Friday, September 21, 2012

Pig Diet...Not for Slimming

My nephew, Austin Schneller, is raising four hogs this year. Each year he raises a few for his own consumption and a lucky few friends who help with the costs. A few years ago he raised four Danish Landrace prize stock pigs. They were lean and skittish, without much fatback. They grew really fast but were not what he was after. Then next year he got a Berkshire, a couple Hampshires and a Duroc cross. These were totally different, huge and very fatty. Last year he tried Tamworths, which were wonderful, large with very nice bellies etc. Some of the best pork I've ever tasted. This year I think he has the winner, a cross between Large Blacks and Old Spots. These pigs are very healthy, great foragers and getting really fat. They are a little agressive with each other but thats just pigs acting as they do.
 The feed for the pigs is pretty much the same year to year, lots of grains including corn but also some fermented barley, then as we get into fall, acorns, pumpkins, squash and apples, all byproduct waste from local farmers. This year I picked a big bucket of acorns off my lawn and they ate them like candy. The pigs are under some large oaks so they get all the natural drops in their pen as well. They always get the kitchen scraps from Austins home cooking.
  At the CIA we have the St Andrews Cafe where we try to keep it local and use as much locally grown food as possible. The attempt at sustainability is valid but I noticed we were throwing out the waste food scraps so I introduced the pig bucket. Every couple days the students from St Andrews fill a 5 gallon bucket with a wide assortment of scraps. I pick it up and drop it off to Austin's on my way home, which is typically late evening. The pigs get a very nice late night snack. I've always heard the worst time to eat dinner is late at night because it will make you fat! Well thats the goal here.
 The difference of flavor between these hogs and the commercially grown pork I work with in class is like day and night. Hese pigs are not only fed a more diverse and healthy diet, they are also allowed to mature a little more, giving a more complex meat taste. The other day we cut a half hog from Meiller's in Pine Plains. It was ok but didn't have much marbling and fat back. It wasn't raised poorly, but it was a white pig breed which tend to be leaner and it just wasn't allowed to mature.
 To get the best possible pork, such as that used for the Bellotta Iberico hams, it takes time and lots of really good feed, which means it will be expensive, but well worth it.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Beta-agonists? Good thing cattle don't race bikes.

I was reading an article in a trade magazine the other day which was commenting about the average carcass weight of recent beef. Beef has gotten bigger from some feedlots and the reasons for this are multiple. One is simply introducing larger breeds into the mix. This has been going on for hundreds of years and it is a natural way to increase size. For example if a breeder mixes an Angus with a larger Charolais you end up with bigger beef that should have some of the higher quality traits of the Angus. Advances in breeding and the ability to track generations have resulted in seedstock ranchers growing exactly the type of cattle they want, and for many that may mean larger cattle.
 There are other reasons why cattle have gotten larger. Feed is being managed in ways that can maximize the growth of cattle. Fermenting hay and steaming grains can bring out more nutrients so cattle can actually grow on less feed. Keeping track of the animals diet and exact ration is very important for growth.
 Another aspect is the use of steroids and hormones. Many cattle are implanted with a steroid in their ear upon arriving at the feedyard. This steroid is released for a few days and then the animal goes through a long period of feeding before it is sent to market. The steroid is, for the most part, depleted to low levels before slaughter and the end result is about a four percent gain in size. So this will explain some of the gain but most feedlots  have been using these for years.
 Why are cattle getting even bigger these days? We cut a boneless 0x1 striploin the other day that weighed 17.4 lbs! Thats big and impossible to cut into a thick 8 oz portion steak for a quality restaurant.
  Another tool being used by feedlots today is a different feed supplement called beta- agonists. Beta -agonists are used on humans for asthma relief. Are these cattle having trouble breathing?? Not exactly. Beta-agonists are used to grow muscle faster by increasing the efficiency of the feed. Here is a very good explanation and shows the different types used today. The gains are substantial and the real savings is in the amount of feed the animal needs to grow. The most popular brand name is zilpaterol hydrochloride (Zilmax) is produced by Merck.
  Here is a bit of text from a beef grower about the use of a beta-agonist...

Beta agonists, like ractopamine, work by activating the beta 2 receptor on the muscles of my cattle. This binds specific beta receptors in the muscle cell membranes and increases protein synthesis. What does this mean exactly?

1.As animals grow larger and get close to the time of harvest, their bodies tend to turn nutrients into fat instead of lean muscle. Ractopamine encourages or repartitions those nutrients into muscle growth through protein synthesis rather than fat deposition.

2.This allows the animal to make more lean muscle (what we want to eat), and less fatty tissue (what we do not want to eat).

3.By making more muscle and less fat from nutrients, the animal becomes a more efficient user of its food thereby reducing the total environmental footprint of its food production.
 So this explains why many cattle have gotten larger and also why they are leaner. Lean beef may have eye appeal in the super market but not in a fine steakhouse. And the beef's flavor is also effected. There seems to be less depth of flavor because it is taking less time to grow cattle so they end up in the market younger, therfore less time to develop more complex taste. But as we see drought conditions continuing in the midwest and west, we will see more and more use of beta-agonists. As feed prices soar, cattle growers want to sell faster. Everyday on feed costs them big bucks.
 Beta-agonists have been deemed safe by the FDA but here is an article that sheds more light on the discussion.  It certainly is an interesting tread of comments afterward. Some program beef processors, such as those seeking higher marbling and smaller sized cattle, have asked feedlots to not overuse the beta-agonists so the beef can fatten. Any natural beef program will not allow them.
  The size of beef has gotten larger, no doubt, and the cyclists in the Tour de France have gotten faster, they are both using similar substances to grow muscle. Beta-agonists are one of the many substances banned in professional bike racing. The use of  beta-agonists is banned from animal feed in the EU and many other countries around the world. I'm not an expert in pharmaceutical study and I don't know the long term chronic effects of the use of these substances. I'm a butcher looking for marbling and flavor and some of today's beef seems to be lacking in both. I'm also a cyclist and long time racing fan and that sport has also lost a lot of flavor in recent years.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Austrian Butcher Style

 Back in the spring I had the opportunity to visit Peter Trixner who lives near Klagenfurt, Austria. Peter and his wife Petra own a beautiful ranch on a hillside overlooking the Austrian Alps in the distance. They are raising Tajima Wagyu and Tajima - Charolais crosses. These cattle are some of the first high end Japanese genetics found in Europe. The beef from their first slaughter was a bit lean and Peter was just beginning to understand the feeding regiment that it takes to reach the high fat scores typically found in these breeds. Peter is hoping to use his beef in the hotel restaurants that he holds interest in. The Lake's hotel located in nearby Portschach am Worthersee was featuring some of Peter's beef this summer on their fun casual menu. I worked with Peter to develop a dry aging room for the beef in the hotel so he can start to feature some real steakhouse quality taste. Lake's is a resort hotel that was featuring an ecclectic menu catering to summer guests and the wagyu would be a perfect fit.
 While I was there we broke down two beef sides at a local agricultural school. The school is for local farmers and features a state of the art slaughter room, excellent hydraulic lifts and a large cooler for aging the sides. They also have a processing room for sausage and salami making including a good size smokehouse. The butcher instructors watched as I broke down the beef in a US style which is very different from their traditional Austrian ways. We tend to make more cross cuts through muscle groups where they tend to leave muscle group intact.
 The Austrians also don't normally keep certain cuts as steak. Flank, skirt and hanger are rarely kept for dry cooking. I also took apart the sirloin into small sections for steak medallions. The cutting went on for the afternoon and we talked about our styles and the advantages for each. The outcomes were that we decided to leave some cuts whole to better dry age them and we also vacuum packed a lot of grinding meat. i think it was really important for Peter to see how much of his carcass is not going to be steak unless he hits the high marbling scores associated with Wagyu beef. Artisan butchery is much more about thinking outside of the norm and seeing another culture's style for cutting really allowed me to realize the possibilities. We cut the tenderloin out of the entire side and then cut a full loin and rib section, something none of us had ever done before. It was huge, like a giant center cut pork loin. Peter had his chef at the hotel dry age it for two weeks. I wish I could have gotten back to taste it.
  Whether its Austrian, Italian, Japanese, French or US style of cutting, there are always alternative ways to take apart a carcass.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Is Bigger Better?

The other day we were breaking down and frenching racks of lamb. We had a carcass that weighed about 75 lbs and the full hotel rack weighed a little over 8 lbs. It was a local product that was finished on some grain. It wasn't overly fatty and the yield grade would have been about a 2. Then we took some prefabricated split and chined racks out of the bag. Some weighed over 9 lbs! These are 8 bone racks ( 16 bones total) costing over $ 9.25 per lb. 9lbs x $9.25 = $83.25. Divide that by the 16 chops and you get a single chop that costs $5.20!! Wow thats a lot. So whats going on? Average weights of both lamb and beef are going up. This is a result of better genetic selection, feeding techniques and the desire for meat processors to sell more product without selling "more" product. Does that make sense? Its not like the processors are sending older mutton that have matured and become larger, these are just bigger lamb.

I recently was looking at carcass weights in the NAMP buyer's guide and the largest category is "D" 75lbs. and over. It seems today the largest amount of graded lamb is falling into this category.

Here are the last week's USDA slaughter numbers.
CHOICE AND PRIME, YG 1-4 Head 7,332
Weight Head
45-DN 375
45-55# 388
55-65# 723
65-75# 1,366
75-85# 1,902

So larger lamb is definitely out there but there is also a fair amount of smaller stuff too. My point here is when ordering lamb be sure to let the purveyor know what size range you want.

Another way to beat the big problem is to create multiple protein plates. Use that monster chop but instead of putting two or three on the plate, put just one and some other lamb items such as a bit of braised pulled lamb shoulder, grilled lamb riblets, lamb sausage, a small osso buco.

New Zealand and Australian products will be much smaller and less expensive per lb. The flavor profile of those is different but if you need to serve that large 4 bone rack roast these may work for you.

The price of lamb is high and the product has gotten larger and it seems to be staying that way for the long haul. That doesn't mean you shouldn't consider putting it on the menu, it just means you may need to rethink your price or amount served.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sweet Meats

Check the label on almost any cured pork products and you will see a form of sugar listed. Sweetness and pork are traditional. Many a holiday ham has been glazed with brown sugar, pineapple, maple syrup, honey etc. Fresh pork dishes are often prepared with sweet fruits such as apples, raisins, pears, apricots and many more. Sugar or sweetness in general have risen to the forefront of the typical palate over the years. We as a culture, have become accustomed to the taste and when it isn't there, many people will find the food is lacking something. Sugar can be considered an addiction of sorts. We find many recipes today adding lots of sugar into savory foods.

Recently I cured a ham with my recipe tha contained water, salt, nitrite, spices and a little dextrose. I cut the dextrose listed in the recipe in half. When the ham was cured I soaked it to release a lot of the salt and then smoked it on and off for a few days. The result was a delicious flavorful ham that didn't over power the taste buds with sugar. I have to admit I did bake it with some coarse chopped onions, a few cloves and a light sprinkle of brown sugar. This added to the taste of the pan gravy and the skin's flavor but didn't add directly to the ham's overall sweetness.

I brought some of the ham to class and we compared it to a commercial sandwich slicing ham that claimed to be cherry wood smoked. First we tasted the slicing ham. Most students found the flavor appealing. I found it to be extremely sweet. Then I gave them my ham. "WOW that is sooo good!" was the comment. Then I asked what was good about it. Explain the flavor. Smoky, rich, savory were some comments. Sweet was not one of them but the results were positive just the same.

For some reason research and development teams have done studies and conducted taste panels that have found sweet sells. The more we sell sweet stuff the more people come to expect it. Sweet is found in loads of savory items. Sweet tomato sauces, crackers, salad dressings, mustards, coated chicken products, sausages, and more. Many of our fresh products are enhanced with sugar also. Butterball turkey, pumped brined pork loins, stewing hens. Our palates are being distorted by sweet. I really can't eat the super sweet ham that most deli counters sell. It tastes like candy to me yet many to many people that is the only flavor of ham they know from childhood so that is what they expect.

What role does sugar play in curing? Primarily sugar or sweetness is added to counter the harshness of salt. It is a flavor agent. Sweetness can also act as a fuel for good bacteria to grow creating acids resulting in the tangy taste we associate with a cured food. Some sugar or sweetness is necessary. But how much and what kind? Dextrose tends to be less sweet than plain sugar while corn syrup tends to be more sweet. My usual recipe for curing is 3 gallons watere, 2lbs of salt, 1 lb of dextrose, 4 oz TCM and then whatever spices I choose. This last recipe I reduced the dextrose to a 1/2 lb and it work out great.

I think another possible reason for the over sweetening of products is so the company can add more salt, resulting in a longer shelf life. Don't get me wrong, I like a peach glazed pork chop, but that is a natural amount of sugar, not a distortion created to placate to the customers palate cravings.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Silverskin Blues

The other day we had to denude 15 boneless pork loins to make a bunch of clean 4 oz. cutlets. Part of the process is to peel off the silver collagen on the outside of the loin. First I trimmed off the thin fat layer and then carefully inserted the knife under the collagen and peeled it off in strips trying to minimize the amount of meat taken off. This takes time and skill.

Removing collagen from the outside of cuts is something we teach at the CIA for cuts that are going to be sauteed. Denuding beef tenderloins for saute or carpaccio, veal leg sub primals for cutlets or scallopine, pork loins for medallions, or lamb loins for noisette, is part of the skill set a trained chef or butcher needs for creating refined meat portions. The skill also applies to fish butchery. Peeling a salmon is a common task that our students learn in the seafood class. Peeling a salmon and denuding a porkloin are cleaned very differently with the salmon laid skin side down and flat on the table while the loin is peeled skin up. So while peeling the loin I decided to see what would happen if I flipped it over and tried to clean it like a salmon. After a few gouges and mis-fires I got the hang of it. Instead of a thin section removed I got almost all of the silver off in one shot. It was not easy but it was fast! So next time your peeling a thick collagen band off a piece of meat, think like a fish butcher and flip it over, skin side down.

Large processors no longer peel either siver skin on meat or salmon skin. Today we have automated skinning machines that can do the job in seconds. The salmon skinner is super fast and requires basically no skill. Meat skinners require a little skill and the worker must where special gloves that shut off the machine if contact is made.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Knife Knowledge

The other day I sharpened an antique knife for a friend. It was a small butcher knife that read "High Carbon" on the face. It was stained and old looking but the handle was in great shape. Once I put it to the 4000 grit stone the edge came back to life and the thing was like a razor when I finished. I brushed a tiny bit of mineral oil on it and gave it back to my friend.

Recently I had a student ask if they could bring in their own knives rather than the school issued brand. I said it would be fine as long as they were suitable for butchery. The next day he came in with two very expensive Japanese knives that were made of "layered" steel. The edge was amazingly sharp and the knife worked very well.

The discovery of high carbon steel was truly an amazing breakthrough for knives and the ability to harden them made for much longer lasting edges. Knife blades are a combination of metals that all combine for specific purposes. There are a variety of metals used, but the primary one used today for most commercial knives is steel. Steel is composed of a variety of ingredients which can change the structure of the edge. Here is a list of knife blade ingredients used to create steel:

CARBON - a mineral that is added to iron to change it into steel. Carbon helps harden steel. The higher the carbon content, the harder the steel and the finer you can get the edge.

MANGANESE – also adds toughness and ability to harden.

CHROMIUM – Steel will rust and corrode and chromium boosts adds resistance to corrosion and staining.

VANADIUM - creates a fine grain in steel when heat treated.

MOLYBDENUM - used to increase toughness in steel and allows for more flexibilty

TUNGSTEN – a very hard metal that creates a fine yet dense steel structure.

Steel “recipes” are patented and owned by specific knife companies. Many Japanese, German, American and Swiss companies for instance own their steel patents and create knives that are unique to them. A layered knife is basically a very hard brittle steel at the core surrounded by softer steel to support it and give it some flexibility and stain resistance. A quality knife will have a combination of metals that will provide a quality edge that will last but also resistance to destructive acids, salts etc. found in many foods. Company trade secrets and techniques for creating these edges mean that the prices can be very high. A super quality Japanese blade can cost over $1,000 for a chef knife. But there are many knives well under that price that do a great job. Personally I use a bunch of different brands of reasonable knives that are typically used in the meat industry. Brands such as Victorinox, Sanelli, Giesser, Frost, Dexter all put out decent knives for low prices( $20 - $40). They all hold an edge pretty well but are by no means the same as the layered knives previously mentioned.

Along with the type of knife metal, the edge and body may have texture added to enhance the knives performance. Many knife companies now sell knives that are scalloped or “hollow” meaning there are a series of scalloped sections along the body extending to the edge. This provides for less friction when cutting and can also result in a sharper edge. This is a different technology than a “never dulling” serrated edge, such as that found on some bread knives. Serrated knives will damage meat so its best to leave them off the butcher block.

Beyond the steel edge another factor to consider is the knife handle. First compare handle materials. Some knives come with a smooth grip ebony handles. These will work fine if your hands are dry and fat free but often can get slippery. Some of the very expensive knives I’ve worked with had a riveted ebony handle I found too thin and uncomfortable for butchery, like the wrong shoes! Smooth handle knives are good for vegetable cutting and repetitive chopping but not the best for tight gripped butchering.
There are knives with plastic handles that vary in thickness and density. I often look for a textured handle like those found on a mountain bike grip, large and easy to hold with a great grip even if a little wet. Others will have a molded hard plastic that may feel a little unnatural if your hand is the wrong size.
Another option is the wooden handle. These can develop some texture over time and have a natural worn-in feel. I grew up cutting with wooden handled knives and they feel natural to me. But wooden handles can be damaged by prolonged moisture exposure so they need to be kept dry and an application of mineral oil is a good idea from time to time.
I’ve also worked with a very expensive Global knife from Japan. This single molded steel handled knife was basically one piece of hardened steel forming the handle and the blade. The handle is textured with little divots and was built into the knife. It had a good feel and the edge was incredible but it was cold and got a little slippery when wet. I couldn’t get a really good grip on it unless I kept my hand dry. Many chefs swear by these knives so again, it’s a matter of choice. Here are the basic choices for knife handles:

Hard textured plastic : durable, lightweight, many styles
Soft textured plastic: great grip, wear slightly faster, very comfortable
Riveted hard ebony: durable, many brands are thin, slippery when wet
Textured metal : very durable, cold, slippery when wet, will not burn!
Wood: damaged by moisture, “breaks in” to your hand, warm

To decide if a knife fits your hand, grip it like you are shaking someone’s hand and if your fingers fit snug and extend all the way around to the soft part of the palm the knife fits. A knife handle that is too small will feel slightly loose and will have the fingers overlapping when wrapped around the handle. A knife that is too small can lead to slippage and also fatigue. A knife that is too big can also be dangerous and can lead to loss of grip and fatigue. You’ll know when a knife is too big if your fingers don’t wrap around it securely. It will feel bulky and awkward. This can result in a dangerous loss of grip. When purchasing a knife be sure to sample a few to make sure the fit is good. Some knives have a sloping handle that enables the cutter to “choke up” on the knife and actually hold the blade with the thumb and forefinger giving the cutter more control. This technique is used for fancy smaller cuts like those done on poultry.

Whether you buy a knife for $10 or $1,000 be sure to understand what that knife will do for you. Its like skis or bikes ( can't help but think about those) If you buy a $8,000 downhill mountain bike to ride the railtrail you are simply wasting money.