Ask the Butcher
All you need to know about setting up an in-house butchering program with wet and dry aging
As a chef, you have two options for how you get your meat: Order it from a purveyor and have it arrive a day or two later nicely portioned out in a box or bring in whole animals to butcher yourself.
The first option is obviously more common as it's much easier, less time consuming and, frankly, much cleaner. The second option can be incredibly gratifying, but you have to know what you're doing. Setting up an in-house butchering program isn't necessarily difficult, but you need certain conditions and tools in place to be successful. It can be wholly rewarding as well.
"This is an offshoot from the first time I caught, butchered and ate a fish," says Erik Niel, owner of Main Street Meats in Chattanooga, Tenn. "It was the best thing I'd done from a base human level. Multiply that by 100 and you have a cow. It’s a natural cheffy thing to be in the whole animal butchering business."
Niel, who also owns Easy Bistro & Bar, says butchering comes with its hiccups and requires a bit of a ramp up before you get things right.
"It was a larger learning curve than I thought it would be," Niel admits. "We've lost a lot of money in the process from not understanding how intense the meat business is."
Getting set up with your own butchering program requires certain tools, including either a bandsaw or handsaw, meat grinder, various knives and a large table. Almost more important than the tools is the environment.
"You ideally want to process (the meat) in a room that's 50°F or less," says John Dvorak, corporate director of fresh meats for Reinhart Foodservice. "You need to make sure it doesn't get too hot. That's one of the biggest problems with restaurants. They're usually cutting in the regular kitchen where it warms up. If the meat gets warm, the bacteria growth multiplies at a rapid rate."
Depending if you want to wet or dry age the meat determines how much space you need. If you want to wet age, you'll need a vacuum sealer and plastic to age the meat away from any air contact. For that method, you can use your existing cooler. Dry aging, however, requires a bit more space, often a separate cooler, with humidity control to better allow the meat to dehydrate while concentrating the flavors.
Once you have your tools and environment in place, next is knowing how to break down animals to effectively use the
entire carcass to your benefit. That includes bones, which you can use in soups and stocks. If done properly, it affords you many more cuts of meat to use outside of the well-known rib-eye, tenderloin and strip steaks.
"Tri-tips are amazing from the back of the animal and (its) diaphragm muscle is absolutely incredible," says Walter Apfelbaum, executive butcher at Prime + Proper in Detroit, who has a large dry-aging room for all his meats. "I love a nice eye round, which comes from the gooseneck. It's delicious to use in a stew. There's not a lot of fat; it's lean and picks up beautiful flavors from onion, carrots, celery and red wine."
Using lesser-known cuts you butcher yourself can save you money, too. Niel says overlooked steaks like Denver, chuck eye, hangar and flatiron are delicious when prepared properly and offer tremendous value.
"Instead of paying $30 for tenderloin, you can pay $10 a pound for Denver and it's great," Niel suggests.
While butchering in-house gives you more cuts and bones to make burgers, soup, stews and other dishes, you can also go the route of presenting an entire animal, like they do at DBGB in Washington, D.C.
"We do a 'whole hog' large-format dish that's popular for groups," says Nicholas Tang, DBGB DC's executive chef of the 72-hour advance-notice, one-per-night $550 roasted suckling pig for up to eight people that also includes salad, a starter, potatoes and seasonal vegetables. "The process is a long one and includes removing half the bones from the inside out, making a forcemeat and sewing the pig back together."
Which is something you likely couldn't do if you weren't equipped with your own butchering set up.