Saturday, May 23, 2009

Grass growing time!

This time of year in the Northeast the grass is growing like crazy. For me it means mowing but for cattle it means fresh high energy food. Grass can contain all the natural nutrients beef cattle need, especially this time of year, and depending on the type of grass and its protein value cattle can gain significant weight on grass. So why do farmers feed cattle grain, primarily corn? Isn't it more expensive than simply feeding grass? There are many reasons. First cattle will gain weight faster when they are finished on grain. They will put on more weight and will be ready for market faster when they eat a high energy carbohydrate ration. Grass fed cattle will take longer to get to the same market weight. Realize no cattle are fed just plain grain, they all get a mixture of grains and roughage of some sort, typically hay or fermented silage.

Second a larger percentage of customers tend to prefer grain fed beef over grass fed. The difference is about 4 to 1 depending on the demographic. An interesting review of grass fed beef ran in the times union this spring

Another reason is the grain fed farm to market system is in place and commodity animal futures can be traded on the open markets. In other words there is no standard price or commodity structure for quality grass fed beef. Non-grain finished cattle are typically priced by small niche market processors and these prices can vary widely. Some prices are at least forty cents more per lb. for the whole carcass which is significant. Basically grass fed is often more expensive than prime beef.

So why all the talk of grass fed? Many customers feel that the health and environmental issues can easily outweigh the extra cost and stronger flavor. There is much more of a seasonality to grass fed and this time of year the cattle are just starting to reap the benifits of new grass. When is grass fed best? That all depends on where you are in the country but for most grass fed beef is best in mid to late summer into the fall. Winter time is when grass fed cattle are fed stored hay and the quality tends to dip. Much of the quality of the grass fed beef depends on the grass quality and the genetics of the beef. High quality alphalfa grass, clover and many others are important when feeding cattle. The soil also has something to do with it. Some soils are lacking in Selenium which cattle need for health. supposedly the best grass pastures are found in Kansas...go figure!

Breeds such as the Belted Galloway and the better known Angus do very well as grass fed cattle. The french Limousin has a very fine fiber and is lean normally. Grass feeders are trying to build a stock of animals that will perform well on grass but this takes time and a gauranteed market for the animals to be sold at a higher price.

The question remains if 20% of customers say they might consider grass fed beef as an alternative to grain fed, why aren't any large producers creating a brand name grass fed beef? Its not an easy answer. The beef industry runs on a very tight profit margin and in these times it is very difficult to make a major shift. But with corn prices high due to ethanol production and the grass growing in full swing you can bet on niche market producers to capitalize on grass fed. I look at it like microbrewing, there will always be the large producers like Budweiser, Miller and Coors but there are thousands of small brewers that produce high quality uniquely flavored beers. What I suspect will happen for is the Sam Adams of beef to come along, not too big, not too small, very honest and in every supermarket.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Butcher vs Meatcutter

As part of my introduction to a new class I compare the work and knowledge of a "butcher" to that of a "meatcutter" To those who are not familiar with these terms they may seem the same. Is not a meat cutter a butcher? The term butcher dates back to times when farmers brought live animals to the market and the butcher would need to select the best for their customers. Then the butcher would need to be able to conduct the slaughter and convert the parts of the carcass into salable meat. In the European guild system the butcher's guild was often a politacal voice in the town or village. They controlled a major part of commerce and could influence farmers and land owners to raise animals to their liking. The butcher's guild developed a system to renew itself by creating levels of skill that would place the cutter in a rank. This still continues in some European countries today even though it is not nearly as prominent as it once was. There are three categories, the apprentice, journeyman and master. The apprentice would work for a master for a number of years until graduating to journeyman. At this point the journeyman would work for a number of different shops and had a high level of skill. The journeyman could attend a school to earn their master degree whuich would typically take about two years. They would learn all facets of the industry including slaughter, selection of animals, food safety and disease detection. They may learn sausage, ham, smoking, curing and various preservation techniques. They would also receive a business education and understand profit margin etc.

When the journeyman graduates they are considered a master butcher and can own a shop or slaughter facility. They also can hire apprentices. Only masters could teach the craft and continue all of the traditions. This sytem is still in place in some European countries today and the traditions are carried on even though there are now many meat cutters there as well.

A meat cutter on the other hand is more of a factory worker. They are highly skilled in one area of the industry. Maybe they remove striploins off of a primal cut all day and become very proficient but they don't really cut anything else.

The difference between a meatcutter and a butcher is similar to the relationship between the line cook and the chef. The line cook can be excellent at cooking a fine dish but the chef understands the entire process of putting that plate together.

There are many cooks out there that call themselves "chef" and the same goes for meat cutters.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

What about Bob?

Today we did our lesson on veal. I showed the class a leg of quality choice graded veal. It weighed about 46 lbs and I explained that this was a typical size for veal in today's marketplace. We divided the leg into sections and then cut some very nice scaloppine cutlets.

Afterward, we began our lecture for the day and I started with the different classes of veal available. The youngest veal found in the marketplace is bob veal. Bob veal is extremely small compared to regular veal and has a very mild taste. About 15 - 20% of all veal slaughtered in the US is Bob veal and it is typically sold as an inexpensive alternative to larger formula/ milk replacer fed veal.

So what about Bob veal? Is it tender? Yes, very tender. So why not use it? It is so young it hasn't developed any real flavor and it is almost too tender where the meat is almost jello-like. I know of a chef that used bob veal racks cut into small chops, frenched to the eye ( lollipop chop) then breaded with Panko breadcrumbs and shaved Parmeasean cheese. It was served as a passed appetizer. I've seen it also sold as "suckling veal" also even though it is typically only a couple weeks old and may never had actual milk. It worked Ok in these applications.

Another issue I recently read about is the fact the some producers were giving their cows a dose of antibiotics while pregnant and it resulted in the antibiotic ending up in the veal. Typically an animal must be off antibiotics for at least thirty days before slaughter. Unfortunately the bob veal are younger than that when slaughtered resulting in a positive residue test on some.

The decision to cut down on food cost has resulted in many chefs considering Bob veal as an alternative to quality veal. It is a decision that should be made with the chef understanding the downsides.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Friday we made sausage in class. We covered the basic techniques of establishing the fat to lean ratios, spice mix, grinding and stuffing. I explained the fact that sausage can be a complex combination of textures and spices. It can be like baking in that the texture of a sausage can be altered by over- working the mix or processing at the wrong temperature. Sausage,especially a fine emulsion type, can break like a Hollandaise sauce, if it is over worked and heats up. The result is a dry fatty taste that will not be detected until the customer bites into it.
If you have ever watched a great bread baker they know about the texture of their dough. They know exactly when it is ready and how long to bake to make that perfect crusty exterior. A great sausage maker has a similar feel. They know, from doing it over and over, when a sausage texture is ideal. I once watched a "wurstmacher"preparing an emulsion sausage at Schaller and Weber's in NYC. He was processing a 250 lb batch of Knackwurst. His machine was like a giant buffalo chopper and he turned it on, waited a few seconds, then added some ingredients, then at another moment some ice etc until the batch was smooth and creamy. The end result was a perfect sausage. I asked him "How do you know when to add the ice etc?" He just shrugged and said "I just know".
In class we followed a recipe for basic breakfast sausage. It was a simple recipe of pork, salt, white pepper and Bell's Poultry Seasoning. I showed everyone the process and at the end it came time to mix it. It was ground correctly and all of the proper amount of ice water was added. Mixing it is the final step to get the sausage to stick together and bind the proteins. How long did I mix it? Could it be over-mixed? It is one of those baker/sausage maker things. I just mixed it until it was tacky and stuck to my hands upside down.. but not more. I could have said 35 seconds but that would have been me mixing it and not someone else.
While we were starting to clean up there was about 18 lbs of trim left over. I quickly measured out some salt and threw in the white pepper and poultry seasoning to make up a quick batch. I wasn't really measuring and I didn't let the students know. I ground it with some ice and quickly mixed it up. We threw a sample in the pan and it tasted exactly like the other batches we had made. I've made thousands of batches of this type of sausage over the years so it was simple.
I didn't intend to brag and I'm certainly not suggesting recipes don't need to be followed. I believe great recipes can inspire chefs. But recipes are one person's idea and procedure as they see it. Great cooks and chefs can look at a recipe and get the procedure but after they do it a few hundred times they know the recipe and they may have also unknowingly changed that recipe to their own liking. Thats what makes our work great. It can be repetitive and become drudgery but it is human and it changes sometimes. Changing recipes for the sake of change is foolish but changing a recipe slightly or changing a procedure in that recipe because it works better happens when a chef truly understands the food. As with all recipes, doing it over a few times makes it easy and doing it a thousand times makes it simple...but really good!