Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cutting Boards...Polymer vs Maple

Years ago the local health department came through my kitchen and told me I should think about removing all of the wooden cutting boards that we had on our line. " Plastic is better, easier to clean" the inspector said. I always resisted for a few reasons. First, I was in busniess and we didn't see the need to replace anything that wasn't broken unless there was a monetary benefit. Second the wooden cutting boards were nicer on the knives. I find the plastic boards take the edge off faster, especially when doing a lot of chopping, such as mincing garlic or parsley. Third was simply aesthetics, the wooden boards looked warmer, more "homemade" so if we took a photo of a rustic dish with a wooden board it just looked better. So which is best?

Today I work on large plastic tables in the meatroom at the CIA. They are used by three seperate classes daily. There are thousands of little nicks and dings and a few larger saw cuts from the many classes that have used them over the past 5 0r 6 years, since they were last replaced. We wash them and sanitize them each night, then allow them to air dry in a cold room.

So which is better? First lets talk about what they actually are. Plastic cutting boards are made of polyethelene and can be made in a variety of thicknesses. Over time they get nicks and cuts in them which can harbor bacteria, making them difficult to sanitize. There are some that claim antibacterial surface but the effectiveness of this is questionable. Most carry a warning stating "This product does not protect against bacteria". Once the antibacterial board is cut into bacteria will also be found in it. Plastic boards can be planed and resurfaced if thick enough, getting rid of all the nicks. Cleaning plastic can be done in a dish machine if small enough to fit which sterilizes the surface. Another aspect of plastic boards is they can be colored to designate uses; yellow for poultry, green for vegis, white for meat etc. Super thin plastic cutting mats can be used for small portable cutting and these can also be washed in a machine. Plastic boards can be sanitized with harsh chemicals such as bleach and then rinsed thoroughly whereas wood will absorb the flavor of the chemical.

Wooden cutting boards are made of hardwoods that have a tight grain. Maple is most typical, hickory is possible also, teak and other tropical woods are found but very expensive. Oaks' grain is too wide enabling moisture to penetrate. Pine and other fir trees are way too soft and fragile. Bamboo is cut and layered to make a very hard board that resists cuts but can dull knives somewhat. Bamboo boards can be light and thin and very easy to clean. Wooden boards can be cleaned with abrasive scrubbers such as steel wool which actually take a tiny layer off, healing the board's cuts. Maple boards resist bacterial growth and are found to be safer than a over-used plastic board but wooden boards cannot be allowed to be continually moist or soaked in sinks. They can split and mold can form in the cracks. Wooden boards can be planed, also to resurface. They must be kept dry and may require an occassional conditioning with mineral oil. I have seen old school butcher shops pour salt on their boards every night and then wipe it off in the morning to kill any harmful bacteria. Small wooden cutting boards can be sanitized in a microwave. Wood is also a "green" renewable resource as opposed to plastic.

Another type of board is made from rubber. Two inch thick rubber boards are expensive but feature some of the best of both worlds. They can be sanatized like plastic but won't dull your knives as easily. Rubber is also renewable. They can warp but they also can be heated in an oven to be reshaped. Rubber boards "heal" like wood so the small cuts seal back up keeping it free of bacteria harboring nicks.

When chopping with the cleaver, plastic and rubber boards will be damaged. Normal wooden boards will chip and damage also but the maple "chopping" block is designed for it. The grain is set so the cleaver is chopping down into it as opposed to across.

Whatever board you choose its imperative that it is cleaned correctly and replaced when worn. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages and inital cost plays a part in the decision. I welcome any comments on this and ideas from you.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Butcher Skills for Restaurant Chefs

A meatcutter in a large packing plant can fabricate an enormous amount of meat in a single day. They have the advantage of the "assembly line" arrangement with all of modern techniques and equipment. For instance, the task of boning a leg of lamb and tying it into a roast is done over and over by a single person working off of a moving conveyor belt. The cutter doesn't need to carry anything or move from his or her spot. The its a simple 1-2-3 step proceedure, pull the leg off the conveyor belt, bone it out and throw it back on, and then the roast is formed and netted by someone else. On larger cuts, such as beef, the task may be aided by hydrolic pullers and tools specifically designed to reduce stressful labor and increase speed of fabrication. The result is a product that is cut accurately to industry specs that is standardized and available from purveyors with regularity. The same goes for portion cut items. Steaks and chops are cut on machines that can regulate thickness and weight and done in huge volume so the processor can pick out all of the like-sized portions for accuracy. You can buy a perfect 10 oz striploin steak over and over.

So why would a chef decide to do any fabrication in house? There is no way to match the speed of the large plants and they would need to pay someone to do it. But the restaurant chef that has some butchery skills has an advantage over those that don't. They can custom cut things that are outside the norm such as instead of simply boning the leg of lamb they can french off the end of the shank, remove all other bones, stuff the interior and then tie it to create a look that is unique. Meat cutting, especially on the small custom restaurant or meat market level can go in directions that a large processor can not possibly do. Other examples are chefs who dabble in curing meats. A ham, custom partially boned in the true prosciutto style, leaves the femur and shank intact but the aitch bone removed except for a little corner of it to protect the interior from mold. You can't buy this from a large processor. All sorts of little tricks and custom ideas can be done to maximize yields, create unique looks, convert tougher cuts to tender all by butchery skill.

Another situation invloves chefs that want to sell meat from a small local processor. Most small processors cut meat from local farms but cut for retail freezer orders. They focus on quick volume band saw work which may not be good for a restaurant. Today we find some chefs buying the entire primal cut and breaking it down themselves. This enables them to utilize all of the trim, bones and even fat to make a large variety of sauces and dishes that wouldn't occur if they purchased pre-cut items. This cutting requires a lot of skill and time. There is no assembly line. Meats need to be cut on a large table instead of off the hook. Meats are out in a warmer environment than in a meat plant so spoilage is an issue. Crosscontamination can occur if proper care isn't taken. But the end result can be a taste and texture that is as signature as a fine pastry or a great sauce. A restaurant that custom cuts their meat can use the fact on the menu or in advertising. Even an inexpensive bistro can offer an in-house ground burger that is made from whole muscle cuts rather than buying pre-ground beef that may have contamination.

I must admit that I am partial to chefs cutting some or all of their meat in-house, afterall I have trained a lot of them. I also realize in many situations such as very high volume hotels or casinos can't possibly do all their fabrications but there are often ways to save money or create new presentations by custom cutting.