I know, I know, I shouldn’t have. But as my Christmas gift to you all, I’m sharing some of the amazing meat porn I’ve collected over the last few weeks. If Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl for butchers, then Christmas is the All Star game. I’ve got blisters on my blisters from tying rib roasts and all of my knives are beyond dull from frenching bones. But out of all that effort comes some amazing tasting and beautiful looking meat. So in the spirit of giving (and of sleeping off this eggnog-induced coma just in time to fire it up again on New Years) I’m passing along some of my favorites.
Last week we talked about the books every good butcher or meat-enthusiast should have on their shelves. This week it’s all about the tools you need to really make a go of some meat fabrication. It may be a bit late for the christmas gift giving season at this point, but maybe you’d be buying for someone for whom a nice set of butcher knives would make a romantic Valentine's day gift. If that’s the case, you’ve got yourself a winner. Either way, you’ve read the books, now it’s time to grab the gear and get going.
As soon as people find out I’m a butcher one of two things happens. Either they begin to edge away slowly, looking around for anyone else to talk to, or they ask me about my knives. Everyone loves cool knives these days, and people with these expensive implements love to talk about them. But really for the kind of work that butchers do, high-end knives don’t make a ton of sense. Hard forged steel is more difficult to sharpen (something I do daily, sometimes twice) and the beating that our knives undergo usually means a brand new knife, whether it costs $20 or $200, has about a one-year lifespan.
Probably the best possible knives made for butchers are Fibrox handled knives by Victorinox. Coming in cheap ($30!) but also strong and able to maintain an edge, these guys are the workhorses of not just professional butcher shops but also many big name kitchens. The steel these are made out of (x50CrMov15 for all you knife pendants out there) strikes a great balance between the really cheap material of lesser knives, and the harder-to-work forged steel of higher priced knives.
Lots of butchers, myself included, end up with a bunch of knives for specific purposes. If you’re just looking to get started you can do most anything with just two: a 6-inch for smaller breaking and an 8-inch for the big stuff and for cleaning muscles smoothly. Plenty of people will tell you that you don't really need a cleaver. Which is certainly true, in the sense that you don't really need a chainsaw or a big truck - but they do serve a purpose and are definitely fun to have around.
So you’ve got your knives; now it’s time to keep them nice and sharp. A butcher using their knives heavily will need to touch them up on the stone at least every other day. I like to sharpen mine in the morning before a day of heavy cutting (although I frequently forget and pay the price in fatigued forearms from exerting extra pressure to cut through meat). A tri-stone comes in handy because it has different levels of grit on the stones: Coarse for when you’ve really screwed something up on your knife and you need to grind it down; Medium for most general sharpening; and fine for polishing an edge razor sharp (or when you want to look busy).
Josh always tells the story of the time he was breaking beef alone in the shop when his knife slipped and he stabbed himself in the chest, close to his heart. It was a deep cut, and from that day forward everyone who cut at Fleisher’s had to wear armor when they were cutting. A chainmail apron protects most of the vital organs from cuts and stabs, and looks 100% badass while doing it. Fun fact: Niroflex, the company that makes most of the armor that butchers wear, also makes chainmail armor for renaissance festivals and reenactments.
Look, no one wants to talk about it, but it’s going to happen. No matter how great your knife skills are, no matter how focused you may be - one day you’ll cut yourself. It’s usually never that bad, but you want to be prepared with bandages on hand so you can get right back into whatever meaty project you’re working on. In this case, not just any band-aid will do. After years of “research” I’ve settled on what is unequivocally the best possible bandage on the market. The flexible fabric allows you a great range of motion once you’ve patched yourself up, and dries out quickly after getting wet.
A teacher of mine, an old German butcher, once said that you can tell the quality of a butcher by his bookshelf. He then went on to make an unprintable joke about pornography. Whatever his intention was with that statement, he’s not wrong - having a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of cuts and cuts and cooking styles is just as important as knife skills. Over the years I’ve collected a huge amount of meat books: how-to’s, cook books, ethnic style guides, and memoirs. Since it’s the season for gift giving (or buying for yourself on sale) I figured I’d pass along a few that I consider essentials for the professional or interested hobbyist.
The River Cottage Meat Book
The holy book for butchers, or really anyone interested in well-raised meat. Hugh takes the time to explain the different ways of raising different meat animals, along with what to look for when purchasing them from your local butcher. Beautiful photography and delicious recipes. It’s a must have for anyone wanting to expand their general meat knowledge, and is ground zero for many people’s passion for old school whole animal butchery - myself included.
NAMP Meat Buyers Guide
Every group of friends has that one know-it-all who prides himself on esoteric factoids that most people find boring. If you can’t think of that person you know then it’s you. And if it is you, you need this book. Not in any way a how-to guide, the NAMP lists cuts by specific muscles and muscle groups. It's one thing to be able to identify a cut and know how to cook it; learning muscle names and industry specs is taking that knowledge to a whole new level. Don’t you want to amaze your friends with the knowledge that a boneless Boston butt consists of Longissimus, splenius, semispinalis capitis, and supraspinatus muscles - with a small bit of pectorali profundi mixed in?
Adam Danforth’s books
Danforth’s two books - one on butchering beef and another on poultry, rabbit,lamb, and pork - are great step-by-step guides to humane slaughter and breakdown of animals. The books cover everything from sharpening knives and tying roasts all the way to stunning and proper bleeding during harvest. They’re written in just the right blend of highly technical, yet accessible, language. Plus the pictures are breathtaking.
Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages
One of the challenges of whole-animal butchery is figuring out what to do with the leftover cuts and trim from the butchering process. Everyone loves a good steak, but not too many customers would willingly chose from a bowl labelled “Meat Scraps." The solution to this problem is making sausage, a tradition practiced by butchers for thousands of years. Not only is this book home to detailed sausage making instructions but also has tons of great recipes to try out. The Marianski’s are traditional Polish sausage makers who incorporate old world European style with Asian and South American influences into their recipes.
Secrets of a Bacon Curer
This guy is nuts. The last of a dying breed of apprenticeship-trained British butchers, Maynard uses this book to tell his tales of coming up in the business, and the day-to-day aggravation of running a successful butcher shop. There are no recipes and no pictures, but this book is a must have simply because it’s so full of entertaining stories that people can relate to, whether in the industry or not. Plus it gives a glimpse into the grumpy-old-butcher future that awaits all of us in the meat business.
The Complete Nose to Tail
Nobody cooks like Fergus Henderson. While other chefs pay lip service to noise to tail cooking, Fergus makes it into his central mantra at his restaurant. Every part of the animal is celebrated and lifted up to it’s highest potential. I’d consider myself a a pretty adventurous eater, but before reading this book I’d probably have shied away from any recipe for Jellied Tripe or Deep Fried Calve’s Brains. Yet Fergus can make even these off cuts mouth-watering. At the end of the day, “whole animal” means "WHOLE animal” and if we truly want to be sustainable we need to start to explore a style of cooking that doesn’t mask what we’re eating, but makes it wholesome and delicious.
Cut Name: Tri-tip