Last week at the Institute of Culinary Education, master butcher Rudi Weid taught me to butcher as I'd never known before—beginning with a whole side of heifer, and ending with a seemingly infinite array of cuts. To break down an entire beast into manageable, useful sections is what separates we human carnivores from the rest of the animal kingdom. A pack of ravenous lions will hardly distinguish between the tougher flank of their prey and the tenderer loin, but butchers do so with incredible accuracy.
The sheer breadth of terminology used to label the primals, sub-primals, and cuts was daunting. To keep up with Weid's constantly moving knife, I flipped back and forth between a beef skeletal chart, a primal chart, and a chart displaying the common cuts we find behind the counter.
Terms like outside flank, inside flank, silvertip, top round, bottom round, eye of round, shell steak, strip steak, and flap meat inundated my feeble powers of memorization, until one section of the heifer began to look suspiciously like another.
Maybe if I had watched Weid take apart another ten sides of cattle, the logic of the different parts would have crystallized in my mind. Nevertheless, the message at the end of the day was crystal clear: to become a great cook, one must understand and use the whole beast.
Butchering is an intensely physical activity, which I didn't fully understand until I watched Weid at work. He cradled the entire side of the heifer between his own abdomen and legs in order to sever the joint attaching the shank to the round (i.e, the back end of the animal.) Then, with a giant saw in hand, the sound of metal touching bone reverberated around the walls of the classroom.
I'd known that any cut labeled "prime" (the highest grade of beef) these days would have been a higher form of choice forty years ago. What I hadn't fathomed, however, was the incredible mass of waste that occurs in most slaughterhouses today— that the majority of the shank, round, and rump are turned into ground beef instead of being retained for discrete uses.
From the cook's point of view, the collection of bone, tendon, and sinews in the legs and rump of the cow makes for the ideal stewing medium. From the modern-day butcher's point of view, the extra amount of work required to minutely fabricate the shank, round, and rump is financially questionable, given the demand. As the course progressed, Weid demonstrated cut after cut in the shank that these days would be thrown into the "chop meat" bin. "Chop meat" is a blanket term describing that which is used for ground beef. In the past, the very same cuts would have been reserved for roasts and stews.
Weid attributes the paucity of soup meat to the decline in the average cook's knowledge and skills. Most shoppers, who turn to steaks, tenderloins, and ground beef, will hardly find the time for stewing meat. Similarly, he told stories of his American customers demanding obscenely large portions of steak—cuts so large, in fact, that his European customers would request one fifth of the amount for the same number of diners.
At the end of the class, the cuts that Weid had broken down with such care—prime rib, sirloin, filet mignon, and hanger steak—were cooked and served to a hungry class of meat lovers. Not surprisingly, my favorite amongst the different cuts was the hanger steak, a flavorful strip of meat next to the kidney of the animal. Unlike its more expensive counterparts, the hanger steak was juicy and full of fat (and therefore, flavor).
Following the course, Weid seconded my preference for the hanger steak.
"I don't really find most steaks to be all that interesting," he commented. "I'll take the ribs or some stew meat any day."