Photo by DPerstin/Flickr CC
I cut meat for a living, but I've never been able to shake my compulsion to write. During my apprenticeship at Fleisher's Meats—the first local, sustainable butcher shop on the East Coast—I found myself spending every evening hunched over my laptop, pecking away with bandaged fingers a chronicle of becoming a butcher that would later run in Meatpaper magazine. While I cut my teeth, butchering in a meat locker the size of a closet at the restaurant Marlow and Sons, I was also a contributing editor to its food magazine, Diner Journal. So it seemed only natural that, in the midst of a Herculean effort to open a 7000-square-foot cooking school and butcher shop in the middle of a recession, I would take on the task of writing about what I do for the Atlantic Food Channel.
After the initial excitement of writing for the Atlantic wore off I found myself in a bit of a pickle: what do I write about first? What is at the core of what I do and how it is different from say, a butcher at a mega-mart? The best example was my most important skill: reading a side of beef.
What does that mean exactly?
While most butchers rely on USDA grading (you've seen these labels on your trays of grocery store meat—choice, select, prime, etc.), all of the beef we source at The Meat Hook comes from small, local farms and is processed at family slaughterhouses that can't afford a grading service. Therefore we must judge every carcass we receive in much the way that butchers did it 100 years ago: by sight, informed by practical experience. Here is a quick and dirty primer to what a side of beef can tell you without saying a single word.
A super animal will have a thick, psychedelic spiderweb of fat throughout the lean section of the eye.
Before we go much further, a reality check: you will more than likely never see a side of beef. Ever. 99 percent of all meat consumed in the US is slaughtered, butchered into small pieces, stuck in plastic envelopes, and shipped at the same enormous packinghouse long before you or your butcher—you have a butcher, right?—ever sets eyes on it. What I'm trying to do here is simply offer you a peek into what can (and ideally should) go into the steak or short rib on your table. It is the first lesson we give our butchering students and dedicated customers, and it is my first lesson to you.
Reading the USDA inspection stamp on the outside of the animal can tell a butcher what slaughterhouse it was killed at (provided you have an index of slaughterhouse numbers or have committed the information to memory). This is important, as not all slaughterhouses are created equal.
While all abattoirs are inspected by an in-house official, many factors can influence the quality of the end product, whether it be the humidity and air-flow in the coolers (important to to the initial dry aging of the carcasses) or the general expertise of the kill floor staff. Hurried employees can and will make mistakes and cause stress on the animal--neither of which is good for the animal or the end result. The attached "kill tag" can tell you what day the animal was killed, its "hot weight" (its dressed weight immediately after slaughter), and even the farm it came from or the farmer who raised it.
Fine. Reading a tag is easy. What can the animal itself tell you? The cartilage buttons on the feather bones of the chine (backbone) will tell you its rough age (the longer the younger and vice versa), and the curve of the pelvic or aitch bone will tell you whether the animal is female (slightly curved) or male (very curved). While you're looking, how big are the knobs of kidney fat? They should be full, thick, and slightly crumbly. We avoid anything with thin, floppy kidney knobs.
You can tell how well the animal was fed by looking at its "cover," or the layer of fat covering the side of beef. Ideally you don't want to see any muscles coming through the fat. This is important, because beef have to put on at least 1¾ pounds a day of muscle, bone, and fat to be worth considering for anything but grinding into burgers. Animals that fall below that rate of growth often experience a metabolic shift into a "survival mode" that will make their meat tough, gamey, and generally unpleasant. Many of the negative things that have been said about grass-finished animals are due to the fact that some animals never achieve this rate of growth—often because of bad genetics (beef bred to do well on grain will not always do well on grass), poor pasturing practices, or early weaning off their mothers' milk.
Another indicator is found in the thickness of the plate—the ribcage below the rib loin, also known as the short ribs. Generally beef with a thick plate is well-fed, mature, and delicious. Every butcher has a different beef fetish, and mine is a thick plate. While you're looking at the plate, you should take a peek at the eye of the rib loin, which should be bejeweled with many layers of fat between the muscles and a large triangular piece of fat where the loin transitions into the ribs. A super animal will have a thick, psychedelic spiderweb of fat throughout the lean section of the eye, which will ensure a mind-blowing steak.
Above all, the meat should be a deep, rich red. Light red or pinkish tints mean the animal is too young, and a blackish red hue or dark spots of blood are signs of the dreaded "dark cutter"—a chronically stressed animal that has undergone a prolonged adrenaline response. We always send them back.
Another general consideration is the "conformation," or what the carcass looks like as a whole. It should be square, blocky, and butch-looking. An angular, willowy looking beef is a sure sign of a stinker that is under-fed, too young, or otherwise undesirable.
Who knew so much could go into the selection and sourcing of a single steak?
While you probably don't spend much time eyeballing sides of beef, you should seek out a local butcher who does. This sort of butcher can be hard to find, since most shops switched to boxed beef in the eighties and nineties, but a few holdouts can be found with a bit of research and a little driving. If you're a big city dweller, chances are there is or will soon be one of the new generation of "artisan" butcher shops open nearby.
My most important skill is judging meat on the hook, but your most important skill as a consumer is asking the right questions—and next time you visit a butcher, you'll know what questions to ask. Or, of course, you can ask me! I'll try in this column to help you make the most of the meat you buy.