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Nose to tail beef is an important topic for those supporting local, sustainable, regenerative agriculture. I get lots of questions on it. Buying a large quantity of beef can be a daunting prospect. Sure, you know it’s going to help your local farmer. And you know your local farmer is working hard for you, the animals and the environment. But what do you do with all that meat? What are the different cuts and what makes them different? How does a side of beef get broken down? What should you expect? Nose to tail beef is what this episode is all about.
Let me take a minute and say welcome to new listeners and welcome back to the veteran homestead-loving regulars who stop by the FarmCast for every episode. I appreciate you all so much. I’m so excited to share with you what’s going on at the farm this week.
- Homestead Life Updates
- Nose to Tail Beef
- Moroccan Seasoned Meatballs
Homestead Life Updates
You will not believe how quickly that roof is going up. After months and months and months of concrete blocks, in just a few weeks, Scott has those blocks nearly covered with a roof. He tells me once the decking is complete—within the week, he will be starting on the other roof over the barn and milking parlor. That needs to be completed to the same point before putting on the metal roofing. I love going out there and strolling around in the rooms, imagining when it will be complete.
Winter is coming upon us and it is cold today and will be even colder in the coming days. The animals are all healthy and ready for it. Thick winter coats cover all of them. Thunder had a cut on his cheek that he got from who knows where. It is healing nicely, though it looked quite scary when I first saw it. Blood was running down the side of his head and there was this huge puckered gash in his jaw. But again, he is healing just fine. The girls are grazing calmly each day and growing their calves. The first expected birthing of a calf will be Claire on the 31st of March and Buttercup right behind her about three days later.
The donkeys, sheep and goats are also grazing along. I was outside yesterday taking a tour of the creamery and saw that one of the goat does was in the pasture adjacent to everyone else. She will find her way back to the rest of the herd whenever she feels the urge. Goats are just gonna be goats.
Still no quail eggs. They don’t eat much so I guess it’s okay. I can’t wait until spring and I start hatching out eggs again. The quail are just fun.
The boys are all still peacefully grazing out front. There are five of them that will eventually make their way to freezer camp. And that brings me to today’s topic.
Nose to Tail Beef
Nose to tail beef is an important topic to understand when purchasing from your local farmer. Often beef is offered to you in quantities such as quarters and halves. Perhaps you will even purchase a whole beef and share the costs with family and friends. I’ll get to the various cuts often offered in one of these large purchases, including the organ and variety meats.
I want to start with a brief history of beef in North America, some basic terminology, muscle composition, the structure of meat, aging, and inspection and grading. I’ll end with the various cuts available in beef and which part of the animal from which it is cut.
This may be a long podcast. And I think the information will be invaluable to you as you develop a relationship with your local farmer.
History of Beef in North America
People have been raising domesticated cattle for some 3,000 years. Christopher Columbus introduced domesticated cattle to the Americas in 1493, and soon after, cattle arrived in present-day Florida and Texas with the Spanish. Cattle have always had many uses: they carry heavy loads and pull carts and plows; supply milk, cheese, and butter; and provide a source for clothing, shelter, and food. Today, Americans prefer beef to all other meats.
As I noted, domesticated cattle first arrived in the Americas in 1493. By 1500 European cookbooks began to specify cuts of beef and other meats. During the period of the mid-1800s through 1900 cattle ranching in the United States reached its peak. In 1906 the meat inspection act was passed by Congress. Finally, beef surpassed pork as the most popular meat in 1950.
Cattle is a general term for domesticated bovine animals raised on a farm or ranch for their meat, milk, or hides or for use as draft animals. Further delineation of cattle is characterized by sex and age.
Calves are young cattle of either sex. A male calf is known as a bull calf, and a female Is called a heifer calf.
Bulls are mature, un-castrated male cattle used for breeding.
Steers are male cattle that have been castrated before reaching sexual maturity, making them more docile and easier to maintain on a ranch or in a feedlot. Most beef that Americans eat comes from steers.
Staggs are male cattle that have undergone castration after they have matured.
Heifer calves grow into heifers and eventually become cows.
Cows are mature female cattle, and are usually used as a source of milk. They have to have given birth at least once to earn the title of cow.
Nutritional Make Up
Beef, like other meats, is animal muscle containing various nutrients that form part of a healthful diet.
The three main components of muscle are water, protein, and fat. These nutrients appear in the following proportions in most meats:
- 75% water
- 20% protein
- 5% fat
Muscle also contains vitamins, minerals, and very small, trace amounts of carbohydrates.
Although most meats are about three-quarters water, the actual amount of water in meats varies depending on shrinkage. Shrinkage, or moisture loss, is the result of oxidation, which occurs during storage or aging or as a result of high temperatures and long cooking times. Oxidation causes meat to lose both water and weight.
Protein is an essential nutrient that promotes growth, builds tissue, regulates body functions, and serves as an alternative to fats and carbohydrates as a source of energy. Most solid matter in meat is protein. When heat is applied to meat, the protein coagulates, or becomes firm. The degree of coagulation is one gauge for doneness. High heat can cause protein to lose moisture and become too firm, making the meat tough.
Fat surrounds the muscle tissue as a fat and lies within it (marbling). The fat may be left on a piece of meat during cooking to keep the meat moist, but barding or larding are acceptable alternative methods for retaining juice if there is no fat. Marbling also contributes to the juiciness of meat and makes it more tender and flavorful.
Regarding vitamins and minerals, meat is an important source of vitamins A and K as well as several B vitamins, including thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), B6, and B12. Meat also adds minerals such as iron and phosphorus to the diet.
Although carbohydrates are present only in very small amounts, they contribute to the appearance and flavor of meat that is prepared with a dry technique such as roasting, sautéing, or broiling.
Structure of Meat
Meat products consist of bones, muscle fibers, and connective tissue.
Bones: bone color is an indication of an animals age. The redder the bone, the younger the animal. Older animals have white bones. Becoming familiar with the bone structure of an animal helps when learning the different cuts of meat and how to debone them.
Muscle fibers: muscle fibers, or cells bundled together, make up the meat. The thickness of the fibers determines the texture or grain of the meat. Thick, tough fibers bound in large bundles make up coarsely textured meats, such as bottom round or brisket. Thinner, tender fibers in small bundles form finely grained meat, such as tenderloin.
Connective tissue: connective tissue is a web of proteins that perform several functions. It covers individual muscle fibers, bundles them together, and attaches them to bones. Connective tissue helps determine the texture of meat and is tough in general. Some meats are higher in connective tissue than others.
Frequently used muscles such as those in the leg or shoulder have more connective tissue and thus are tougher than those in the back (or loin). Meat from older animals is also tougher because as an animal ages, the connective tissue becomes more resistant to breaking down.
Elastin and collagen—the two kinds of connective tissue—differ in their ability to break down during the cooking process. Elastin is a hard, yellow connective tissue prevalent in older animals because it will not break down during cooking, elastin must be cut away from the meat or physically tenderized to reduce its effects.
By contrast, collagen, the soft, white connective tissue, really breaks down into water and gelatin with slow, moist cooking. Collagen also responds well to tenderizing.
Aging is the process by which naturally occurring enzymes (lactic acid) tenderize meat. After slaughter, chemical changes in the flesh of an animal cause rigor mortis, or a stiffening of the muscles. As rigor mortis disappears, the meat softens, or ripens, as a result of enzymatic action. This process takes up to several days for beef and must occur in a controlled, refrigerated environment so that the meat does not spoil. The result is flavorful, tender meat.
There are three methods of aging meat under refrigeration. Today I will discuss dry aging as this is the method used by small, independent meatpackers.
Dry aging involves hanging large, unpackaged cuts of meat in a controlled environment for two to six weeks. Temperature, humidity, and air flow must be carefully monitored to prevent spoilage. Two weeks is most common. Small, local meat processing facilities are limited by space and energy cost controls.
Although costly, dry aging produces extremely flavorful meat with a highly desirable texture. However, shrinkage is a major drawback of this method, with some cuts of meat losing as much as 20% of their weight through loss of moisture. Meat aged by this method also can develop mold, which requires trimming—a further reduction in weight.
Inspection and Grading
Inspection and grading systems help producers, distributors, and consumers like you evaluate meat.
Inspection—The Meat Inspection Act, passed in 1906, mandates the examination of all meat transported across state lines. This federal law guarantees that meat is wholesome and fit for consumption and that the animal for which it originated was not diseased; however, inspection is not a mark of quality.
USDA/FSIS—The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a public health agency within the United States department of agriculture (USDA), is responsible for conducting inspections. The FSIS checks meat to make sure that it is clean, safe, and properly packaged and labeled. Meat that satisfies inspection standards carries a USDA inspection stamp.
Grading—unlike inspection, grading is completely voluntary. Grading measures meat quality, allowing a comparison of meat quality grading indicates tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of the meat.
The USDA has eight quality grades that apply to beef.
- Prime is the highest quality, most expensive, with abundant marbling because of the young age of animals and feed practices. It is extremely juicy and flavorful.
- Choice is high-quality, very juicy and tender, in abundant supply, widely available to the public.
- The select grade is acceptable quality. It is a good buy, generally lean with little marbling, and less juicy and tender.
- Standard grade is lower quality. It is economical and lacking in marbling.
- Commercial grade is low quality. It is produced from older animals is economical and lacking tenderness.
- Utility, cutter, and canner are the lowest quality. This grade of meat is used primarily by canners and processors.
Up to now I have been speaking only of US beef grades. Now I will touch upon one other. Kobe Beef.
Cattle raised in Kobe, Japan, are the source of a special grade of beef that is rich in flavor, has abundant marbling, and is extraordinarily tender. Kobe beef comes from the Wagyu breed of cattle and meets rigorous production standards. Wagyu cattle are famous for the extensive marbling of their meat, but this quality characteristic is not entirely the result of genetics.
The daily routine and special diet of cattle raised for Kobe beef are quite unusual. The Wagyu cattle receive energizing massages with sake, the Japanese alcoholic rice beverage, and indulge in huge quantities of beer, making Kobe beef legendary and expensive.
By USDA standards Kobe beef would receive the highest yield and quality grades. It’s marbling and rareness in the marketplace actually put it well above the prime grade.
Once raised only in Kobe, Wagyu cattle now roam ranches in the United States and Australia, where land and feed are cheaper. Fabrication of the prized beef, however, takes place in Kobe, which earns it the name Kobe beef.
Primal, Subprimal, and Fabricated Cuts
Beef and other meats are available for purchase in various forms: carcasses; partial carcasses; and primal, subprimal, and fabricated cuts.
The carcass is the whole animal after slaughter, without head, feet, hide, and entrails. It is typical to split a beef carcass into halves and then to cut each half into a front portion or forequarter and a rear portion or hind quarter. A side or a quarter of beef represents a partial carcass. There are two front quarters, right and left. The front quarter starts at the neck and ends where the ribs end, about halfway down the back of the carcass. The rear quarters pick up from there. Again, there are two, right side of spine and left side of spine.
A primal cut is a large, primary piece of meat, sometimes called a wholesale cut. A subprimal cut is a basic cut made from a primal cut. A fabricated cut is the smaller portion taken from a subprimal cut, such as a roast, steak, and ground meat.
Beef Carcass Forequarter
Now think of the front quarter divided into four smaller pieces. From shoulder to mid back, there are four primal cuts that make up a forequarter of beef: Chuck (shoulder of the animal), primal rib (main rib section), brisket (breast and foreleg or shank), and short plate (directly below the ribs).
Those four primal cuts are broken down into subprimals and finally a fabricated cut.
The chuck comes from the animal’s shoulder. It includes part of the backbone and the first five rib bones as well as portions of arm bones and blade bones. The chuck makes up nearly 30% of the weight of the beef carcass. A fairly large portion of the chuck is connective tissue, which accounts for the toughness of this meat. However, chuck has a great deal of flavor when properly prepared. A moist technique or combination method such as stewing or braising is appropriate for this cut. The primal chuck yields various fabricated cuts: shoulder roast, chuck roast, chuck short ribs, cubed or tenderized steaks, stew meat, and ground chuck.
This primal cut comprises about 10% of the carcass weight. It includes ribs six through 12 and some of the backbone. As it is not well exercised muscle, it is tender, owing its rich flavor to extensive marbling. Primal rib cuts benefit from dry cooking methods such as roasting, broiling, and grilling. Moist heat is the preferred method for short ribs. Fabricated cuts taken from the primal rib include rib roast, boneless ribeye, short ribs, and ribeye steaks. Rib roast, better known as prime rib, is an extremely popular meat dish. The word “prime,” however, does not represent a USDA grade; rather, it indicates that the rib roast makes up most of the primal cut.
Located below the chuck, the brisket constitutes a single primal cut. This cut consists of the breast (brisket) of the animal, including the rib bones and Cartledge, and the breastbone. A combination technique such as braising is an excellent choice for beef brisket, which is very tough. Curing, another method of preparation for brisket, is the method used to produce corned beef. Fabricated cuts from this primal cut include boneless brisket and ground meat.
Short plate is the cut below the primal rib on a side of beef. It contains rib bones and Cartledge and the tip of the breastbone. Fabricated cuts from the short plate include ground beef, skirt steak, and short ribs. Moist cooking is appropriate for short ribs, which are quite meaty but also contain a large amount of connective tissue. Marination and grilling are excellent methods for skirt steak, which is sliced for fajitas.
The foreshank is considered a byproduct of the beef forequarter and may be attached to the chuck when purchased. The rich flavor of the four shank and its abundant collagen, which turns to gelatin with moist heat, make it a choice ingredient in stocks and soups. Fabricated cuts include stew meat and ground beef.
A beef hindquarter also yields four primal cuts: short loin, sirloin, round, and flank. The short loin, sirloin, and round are the rest of the spine divided roughly into thirds. The fourth portion, the flank is directly below the short loin and sirloin. The round primal cut is very large as it is essentially the hind leg.
The short loin is the first primal cut of the hindquarter, forming the front portion of the beef loin. It includes one rib and part of the backbone the yield of this primal cut is substantial and represents the most palatable and popular, as well as the most expensive, cuts of beef. Among these is the tenderloin, the most tender piece of beef. Fabricated cuts from the short loin include T-bone steaks, NY strip steaks, and tenderloin. These cuts are best cooked using dried methods. Broiling, roasting, and grilling.
Located next to the short loin, the sirloin contains a portion of both the backbone and the hip bone. The subprimal and fabricated cuts taken from the sirloin have good flavor and are quite tender, though not as tender as the short loin cuts. Fabricated cuts from the sirloin include top sirloin roasts and steaks and top and bottom sirloin butt roasts and steaks. The dry techniques of broiling, roasting, and grilling are best for these cuts.
The round is the hind leg of the animal, including the round, shank, and tail bones. It is an extremely large cut, constituting approximately 24% of the carcass weight. Very flavorful and fairly tender, the round yields various subprimal and fabricated cuts, including top round, bottom round (eye of round and heel of round), knuckle, and shank. Dry cooking such as roasting is appropriate for top round, which is relatively tender. The top or bottom round benefits from combination cooking such as stewing or braising. Lots of ground beef from this area as well.
Beneath the loin and behind the short plate (forequarter) is the flank. The flank contains a good amount of fat and connective tissue, which makes it tough. Flank yields flank steak. Moist cooking techniques are best for flank cuts.
One final note. When choosing to purchase a quarter, half, or whole beef, in addition to these cuts somewhere between 35% and 50% of the packaged fabricated cuts will be ground beef.
Variety meats include internal organs, glands, and other meats that are removed during the processing of the carcass. Traditionally viewed as ethnic food items, variety meats have found their way onto American menus in limited quantities. High in protein, vitamins, and iron, variety meats are features of soups, stews, and other dishes.
All the beef variety meats except kidney are muscle tissue. These meats are tough in general and require long, moist cooking to become tender. Kidneys are the only glance from beef served with much frequency.
Tough but lean, the heart lends itself to braising or stewing. Ground heart can be added to meatloaves or to casseroles calling for chopped meat. Be sure to remove veins and fibers before cooking.
Beef liver is dark in color and has a strong flavor. It should be broiled, braised, or panfried. It is often served with onions and is added to pies and puddings.
The customary method for cooking tongue is simmering. After cooking, remove the skin and gristle. Cooked and chilled beef tongue is a favorite sliced meat for sandwiches. Smoking and curing are other methods of preparation before cooking.
Before cooking, oxtails need to be cut into sections at the joints. Oxtails are rich in gelatin and also contain tasty meat, both of which augment the texture and flavor of soups and stews.
Beef kidney is somewhat tough and has a relatively strong flavor. Braising helps tenderize this variety meat, which is a key ingredient in steak and kidney pie.
I’m currently working on a cookbook that will have at least one recipe for every cut of meat I’ve described in this podcast. One of the challenges when purchasing a quarter, half, or whole beef is what to do with all of those cuts of meat and variety meats. I hope to fill in that gap for you with my whole beef cookbook. You can be confident in being able to use all of the great grass-fed meat in which you invested.
At the last farmers market, I brought Moroccan seasoned meatballs to give customers an opportunity to taste the quality of our lamb. Today’s recipe is in response to a direct request from several of my customers who read my newsletter and love the recipes.
Moroccan Seasoned Meatballs
Seasoned with a Moroccan-style blend of fresh mint, cinnamon, coriander and cumin and simmered in tomato sauce, these tender lamb meatballs make a flavorful change from their Italian-style cousins.
Prep time: 20 minutes Cook time: 25 minutes Total time: 45 minutes
What You Need
- 1 lb ground lamb
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
- 1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons bread crumbs
- 1 ½ tablespoons fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- ½ cup onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
- 2 cups diced tomatoes, undrained
- ½ to 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ to 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- Salt and pepper to taste
What To Do
- Combine the lamb, egg, garlic, bread crumbs, mint, parsley, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Form the mixture into 16 to 18 meatballs about 1 ¼ inch in diameter.
- Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs and cook until lightly browned on all sides, about three minutes total. Transfer the meatballs to a plate, drain the excess fat from the pan and return it to the stove.
- To make the sauce, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and continue cooking until fragrant, one minute longer.
- Stir in the tomatoes. Add ½ teaspoon each of cinnamon and coriander and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook for two minutes, then taste again and adjusted the spices as desired.
- Return the meatballs to the pan and turn several times to coat them with the sauce cover and simmer slowly until the meatballs are cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes.
- Transfer the meatballs and sauce to a serving dish, garnish with parsley and serve with steamed white rice.
That’s it for this podcast. The farmstead keeps on keeping on. The creamery gets closer and closer to completion with every passing day. The animals continue to thrive and enjoy their pasture-based existence.
I hope you enjoyed the ins and outs of beef and you better understand the nose to tail beef option. It is the lifeblood of many local farmers. They invest a great deal of time and energy into a beef product you can trust.
Look for my new Whole Beef Cookbook in the coming weeks. And do give the meatballs a try. I know, I know it’s lamb, not beef. But they are excellent just the same.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please hop over to Apple Podcasts, SUBSCRIBE and give me a 5-star rating and review. Also, please share it with any friends or family who might be interested in this type of content.
As always, I’m here to help you “taste the traditional touch.”
Thank you so much for stopping by the homestead and until next time, may God fill your life with grace and peace.
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