It’s not every day I get to spend an afternoon playing with knives and a big piece of meat, surrounded by food bloggers, with my girlfriend Holly taking pictures. We had a blast, and the jokes flew fast and furious.
I could be breaking down a lamb with geriatric Sicilian nuns and it’d take about a minute for the humor to slide below the belt, but with the crowd gathered at our hacienda this past weekend — food bloggers and friends from the Bay Area — it took about a nanosecond.
I cut up whole animals with some regularity, and over the years have developed a system that works well for me. So when my friend Stephanie suggested I do a butchering demo, I said sure. I love sharing what I know, and I’ve missed teaching a lot; I taught a journalism class at Sacramento State University every semester, until budget cuts scrapped that last year.
This would be an unusual class. I realized at some point while I was sharpening my knives, waiting for the crew to arrive, that they’d be mostly, if not all, women. Women are not traditional butchers. Butchers, to your mind’s eye, are burly, mustachioed men quick with a knife and even quicker with a randy joke about their meat. Come to think of it, that’s me — except for the burly part.
But I love that more women want to learn this skill. Unless you are taking apart cattle, one or two normal women are perfectly strong enough to wrestle even a large pig into the positions they’ll need to break it down. And cutting a lamb, which is what we did Saturday, is within anyone’s power. Women, I find, also listen better and are more careful than men are, especially while they’re still new at the game.
So there we were, standing in the living room, with a half a lamb carcass sitting on a table, cutting boards and knives all around it. What? You never dismembered a lamb carcass in your living room before? Well then you haven’t lived. It’s almost as cool as being knee-deep in writhing, pissed-off squid. But that’s another story.
Stephanie was there, as was our friend Biggie from Lunch in a Box; both had been to our house before, and both are armed with an ice-breaking sense of humor that had the newcomers hooting in no time. It was a pretty entertaining bunch: Del and her husband Don of Delementals; Jennifer from FoodBat; Anne Pao from the Tao of Pao, with her friends Christine, Cynthia and Jenn; Luna Raven of Luna’s Kitchen Magic; and Heather from Heather in SF. Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes swung by later, once the cutting was mostly done and the beer began flowing.
I started by showing everyone how I cut up a lamb (or pig or goat or deer, for that matter), and we followed that with some hands-on work.
You should know that once the critter is skinned, gutted and hung, it is pretty clean and neat to deal with — reason I say this is because I often get comments like, “why isn’t your house covered in blood when you do this?” Well, that’s because the blood drains away in gutting and hanging, two activities I do not do inside. Manny and Al from Orangevale Meats were kind enough to saw what Jennifer dubbed “Fluffy the Lamb” in half lengthwise, so I could demo one half and let everyone get some hands-on practice with the other half.
I generally like to break an animal down into manageable pieces first, then work on the fine cutting. I work from the extremities in toward the animal’s core. It’s easier to take off the shanks with the legs are still attached to the animal, so they come off first. Start with a knife until you get to bone, then break out the hacksaw.
That taken care of, I move to the legs. The foreleg is easiest, as it is not actually attached to the rest of the body: You can slip your knife behind the shoulder blade and take it right off. The hind leg or ham requires some excavating with a boning knife to get to the ball-and-socket joint that holds it to the pelvis. Once free, it’s a money cut of meat — who doesn’t love leg of lamb?
I then will typically bone out the neck, but it was sawed in two, making this impossible; a boned-out lamb (or deer) neck makes a wonderful roast, so long as you cook it slowly with ample moisture. Bacon helps, too.
You’re now left with the ribs and backbone. The ribs get sawed off, unless you are making bacon (which you can do with lambs, incidentally), in which case you fillet the flank meat off each side above the ribs, which leaves the ribs pretty worthless except for the stockpot. The backbone is home to both the tenderloins and the backstrap, or loin.
A lot of butchers will saw out chops, because lamb chops sell for a lot of money. One of the reasons for the high cost is because chops are such a pain in the ass to butcher — lots of sawing and cursing. I prefer to bone out the entire loin, from just in front of the back leg to the base of the neck. The French call this part the longe.
It’s a painstaking process, where you need a sharp knife and patience. I describe it as freeing the meat from the bones. ”Free the Meat!” became our rallying cry for the rest of the afternoon…
Once freed, the front of the loin is the coppa in a pig; it’s loaded with connective tissue and is best cut as a small roast, slow-cooked and sliced. And obviously it’s great cured. The loin from behind the first few ribs back to the hind leg is the choicest part — with the exception of the tenderloins, which lie directly underneath this.
With this done, you have succeeded in breaking the animal down into nice primal cuts. Time for the fine work. This is where the really sharp knife comes in. You need to trim silverskin and swipe the tip of the blade between the seams of the various muscle groups to separate them – the butchering style I taught myself is remarkably close to the “seam butchery” now in vogue. It’s the blind squirrel-and-nut thing…
It was great to see everyone pick up the skills so fast. There wasn’t a single ruined cut on the half of the lamb they cut themselves, which was pretty gratifying. I watched as people who could barely hold the knife — several women started by holding the knife as if it would bite them — become more comfortable and finally grip the handle firmly as they made the finishing slices on this cut or that.
In the end, with all the bones, choice cuts and stewing pieces arrayed on the table, it became a big ole’ meat grab. I made lamb sausages while they sorted things out, and everyone got to take home a couple links — and make the requisite condom jokes that always emerge when you are stuffing sausages.
Would I do this again? You bet. I had a great time, I got to share some things I’d learned, and I met a lot of new friends — and trade dirty jokes about “handling your meat” all day. What’s not to love?
“Free the Meat” became such a running joke I’m thinking of making a T-shirt with the slogan on it. You think I should? Maybe it could be part of the package for the next time I show some people around a carcass. What say you?