Butchery 101

Roast cornish hen, with paprika, cracked salt and pepper.

I’ve been wanting to learn how to properly carve a roast chicken for ages. So when I saw the advertisement for a Butchery 101 class earlier this year, I signed up. For about $70 I would watch a professional butcher wield the tools of his trade in pursuit of perfect cutting and carving, and I’d leave the class with a complimentary chef’s knife. I couldn’t plan a better evening out.

What did I learn? The fundamentals of primal cuts.

It wasn’t poultry, and it wasn’t carving (carving a roasted bird isn’t butchery, after all), but it was educational. We focused on beef, as perhaps the most comprehensive example of the various primal cuts found in other animals we eat for their meat. Primal cuts, also called wholesale cuts, are chuck, rib, loin, and round (the shoulder, back and hind legs of the animal), and brisket, shank, plate, and flank (front legs and belly). Butchers most often work with primal cuts—as opposed to the entire animal—ordered from producers and distributors. Vacuum-sealed in heavy plastic, our butcher pulled the various primal cuts from the demonstration kitchen’s refrigerator. He rolled up his sleeves, donned some latex gloves, and sharpened his knives.

Though you can buy primal cuts from a butcher shop, most of us do not. It’s a lot of meat. Definitely not suited for those of us with only a small freezer and who never entertain. But if we wanted to, we could buy these large cuts and cut them up ourselves into steaks, roasts, and ribs—also known as retail cuts. I imagined myself doing this, cleaving and slicing with exacting ease, laying beautiful tenderloin medallions in a row on my cutting board, ready for seasoning and the barbeque. I can dream, right?

As we watched the butcher trimming fat and silverskin, and tying clever butcher’s knots to shape a roast, we asked our pressing questions about grading meat, the best cuts for certain cooking methods, grain-finished versus grass-finished beef, and how best to prepare retail cuts for freezing. We made notes in our binders to remember that New York steaks come from the loin (shortloin or sirloin? shoot, I didn’t catch that) and instant-read thermometers are oh-so critical to culinary success.

Now, at least, I know somewhat more about the craft of butchery and the geography of a side of beef. And I have a slick new knife for trimming primal cuts, should I find myself confronted by a loin and a dinner party for twelve. But I still can’t carve a roast chicken.

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