture raised, where rotational grazing techniques are used, and pasture lands are sequestering a certain amount of carbon must have less of an impact than regular grain finished feed-lot beef. That just seems like common sense.
  One way or the other, ruminants are less efficient than other meats. The price of it should reflect that and often does, and therefore the consumers would naturally reduce the consumption. The problem is when we allow cheap meats from Brazil, Mexico or Uruguay that keep our burger prices artificially low and consumption high.
  The spin on this subject is well funded and passionate. Fingers are pointed and accusations are made from the vegetarian and conventional beef industry sides....but the impacts are real and consumption is increasing due to the increases in wealth in China. Here is an article that lists the amount of meat waste the world allows... This is a way to reduce the impact also.