Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The less popular meat cuts: A guide to butchers favorites

Unfamiliar Meat Cuts: A Guide to Butcher Favorites
By: Chef Cristian Feher

Chef Cristian's Sunday BBQ © Cristian Feher 2011

Like Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, we’re all familiar with the popular cuts. New York strip steak, T-Bone steaks, rack of lamb, and baby back ribs have all had their names displayed in bright lights. And it’s very likely that they’ve headlined a show on your kitchen table more than once.

But what about the less popular cuts? Don’t they deserve some publicity? I figured if anyone would know, it would be a butcher. And that’s just what I set out to find.

My good friend Dave Bowman grew up in Mount Airy, NC (known fictitiously as Mayberry, where the Andy Griffith Show was filmed). His family owned a grocery store where Dave began working as a butcher since the age of 12. With 30 years of experience under his cleaver, it’s no surprise that he is my “go to” guy for anything meat-related. I paid him a visit at the Fresh Market butcher shop in Clearwater, Florida to get some insight into a butcher’s favorite cuts of meat.

As it turns out, Dave likes them all! But after much deliberation, we managed to narrow the list down to his five favorite cuts.

#5 Top Sirloin Beef Steaks

The top sirloin cut is something many people pass over on the way to the rib eyes, strip steaks and tenderloin. “At first glance” says Dave, “most people notice that the sirloin has very little fat. It’s a lean steak. They’re also quite large compared to strips and rib eyes.” For these reasons, people assume that top sirloin would cook up tough and be too much. “However,” explains Dave, “top sirloin is a muscle that the cow does not use very much, and because of this, it’s actually quite tender.” The top sirloin is a close neighbor to the softest muscle on the cow - the tenderloin. In fact, it resides right underneath of the tenderloin in the rear part of the cow.

Top sirloin steaks may be large, but can easily feed a family of four for less than the price of one premium steak. They are also great on the grill. And because they are lean, they cook faster and have less calories than fattier steaks. It’s often been described as “poor man’s tenderloin”.

#4 Beef Skirt Steak

At first glance, the skirt steak just looks like a long band of stringy meat and it may not impress you.

It comes from the under-side of the cow. It’s cut from the plate along the cow’s diaphragm. The skirt steak is similar to the brisket and flank in that it’s made up of long strands of meat. Dave explained, “This is possibly the tastiest piece of beef on the cow. The flavor is amazing. And if you cut it right, it’s very soft”

The skirt steak has been used in Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine for as long as there have been cattle. It was once considered scrap, and although it’s now considered marketable, it’s still rather affordable.

Skirt steak is the choice most fajita enthusiasts go for. It is often marinated with lime or lemon juice (as the acidity breaks down the toughness of the muscle fibers) and a blend of cumin, black pepper, hot sauce, and soy sauce. It is quickly seared and cut thinly across the grain. If you’re looking for the ultimate in beefy flavor, give skirt steak a try.

#3 Lamb Shoulder Steaks

“Lamb shoulder is probably the best part on the Lamb.” Explains Dave, “it comes from the chuck [the front legs of the animal] and since the animal doesn’t use those muscles very much, they are fatty, meaty, juicy, and tender.”

Lamb shoulder steaks have since become a regular menu item on my traditional Sunday barbecues. And I would take them over rack of lamb any day.

I like to marinade them with fresh garlic, red wine, olive oil and lots of fresh oregano for a couple of hours before I grill them. They are cheap and delicious. The fat gets crispy very quickly, and the meat can be enjoyed medium rare (as all read meats should be).

If you’ve never tried lamb, or have only had the prime cuts, I would highly suggest you give lamb shoulder steaks a try.

#2 Boston Butt Roast

The last time I roasted a Boston butt roast I commented to my wife, “I don’t know why we ever spend money on standing rib roasts [beef]. This pork is sublime. And it cost $0.97/lb.” Dave agrees.

A properly seasoned and roasted butt roast is arguably better than any beef roast you can make. The sheer volume of fat stacked in between the layers of tender muscles, melt and trickle through the meat during the roasting process. This creates one of the most tender and juicy roasts you will ever savor.

The butt roast comes from the pig’s front shoulder - so why do they call it a butt roast? Dave shrugged his shoulders. But I can tell you that the best way to flavor it before cooking, is to stab deep holes into the meat with a knife and then stuff the holes with your own combination of garlic, herbs and spices. Soak it in beer or wine overnight to let the flavors seep into the meat, and you will have a world-class roast after cooking it the next day.

You can also make amazing pulled pork and smoked meat with this versatile cut.

#1 Beef Shanks

“Beef shanks are the whole package” explained Dave, “you’ve got a good amount of fat and connective tissue spread evenly throughout the meat. You have soft fat on the outside, and you’ve got a bone with marrow in the middle. What more can you ask for?”

If you’ve ever had Osso Bucco or any such slow cooked shank dish, you know what Dave is talking about. Let me take you on a tour of what happens when you slow cook shanks.

That connective tissue in the meat starts to melt and separates into collagen and oils. The collagen is a jelly-like substance that gives the sauce and the meat a fatty, and wonderfully unctuous texture. It also helps to break down and lubricate the meat. The bone heats up hotter than the meat and helps to cook the shank from the inside out. Finally, the marrow inside the bone softens and releases all that beefy flavor into the the sauce.

After two or three hours of slow-cooking beef shanks in an oven with red wine, herbs and garlic, you will end up with sumptuous fork-tender meat, and an incredibly flavorful, satisfying sauce made from the beef juices and red wine. Dave is right, when it comes to beef, the shanks are the whole package.

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