Sunday, December 19, 2010

Popular Cuts and Percentages

I recently heard someone talk about the wonderful flavor of the oyster steak. The oyster, which sits on the outside of the aitch bone on the beef carcass weighs only about 6 -8 ounces. On a 800 pound carcass this is a tiny percentage to say the least. Back in 1998 a project funded by the Beef Checkoff program and conducted by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, was completed . The purpose was to analyze the entire beef carcass according to the isolated individual muscle as opposed to larger multi muscled cuts that chefs are familiar with commercially. Each individual muscle was subjected to the Warner Bratzler test which detects tenderness. The discoveries were an awakening for the beef industry. Instead of cross cutting through each large section of the carcass, muscles were isolated and sold as "new" cuts. Old world butchers and various cultures around the world have been doing this for years. Often a European chef will ask for a cut that is not the same here in the US. These cuts are smaller and more difficult to isolate than the typical cutting style. An example would be the "flat iron" steak which was isolated from the shoulder clod. The upside of this research is a higher profit margin from the entire carcass. The downside is the problem when one of these small cuts gains in popularity to the point where the cost becomes prohibitive. If a restaurant decides to put a small isolated cut on the menu, such as the Teres Major or Petite Tender, which weighs about a pound, and it becomes a popular item, the price may shoot up. If the menu states "petite tender" then the restaurant cannot substitute with another cut that might work instead.

Middle meat cuts such as the tenderloin, strip loin and rib eye have always been more expensive because of their tenderness, flavor and also shape, that is conducive for portion cutting. A completely cleaned and denuded tenderloin only weighs about 4 pounds so in a 800 pound carcass there is only 8 pounds of tenderloin medallions. Wow! The larger tougher cuts from the round and chuck take up a much larger percentage of the carcass. Recently I have encountered the rib eye divided into its main eye muscle and its tender cap piece, reducing its size and raising its price. I'm not suggesting these are bad ideas. These are very tender cuts and wonderful for flavor and plate presentation but the chef must realize the cost and reduce the portion size. A 6-8 oz portion should suffice on these cleaned isolated cuts.

How does this relate to other meats? Another cut that is very popular but is a low percentage of the whole is the veal hind shank. There are only 6-8 quality bone-in portions of veal hind shank osso buco available in a 400 lb veal carcass. Veal osso buco maintains its popularity and cannot be substituted with another cut so the price is high, over $8.00 per lb. Another example is the boneless eye muscle of the lamb loin. It weighs only a little over a pound from a 70 pound carcass.

As a chef decides what meat to put on the menu they are often confronted with the many options available today. A menu that is locked into a specific cut makes it very difficult to buy a larger cut and be able to utilize all of the other leftover parts. Its even harder to purchase a full carcass as many local farmers and small processors like to sell. How can a chef put a single item such as loin medallions on the menu when it is such a small portion of the whole carcass? It is the dilemma many chefs encounter when considering local meats. A menu designed with larger cuts or full carcasses in mind requires the overlapping of uses and maybe stockpiling some cuts in the freezer. Its a different mindset.

A chef may also often wonder why a specific cut is expensive. Prices of individual cuts are all based on the full carcass. If a certain small cut is unnoticed then its prices remains low. A chef should be flexible with menu items to realize the most profit. Or, at the very least, keep up with price fluctuations to adjust the menu prices.