At the Butcher Shop

I’ve been going through the meat apprentice program at work, where I’m learning how to fabricate different cuts of meat with the endgame of becoming a full fledged meat cutter. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten a good grasp on the breakdown of whole legs and primals to yield case-ready cuts of meat, but I’m still curious about where stuff comes from, and how it’s used.

The other day, I was breaking down a whole lamb, (you remember the lamb post, right?) and I was taking my time to seam out all the little flaps of meat. In doing so, I found the skirt steak, the flanks, and as I separated a layer of fat from an otherwise grinder bound portion of meat, the belly.

Neck, Shanks, Skirts, Bellies

Neck, Shanks, Skirts, Bellies

I’ve dealt with bacon before, curing it and smoking it a dozen times when I was working the smokehouse a few months back, but I’ve never done much with lamb belly.

As I’m prone to do when I get a food-related idea in my head, I scoured the internet looking for recipes on what to do with bellies. I stumbled upon From Belly To Baconwhich has been showing up lately in my searches at the top of the list. It seems that there’s another blogger out there with ideas similar to mine who attempts food projects on the regular that a guy like me would be interested in. I looked a bit closer, and it turns out that it’s a guy named Mark, who I’ve been in contact with through various Chicago-centric food events and tweets.

Reading through his post about making lamb bacon, I flipped through my mental Rolodex as to what spices I had in my pantry to make this happen. On our trip out east this Summer, from which we just returned, I picked up the sweetest fennel seeds from the madre, and I had some juniper berries available. Salt? Check. Pepper? Check. Cinnamon, clove? Double check.

I love being able to discover things that I can do in the kitchen or behind the meat counter, and with added knowledge and skills, I can fabricate and procure new and different cuts of meat with which I can experiment. Within about a week or two, I’ll have a couple of bellies that I personally trimmed ready for bacon or another application, along with a boneless neck for curing for coppa. I’m excited to find out the possibilities for a dish that I am eager to eat and share.


If you haven’t read the first post about breaking down a whole lamb, here it is. I’ve moved on to more serious territory, and if you’re a bit squeamish, try to make it through as much of this post as you can. I’ll keep it light. There will be no pictures of the slaughterhouse in this post. 

If you did read the linked post from above, you’ll remember that our butchers, for the last year, have been getting in whole lamb carcasses and breaking them down for sale in our meat department. As I stated in the comments, we come from a sterile environment of meat eating. Our meats come in shrinkwrapped packages with a sell-by date, and they have neither a face, nor a name. As far as we know, it’s what’s stamped on the package that gets us to buy things. Buzzwords such as ‘grass-fed’, ‘boneless/skinless’, and ‘organic’ influence our buying power as consumers, but we never give a second thought to where the meat actually comes from.

Chicago has a long tradition of being one of the nation’s top meat producing cities. Reaching back to 1906’s The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Slaughterhouses are part of the framework upon which the success of Chicago was built.  Compared to today’s massive feedlots, ‘farming operations’, and processing plants, the smaller slaughterhouses have gone the way of the dodo, making room for centrally located behemoths dotting the landscape of America’s ‘farmland’. Chicago’s Southside neighborhoods like Back of the Yards, once bustling with trailer activity and the smell of a barnyard, now lay mostly vacant. This past Tuesday, however, our butchers were taken to Chiapetti’s Lamb and Veal processors, the last Slaughterhouse to utilize live slaughter of large farm animals within the Chicago city limits.

I could be morbid here, and talk about death, but it’s not the time, nor is it the place. This is a job that needs to be done if those who eat meat want to have dinner on the table. Those who are involved do their jobs with skill, and with a quickness and precision that most home cooks will never see. They do it because it’s necessary.

We showed up to the plant at 8:45 in the morning and waited to be called in for our tour, just as the first shift of workers was going on break. As we stood out front, out came the USDA representative, everpresent for daily operations, and in went the Rabbi to inspect the plant. We were informed that today, instead of the USDA mandated stun kills, we would be seeing a Halal, or Muslim live slaughter. This is similar to a Kosher kill, in that the animal is slaughtered with a single knife cut to the throat, and bled immediately. The knife is the sharpest I’ve ever seen, and the kill is quick and arguably as humane as the bolt method. I’ll touch more on this later.
As we waited, the trailer drove by carrying the lambs and pulled around back to the loading chute. The familiar Midwestern smell of sheep passed us over. It was no different than a county fair.

We walked into the plant, and were introduced to the man who took us first to the fabrication room. Many of the readers of this blog have seen the movie Rocky. I’ll just say that the depiction of a meat locker in that movie is true to how they actually are in real life. Hundreds of spit-ready lamb were hanging, ready for bagging for wholesale or breakdown for smaller restaurant cuts. As we watched, one of their butchers broke a carcass down for us, first breaking the hindsaddle from the foresaddle with a breaking knife, and then fabricating them into subprimal cuts of shoulders, racks, bone-in legs, loins, and denver rib racks. As 25 people gathered around his small table, he had the opportunity to do each cut twice- the first with the speed necessary to meet the quota of 1300 lamb that they go through every day, and the second time, slower to show where each cut was to be made, and how to hold the knife.

Home cooks hold their knives different than chefs, who hold their knives different than butchers, who hold their knives different than the fabricators and breakers who split whole carcasses. The mistake that most people make when they use their knives is that they use the end of the knife closest to the hilt, because it gives them a feeling of more control.

I want you to do something right now. As you’re reading, reach over and touch something. What part of your hand are you using? I’m willing to bet it’s your fingertips. I can definitively say that it’s not the first digit of your fingers. Why would you do that?  When you use your knife all day, it becomes an extension of your hand. If you treat your knife blade as if it’s your hand, the highest level of accuracy you can get is with the tip.

Sound familiar?

Okay, maybe not the best picture for analogy, but you get it. We watched as he pressed with a pointed blade directly on the bone to separate the meat with the highest yield possible. This comes from years of practice. As he cut, we saw roast after roast cranked out. The square cut shoulder became a boneless shoulder roast. Using just the tip of the knife, the cap from the rib rack was removed, and the bones were frenched, removed of any incidental meat from a two inch area at the top, leaving an ovenready roast.

Most interesting was the tunnel cut leg of lamb, where he separated the femur bone from the meat, made an incision above the knee joint, and removed the lower leg, or shank, and femur from the whole roast by twisting, leaving the now boneless leg roast intact.


It’s interesting to see how our meat gets to the state in which we recognize it as it comes to our case. I appreciate the workers who spend hours making it so we can easily make it for our dinner without much effort, but it’s important to realize that it came from somewhere. The next post I write will focus on how a live animal becomes something that these workers can use to make our trips to the store more convenient. It might not be as pleasant as this one, or as palatable, but it’s something that I need to write to get the full story out. If you eat meat, I hope you’ll find it a valuable read.

Just read the New York Times article, “The Lost Art of Buying From a Butcher“. Most of the stuff they say in there is dead on correct. As someone who works behind a meat counter, I see a couple of issues with it.

Yes, customers are entitled to get what they want, and for the most part, get it when they want. The addition of premium/luxury cuts (read: former trash cuts that Brooklyn meat shops have appropriated for high prices and new customers) can’t necessarily be seen as a bad thing. We’ve been doing this at our store for a while, with the addition of the Chuck eye steaks, “Chicago” steak (basically a cut off the chuck arm), and the Flat iron (Inner part of the chuck arm) from the beef, and a host of cuts from the pork leg for stewing, (pork stew meat, pork sirloin tip), as well as pork cutlets and scallopine, for quick and easy cooking for schnitzel or saltimbocca, to use a couple of ideas. When it comes down to it, on a larger scale, nose to tail butchering takes a lot of courage and investment from a butcher’s point of view, and a LOT of compromise from that of the consumer.

From a previous post, A Lamb’s Tale, you know that we bring in whole lamb carcasses and break them down in house. This is to present the customer with quick and fresh choices for dinner. There’s only two racks of chops per animal, and those typically go first, followed by the easy to cook lamb leg, the eminently grillable loin chops, and slower but still consistenly delicious shoulder chops and roasts. From a butcher’s standpoint, the shoulder chops are generally my favorite cut, as they can be prepared any way from grilling to braising, standing up in place of either the long-gone rack of lamb, (much easier to mess up and far less forgiving), or a lamb shank. Most people don’t realize that when they come in to buy stuff, and despite the fact that it is in the mutual best interest of the seller and buyer to provide the latter with the most palatable meal possible, they just don’t take us at our word without a little prying.

There’s only so much that we can do. The ribs and bone in lamb breast are trimmed down and often put in the case, but tend to linger as the other cuts sell down. This is in spite of our constant support from behind the counter of these cuts, which to the credit of the NYT article, they highlight very well. (See: Lamb Necks Braised in Wine With Peppers, NYT, Nov 2, 2011) It’s bothersome, however, to know that aside from an article featuring small time butchers in the NYT or a Rachael Ray cooking segment (shudder), that people will never acknowledge the inexpensive luxury of a lamb neck. The sorry thing is that we have them. We most definitely have lamb necks, and every week, they end up sitting around until we throw them in the smokehouse to cook with rosemary for 4 hours until they’re fork tender, and attempt to sample them out to that one special customer who we think might start a trend. How do they taste? They’re fantastic. Unfortunately, we cannot always rely on our favorite Greek woman to come in to order the lamb neck. She goes to her guy in Greektown, because of course she does, and guys like us, despite our best efforts and wide variety of fresh cuts, can’t usually compete unless it’s for Easter, where we were the last place in town with fresh cuts of lamb.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I know how to cook. I know the basic recipes for almost every cut of meat, how to season it, how long on either side a steak will take on the grill, and how to rest a roast or bird after cooking to ensure the most moist of dinners. So do most of the people I work with, and if they don’t, they listen. They listen to those who do, listen to the customers and what they’re making, ask questions, and then pass that information along to the next person who has a desire to buy a chicken, pork roast, or steak. The dialogue of a meal is far more important than the cooking and execution; Without the pre-meal conversation, you don’t know how much you need to buy, what seasonings you need on-hand, what side dishes go best with it, or how much time you need to spend actively prepping in the kitchen.

We’ll ask you questions like, “How many people are you feeding? Do they have good appetites? To what degree of doneness do you like your meat prepared? Are you buying grassfed because you like the taste?”

The last two are important ones to consider, as they go hand in hand. We like to think that we’re educated consumers, knowing where our meat comes from, how it’s raised, what it eats, but in the mechanics of meat, a lot of people can’t look at a steak and tell me how it’s going to turn out. After selling thousands of ribeyes, ranging from the leanest of the lean grassfed to a bone-in prime beauty, we have some idea.

When people are licking their chops at a tenderloin, I always ask them how they’re going to prepare it. At close to 30 bucks a pound, I want them to have a clear idea of the direction their meal is taking. If they’re going to cook it well done, I shift them to the top sirloin. The more done your steak is, the less you’ll be able to tell the difference between a high end cut and a similar cut of ‘lesser quality’. I’m not saying it will be like a tough piece of shoe leather, because occasionally, you’ll get a really nice mistake. If you try to duplicate your recipe for that hiccup of a fairly decent piece of tenderloin that you accidentally cooked medium well but it turns out well done and dry the next time, I’m either going to hear about it, or you’re never going to order that steak from me again. I’d much rather set you up in a good ol’ reliable Honda Civic than the status symbol of a sports car that is the tenderloin.

On to the Ribeye. Here are two pictures of ribeyes- the first is a Select grade, the second is a prime. See if you can spot the difference.

Pretty easy to tell. A lot of people want a lean ribeye, in which case I’ll steer them toward the strip steak. Still juicy, still tender, but I try to find them one that I’d eat. You’re really looking for the marbling, because as the fat melts, it’ll become more fork tender. If customers are less receptive, of course, I’ll give them what they want, but I have this need to make sure that they get a good meal out of what they’re getting. The easiest way to impress this is to tell them to look their steak in the eye. The Ribeye. It’s that square of fat running right down the middle. If you’re baking a potato, the butter is what gives it the flavor, melting into the food. The same effect is caused when you sear a steak on the grill. The eye melts down, flavoring your food and keeping it moist. With a grass-fed steak, although it’s healthier with its lower levels of saturated fats and higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, your dinner will typically offer you two things if you cook it the same way you do with your regular grain finished steak: A tougher final product, as there is less marbling, and a deeper flavor, as there is usually a smaller eye to mellow out the grassiness of the meat. It’s fine if you tenderize it using either a dry rub method or an overnight marinade, but if you’re getting a steak and you want it to taste like a steak, less is more. A simple, quick dry rub will do the trick, left on for 30 minutes before cooking on a steak left to raise up to room temperature.  Salt, pepper, a little oil, maybe some paprika or other flavor. Not a whole lot more. 


It’s okay to be picky with your meat. Having a dialogue with your butcher is encouraged. It lets us inform you and give you the best quality meat available, give you tips on how to cook it, and gives the customer a sense of value in being heard and having the best possible end result. Just as it’s our job to give the best meat and service, take our advice and listen closely, and perhaps on your next trip to the store, you’ll be impressed with the new cut of meat that you get to try out. We know who the kitchen adventurers are. We like them. We just want to see more of them coming through our lines, excited for the options that our meat case holds for them.

A final word, as put out by the NYT article that sums up my stance succinctly and accurately: “A butcher will comply but also advise if you are in doubt. Take in your recipe and go over it with the butcher — just not at 5 p.m. on a Friday when there’s a line out the door.”

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Here’s the latest from the Butcher Shop. I’ve been getting up early in the morning to exercise my American Male birthright of making sausage. Saturdays and Sundays, I go in to work at around six in the morning with my primary job being to make as much sausage as is necessary from Picnic to Links within an 8 hour time frame. I’m going to be walking through this using pictures and proportions that are on an industrial scale, but you can easily do this at home in smaller quantities.

The most important element to a successful sausage is the fat content. A good sausage will have 25 to 30% of its weight comprised of fat. You can attempt a healthier sausage using either poultry or a leaner cut of pork, i.e. pork loin, but you will end up with a drier sausage. With beef as well, there isn’t a cut that will really hold up to making a fresh sausage without added fat.

On the flipside, if you add too much fat, when you cook your sausages, you’ll essentially be doing two things: Deep Frying the pork within the casing, and leaving room for horrible flareups on the grill. The fat will melt, and instead of soaking into the meat and blending with the seasoning, it will fry and dry the meat, and leech out of the sausage, shriveling your masterpiece and leaving you open to sausage ridicule. Speaking as a professional, you do not want anyone ridiculing your sausage.

If you’re doing this at home, and don’t have access to a room that is kept just above freezing, you’ve got to work quickly, and here’s why: Just like a buttercream frosting, pork fat begins to break down and melt, even at room temperature on a regular day. 70-80 degrees can cause pork fat to soften, and instead of having a sausage with little flecks of fat, your links will be smooth and puttylike when raw, and closer to a hotdog in texture when cooked. Also, you want to avoid foodborne illness, so between every step, chill the meat down, either in a bowl resting in an ice bath, or ideally in the fridge. In your downtime, rinse and sanitize your equipment between every step. It’s important.

The best cuts of pork to use for your sausage are the ones that you slow roast. Cuts of Boston Butt, from the upper shoulder, and the Picnic, from the front haunch of the pig just above the leg, are the ideal cuts. No matter how much you want to, do not use Pork Belly to make bacon. Didn’t you see what I wrote above? It’s too fatty! I’m going to show how to make sausage with a Picnic, as shown below. It’s inexpensive to buy at the store, and it makes delicious, delicious sausage.

Delicious Pork Picnic, I will make you into sausage!

Just by looking at the outside of the cut, you see how it has a thick layer of fat. This is the ideal that we are looking for when we make sausage. Just below the surface, there’s meat that has ribbons of fat as well, similar to but not as fatty as a bacon, which we will see as we start the process.

Making Sausage: You will need-

1 Boneless Pork Picnic Roast (approximately 4 pounds)

Seasoning mix (Google it. Any kind you want)

Standing mixer with Grinder and Sausage stuffing attachments

Pork Casing- This will give you plump sausages, not thin ones like the breakfast variety

Before you start, do a couple of things. First, rinse the casings, as they’re probably full of salt. Run them under cool water, swishing them about until you shake free all the excess salt, and then pour off the water a few times as it fills. After that, fill it with warm water and let them sit for fifteen minutes. This will make them more pliable and easier to work with. Also, throw every removable part from your grinders and stuffers into the fridge or freezer. The auger, the plunger, blade, extruding dies, the nozzle. Everything. The heat given off by the machinery in the sausage making process will cause the pork fat to melt, your sausage souffle to fall and the texture to become less glorious, and more homogenous. Nobody likes a languid sausage. When in doubt, the best advice is to keep cool.

Anyhow, on to the assembly!

Step 1: Cut the Pork into Small Pieces

Meat, Chopped

“That’s not small at all!” you say? Well, for the meat grinder we have at work, which handles upwards of 100 pounds of meat at a time, it’s small enough. For the home sausage maker, dice  up the meat into cubes small enough to fit down the feeder chute of your grinder attachment on the stand mixer. If it won’t fit, um… dice it smaller, or quit.

Step 2: Grind the Pork

Now that your stuff is diced, put it in the fridge, and quickly assemble your grinder using the chilled parts, tighten everything, and then grind your meat. Use whichever die you would use for hamburger meat. If there are lines of fat that don’t look incorporated, don’t worry. As you mix, it’ll all come together.

The Pork, she is Ground

Step 3: Add the Seasoning, Mix Well.

Add the Seasoning (Chorizo)

Mix Well

Mix it by hand. Fold it like you would a chocolate mousse, and once you get tired of doing that, mix it like you would hamburger meat, as long as you’re not the kind of person who squeezes it through your fingers. Don’t be that person. You want it to look nice as well as taste good, so don’t mix angry. Make sure you get the bottom, the sides, and any place where there may be an excess buildup of seasoning. The mixing is a very important step, as you want sausages that are uniform in flavor and appearance. Nobody likes an ugly sausage.  

Put it back in the fridge. Clean the grinder attachments well, let them dry, and put them back in the freezer to chill.

When everything is chilling, relax. Check your sausage casing. It should look like snot. Does it? Okay, good.

Casings, Soaking

Step 4: Stuff the Sausage

Pretty self explanatory, but here’s the breakdown. First, assemble your stuffer. Get the auger back out, the nozzle, and set it up. Next, get your casings, soaking, and put a little more warm water in the bowl. Find the end of the casing, make it like a little funnel, and dunk it a few times in the water, so that you get a good rinse on the inside of the casing that slides through as you put the casing on the nozzle.

Like this.

Next, load up your meat into the hopper. In my case, it’s about 20 pounds of chorizo. Here’s what it looks like.

Now that you’ve got everything ready, pump it out. Pump it up. Leave about four inches of casing open at the end of the nozzle to tie off after you finish filling. At home, there’s not really any real danger of overfilling, but you want the sausage to have a little give, like a bike tire that needs a little bit of inflation. Try to pack the sausage evenly, so as not to get any air bubbles. If you do, it’s okay, because you can just prick the sides of the sausages with a fork to  let the excess air out. Don’t think you have to pump too fast. We’re about a quality end result, here. Remember. Don’t fill it too full. Nobody likes a busted sausage. 

Step 5: Link the Sausage

Now that you have your long tube of meat, you need to link it. The easiest way is to do it two links at a time.  Tie off the end of your sausage, squeeze the meat  towards the knot until you have what appears to be a plump link of sausage, and then give it a pinch and twist it a couple of times.

The bits of twisted casing in between the links shows that the sausages were not overfilled when pumping, and just like balloon animals, could be twisted with ease and care. If they are too full, they will rip down the side, and as we said before, Nobody likes a ripped sausage. 

Next, separate the links, pack them, and either freeze them, refrigerate them, or throw them directly on the grill. Now, you’ve made some great sausage. Put another check in the column for things to cross off the bucket list!





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I’ve held off on writing a post about this, because it all hinged on a poorly remembered Julia Child video, (perhaps even recreated by Meryl Streep’s JC caricature in Julie and Julia- don’t want to be too derivative of other food-centric bloggers) wherein she had a whole lamb carcass, which she then proceeded to fabricate and educate her viewers about the various methods of preparation. I’ve searched high and low, and cannot find a copy of the video on Youtube, or even a mention of the lamb itself, affectionately referred to as Vincent, Virgil, or some other V name.

Ah, well.

I was also going to write about packing a picnic lunch, but the weather in Chicago has gone from 80 degrees on Monday to an abysmal 45 and foggy today. Here’s the cribbed version: On Monday, I made a picnic lunch- Two kinds of hummus. One had fresh basil and pistachios while the other had sun-dried tomatoes. Made a pasta salad with feta, zucchini, broccoli, sweet peppers, and some leftover balsamic dressing. Also made a salad with Plums, Peaches, basil, red onions, rice vinegar, tomatoes, and a splash of olive oil. All were tasty. We ate them at an outdoor concert.

As a sidebar which I as the writer of this blog reserve for questions, what does a sun-dried tomato factory look like? There’s no way that all these tomatoes can be left to dry in the sun. Are they really? Why not just say preserved or oven roasted? There is no way. Who works at these places, walking by row after row of tomatoes out in the sun, deciding, “Nope, those aren’t ready yet.” What happens if it rains?

Hey. That’s not what this post is about. This post is about lamb.

At my store, we get most of our lamb from New Zealand. It’s plentiful and lean, raised on the Middle Earth Pasture, and by itself, it’s pretty good. However, it has to come from New Zealand, and it takes a long time to get to us, as does anything sold in mass quantities from overseas. Don’t worry. It’s the same every place. Look at those bananas. Do you think they were green because they were picked yesterday? Unless you’re on the crisp cool shores of Puget Sound, do you think that salmon was caught that morning? Nah.

But this new lamb, we get in every Friday and Saturday from Chiapetti Lamb and Veal, a processing facility not two miles away. The lamb come from South Dakota, and they are slaughtered on a Tuesday and delivered to us on a Friday as whole lamb carcasses (heads removed, of course).

We then break it down into parts that will be more easily marketable. The first cut, we split the animal in half with a lengthwise cut. This gives us visual access to the rib bones, and lets us see where we need to make the cuts to come up with rack of lamb, loin chops, and the leg of lamb/shanks.

Shoulder, Square Cut

From the front of the animal, this is the first piece to come off. Sliced and trimmed, this can be made into lamb shoulder chops for the grill, done as a bone-in roast, braised, or taken off the bone, rolled, and stuffed. It’s a versatile, flavorful cut of meat,

Splitting the Rack and Loin

After the shoulder is removed, we split the rack section from the loin. There are eight bones in the rack, and further fabrication of that cut  (removing the meat from between the rib bones, or Frenching) yields what we see on fancy menus as rack chops or “lollipop” chops. In addition to the frenching, we remove the feather bones, to make it an easier cut at the table.

Removing the Chine from the Rack

What you’re left with, after a little bit of trimming, is the leg. With a sharp knife, trim around the aitch bone (which is connected to the leg bone), and remove it. You can trim the short end, make it into the lamb hindshank for braising, and trim the leg bone out to make a boneless roast.

The best thing about getting the whole lamb carcass is that by trimming it, and sectioning it out into all the cuts, is that there’s virtually no waste. There’s a tiny bit of feather bones to be thrown out, but you can use the bones for stew, grill the riblets, and use the trim for lamb burgers.

Really, lamb is pretty good. Just as with veal, it is a younger version of a meat that some people don’t find quite so palatable. Me? I don’t really care for beef. If I had my choice between an animal that wanders around for 2 years, getting tougher and tougher with every step, or one that is younger and more tender, I’ll go for the milder one.

It’s healthy, tender, mild, and does really well with any flavors. Next time you’re in my store, buy some. It’s delicious. Any questions you have about lamb, post them here, and I’ll be happy to send up some recipe recommendations.