It’s the rare person who actually knows where on an animal a strip steak or, say, country-style ribs came from. But this knowledge is important even if you never plan on butchering: it helps you understand how to cook everything and anything. Muscles that get worked hard in an animal’s life will be tougher, and need to be stewed, braised, or slowly smoked until tender, while underutilized muscles, like tenderloin, barely need to be cooked at all. If you keep this in mind, you can cook everything well.
These days it’s pretty easy to search a cut that’s unfamiliar to you on your phone as you shop so you know how to cook it. But you can also use your own body -– as odd as it seems — to visualize and understand the breakdown of where cuts come from. As in: your butt constitutes a beef top round, your pecs a brisket. Muscle is muscle and people do tend to get where this chop or that shank comes from once they think about it in terms of the structure and musculature of their own bodies. Thinking about our own bodies also helps us grasp “worked” versus “unworked” muscle. The neck on every animal will be worked extensively since it is moving constantly and holding the head up. You’re going to want to braise neck. And you know from your own experience that the muscles in our legs (even if we only have two) are getting the most exercise and are therefore tougher than our bellies, which are often, sad to say, more like a foie gras duck’s liver – fatty and bloated.
But animals have four legs, so this comparison can only go so far. The real difference between farm animal and human musculature is those two legs. Because humans walk upright, our filet mignon would suck; those are the muscles we use to support our stance. If you’re on all fours, your back is a broad and somewhat immobile, relatively unworked structure that therefore houses prized cuts like rib eyes, loin chops, and that tenderloin.
It would be really easy to know how to cook everything if all cuts of meat were always the same. But they’re not. Beef, lamb, and pork all have four legs, so technically they can all be broken down into the same primals, which is what slaughterhouses and butchers call the large basic cuts initially carved from the carcass. From there they could also be cut into the same subprimals and cuts. But that’s not how it’s done. Primal names are different animal to animal. And you really don’t want to pull muscles out of the primals of different animals and use them all the same way. A beef flank is one thing, but a pork flank belongs on a belly, cured and smoked. That’s bacon.
Carcasses can be cut in many different ways, depending on seasonality, location, and demand. What sells in the winter – roasts and braising cuts – are (mostly) turned into steaks or grind in the summer. And the rest of the world does not butcher the same way Americans do. Demand guides our work. Our style of cutting depends on what our customers want to eat; it has to sell, or else we’d be out of business. Which is why we want you to know how to cook everything. Check back for more posts on how best to cook everything you find in our vending machines.