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.

Sunday, October 31, 2021


 So Covid 19 has certainly been a problem for the meat industry. First plants shutting down, then reopened with staff shortages. Trucking and supply chain issues are common, like any industry. But, as of this September, the prices and profit margins are up, especially for the largest processors. Farmers are not seeing the same results with worker shortages and prices for them remaining static. Meat prices have increased by over 10% from last year except in the pork sector. Pork is up too, but not as much. That could quickly change.

 ASF or African Swine Fever has been around for many years. A hemorrhagic fever, it presents in its early stages as a high fever, cough, loss of appetite and broken blood vessels in the ears. It was originally discovered in wild hog species as far back as the 1700s. Wild hogs typically will have immunity due to their being exposed to it in the past. Ticks feeding on the hogs can transmit it. Wild hogs foraging on remains of infected hogs can transmit it. Close contact can transmit it. The problem arises when domestic breeds contract the disease. They do not have the immunities that a wild animal has. This is similar to Avian Flu, where wild birds may have the disease and spread it to domestic birds with devastating effect. This hemorrhagic viral hog disease causes the pig to basically bleed out in just a few short days. Hemorrhagic fevers are the type of disease that  are easily transmitted and there are no vaccines or preventions other than culling the infected herds. The map below show the outbreaks in domestic hogs in 2018.


 The disease has spread dramatically into China, Vietnam as well as Eastern Europe. Being that this disease affects overbred, domestic hogs raised in confinement the results are devastating to farmers. China has had at least a dozen outbreaks resulting in losses totally over a billion dollars. Huge herds have been destroyed to contain it as of this past summer. 

 In Europe, the first cases showed up in Portugal in the 1950s and has haunted farmers for years. Tight controls and safety measures on farms have kept it at bay but it shows up year after year with some outbreaks worse than others. Most recently Belgium has had an outbreak and Germany has discovered it in wild boars. 

 Before I continue, ASF can not be transferred to humans, unlike swine flu. It is more similar to the disease that effects wild deer, EHD, Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, which devastated some deer populations in the North East US. These diseases certainly need to be observed closely for changes in their strains. 

Back to the A S Fever. There has never been a case in the US. The amount of wild hogs and ticks in the US doesn’t bode well if it spreads here. Many farms already have some strict protocol in place to keep their pigs safe but for smaller, heirloom breed growers that want to keep their pigs outside part of the time, this could be disaster. 

Recently cases have showed up in the Western Hemisphere for the first time in over 40 years. Cases have been discovered in the Dominican Republic and Haiti this fall. The implications and results of this entering the US could result in serious problems for hog farms. The current relatively low prices for pork could possibly spike to previously unknown highs. Currently, one of the reasons prices are higher here in the US is due to our companies exporting more product to other areas, such as China. If this disease were to get a foothold here, the world may be seeing a price increases like crazy. Pork futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange will jump and someone, not farmers, will make a bundle.


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.