I watched a butchery demonstration by third-generation meat cutter Kari Underly at the annual Chef’s Collaborative conference last year in Seattle. One of the attendees was the editor-in-chief from a national cooking magazine. I asked her what drew her to watch a skilled professional divide muscles from bone and fat. “I just love watching people cut up meat,” she said. “I won’t ever use this stuff, but it’s fascinating.”
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Observing a butcher elegantly wield a knife is a spectacle, one I recommend to anybody tempted by the smells of a burger on the grill. Years ago in cooking school, I was rapt by my first butchery demonstration on a lamb, and I wasn’t even a meat eater then. Since there’s no blood to speak of (slaughter and butchery are two vastly different steps in the process), the butcher’s craft is akin to witnessing a master wood carver create an end table from a stump.
Underly is one of several pro butchers to publish a book on her craft, “The Art of Beef Cutting.” Her step-by-step illustrated guide is geared toward professional meat cutters, but is approachable for motivated home cooks. Other recent books are for the general meat eater eager to learn their striploin from their skirt steak. They include San Francisco 4505 Meats butcher Ryan Farr’s “Whole Beast Butchery” and New York-based Fleisher’s owners Joshua and Jessica Applestone’s “The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat.”
Along with “The Butcher’s Apprentice,” these books aim at the DIY market and the mania for home-cured bacon and assorted salumi. The newest butchery book out this spring is “Butchery & Sausage-Making for Dummies.” Written by San Francisco Chef Tia Harrison, co-founder of The Butcher’s Guild and co-owner of Avedanos Meats, this book brings butchery to the masses.
As I paged through illustrations, photographs and diagrams of animal carcasses and cuts in each of these books, I wondered how many people would find it both fascinating and useful.
Butchery is back, but is it relevant for everyone?
By the time I witnessed Underly in action in Seattle, I had years of informal experience cutting up parts of beef, elk, pork and lamb, whole rabbits, chickens, duck and turkey.
Laying my hands on primals and smaller muscle groups gave me firsthand understanding of how those parts related to the whole. I had an intimate understanding of how the composition of the shoulder differed from the leg, right down to the muscle texture and color.
These experiences handling, cutting, trimming, chopping and grinding my own meat not only improved my knife work, they also enhanced my cooking knowledge and skill with anything meaty.
Even if you don’t aspire to break down a whole hog or side of beef, there are surprisingly many transferable skills to be learned from a bit of butchery. Butchery guidebooks such as these are an accessible starting point for seeking out new opportunities to use your knife.
You can also sign up for a class, watch an online video or enlist a more experienced friend.
Here’s what some hands-on butchery experience can do for you:
- Connect with the meat you eat, its source and quality. Once you get up close and personal with your meat, it’s impossible not to ask questions, including how was this animal raised? What was it fed? How was it slaughtered? You become a more conscious carnivore.
- Learn the location and composition of cuts. Carcasses are like jigsaw puzzles. When you take just one piece at a time, you can more easily grasp the whole. You can then translate what you know about beef to pork to lamb, or chicken to duck to game birds.
- Increase your confidence at the meat counter and in the kitchen. Have you felt shy approaching the butcher counter? Or, do you only buy steaks because you know how to cook them? With a little experience, you become the master your favorite meats.
- Understand the reasons for different cooking methods. The proportion of lean to fat in any cut determines whether it needs slow cooking or can be roasted, grilled and sautéed. Demystify the cooking and your options open wide.
- Waste less and use more of the meat you buy. Whether you purchase a whole tenderloin to trim or a pork shoulder to smoke, you’ll find a good use for every morsel of meat, fat and even bone. Stock and sausage making are natural next steps.
5 Butchery Skills for Beginners
With your knives — a boning knife and chef’s knife are all you need — freshly sharpened, here are some beginning butchery skills anyone can try at home:
- Slice your own steaks from a strip loin (or boneless rib roast or top round roast)
- Bone a whole chicken
- Bone a leg of lamb, roll and tie it
- Butterfly pork loin
- Trim a whole tenderloin
Top photo: A butcher Frenching a rack of lamb. Credit: David L. Reamer