Butcher Girl col. 1: basics of meat cookery

We are extremely pleased to introduce a new monthly features all about meat from our friend Heather Marold Thomason of Operation Gastronomia. You might remember our mention of Heather’s demanding yet rewarding farm apprenticeship in sustainable animal husbandry last summer. Fast forward a few months and we find she and husband Brad happily relocated on the west coast, Heather now practicing her passion full time. In this first post, she breaks down the anatomy of animals we eat, how to cook various cuts (the muscle dictates the method) and shares a recipe for perfect pork chops.

cuts of meat

illustration by Heather Marold Thomason of OperationGastronomia.com

When the ladies of larks & japes asked if I would share some of my butcherly knowledge, I was delighted. My journey began on a small family-owned livestock farm, where I spent a long, hard season learning about raising animals from birth to slaughter. It led me across the country to an apprenticeship at a whole animal butcher shop where I now work, cutting meat and talking about cooking it all day long. Connecting meat eaters to healthy, sustainably raised animals is what got me into this game, and an important component in responsible meat eating is consuming whole animals. If you want to do your part, commit to nose-to-tail eating, so the animals that we raise for food are respected and never wasted.

Basics of [Whole Animal] Meat Cookery: Fast and Dry or Slow and Wet

Knowing where your meat comes from doesn’t only apply to its pasture or pedigree. Meat is muscle, and understanding the anatomy of the animals we eat will help inform the best possible cooking method. Lesser used muscles are the most tender, however they are also the most delicate in flavor. These are suitable for a quick pan sear and medium-rare enjoyment. The most used muscles are reliably the most tough, having connective tissue and fat. It requires time and patience to melt all that collagen* and render tender and tasty, but will also result in intense, meaty flavor.

With regard to our four-legged friends, primarily beef, pork, lamb and goat, there are some general rules that will help you determine the origin and select a recipe for your hunk of meat. A most boiled-down approach is that the higher off the ground that muscle lies on that animal, the less active it is and therefore more tender. For example a tenderloin, nestled up high along the spine, will melt in your mouth, while a flank steak, which is the belly of the beast, will require some coaxing.

More specifically, the front and hind quarters surrounding those four hard-working legs see the most action. Necks and shoulders also labor to hold up heads, while the center, or loin, of the animal plays more of a supporting role. The front half of animals (including the rib section) tends to be fattier, while the rear (loin, sirloin and legs) tend to be leaner. To get even more specific, you can relate this to the behavior of animals – pigs like to dig and root while goats like to climb, giving those foreshanks a workout.

But let’s get back to basics, now that you’re trying to envision where your steak is on a a steer. Tender muscles are most suited to hot, dry, mostly fast cooking methods such as sauteing, grilling or roasting. Tough muscles are best cooked slowly using low, moist heat. You want to braise them, stew them, or smoke them over your BBQ. There are exceptions to every rule, but here are some recommendations for cooking common cuts that you’ll come across at your local butcher shop or meat counter:

Pan-fry, broil or grill steaks and chops from the rib, loin or sirloin section:
Beef ribeye, t-bones, New Yorks, fillet or top sirloin steaks
Pork rib chops, loin chops, sirloin chops
Lamb and goat rib chops, loin chops, sirloin steaks
Remember, fattier cuts are more forgiving, while leaner cuts must be cared for to avoid drying.

Roast larger center cuts like boneless or bone-in loin roasts or rib racks, as well as sirloin and leg roasts:
Beef rib roast, tenderloin, tri-tip, round roasts
Pork rib roast, loin roast, tenderloin, sirloin roast, ham
Lamb and goat rib racks, loin roast, whole leg roast
You can also slowly grill roasts over indirect heat.

Braise or stew cuts that come from the neck and shoulder as well as cuts from lower regions like bellies, shanks and trotters:
Beef chuck, brisket, short ribs, shanks
Pork shoulder (butt, picnic), belly, hocks
Lamb and goat neck, shoulder, shanks
Most cuts that are good for braising are also good for barbecuing.

*Collagen is the protein that makes up connective tissues. It is tough and not so appealing to eat. However, when steadily heated for a long time at a low temperature (225° or so), it will break down into soft (and nutritious) gelatin.

To get you started, check out my recipe for perfect pork chops, which are also perfect for summer evenings, at OperationGastronomia.com.


Welcome to the table, Butcher Girl!

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