Admit it. You’ve been wanting to cure your own bacon. And make your own pastrami. Or cut up a chicken.
Tom Mylan, a Brooklyn-based butcher, will help. He offers the particulars, along with plenty of recipes, in “The Meat Hook Meat Book” (Artisan Books, 312 pages, $37.50), based on a decade of running the Meat Hook butcher shop in New York with two buddies.
Mylan admits he’s not a “by the rules” kind of guy, and his book reflects his more free-form approach as he tries to demystify meat and the artisanal movement behind it.
Q: How has our thinking about meat changed over the years?
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A: It’s changed in the same way that our thoughts on fruits and vegetables have changed. You look at the late ’80s and early ’90s and people were concerned about organic produce. It was the beginning of a new style of farmers market, the idea that you can purchase stuff directly from a farmer.
And then, eight years ago Michael Pollan came on the scene and called into question the idea of monoculture. You have his later books that get into meat, and I think that, more than anything, started the change in the atmosphere around meat. People really started to think about where their meat was coming from, how the animals were treated, what their conditions were like.
It was also about this time that we had a big beef scare – mad cow disease. One of the fastest-growing segments in grocery retailing is local, pastured grass-fed beef. It’s still very small, but it’s growing faster than any other sector in the grocery world.
Q: What does the home cook need to know?
A: You need to know how meat works. Whether you’re talking about a pig, chicken or steer, there are commonalities. There are certain parts to be braised, certain parts to be grilled. And just because there’s a part that isn’t tender doesn’t mean it’s a bad part. There’s no such thing as a bad cut of meat. It’s just the methods of cooking that you choose to turn it into something delicious.
Seek out that knowledge. Go to the butcher and say, “I’m thinking about doing this,” rather than bringing in a recipe and saying “This is the cut I need.” The butcher knows a lot more about meat than most cookbook writers.
Q: What makes a good butcher?
A: You have to start with sourcing, especially the new type of butcher shop focused on local pastured meat. But you have to know where the sourcing is from. Is it from a local feed lot, a local industrial farm? Where are the animals actually raised, what breeds are they? Is there quality to begin with?
Q: Is chicken a good way to understand butchery?
A: It’s the most inexpensive way to learn, even when you’re talking about pasture-raised poultry. You’re talking $3 to $4 a pound as opposed to grass-fed dried steaks at $20 to $30 a pound. It’s also a very manageable size. There’s a number of different ways to butcher chicken for different purposes, and it’s a good training ground. It also gives you the basic dexterity and knife skills if you want to butcher larger pieces.
Q: In your book, you note that meat can be thought of as flavoring rather than as the main course.
A: In virtually any other culture than the Western world, meat is used as flavoring on a day-to-day basis. If you go to China or Japan, meat isn’t the main course. It’s a bunch of vegetables lovingly prepared and there’s little bits of meat flavoring them. Meat is a treat you get every once in awhile, or you put just a little bit into something.
Especially if we’re trying to move toward a system where everyone is eating better meat, that’s one of the things that people commonly decry. “Meat is so expensive,” they say. Well, it’s expensive if you think that it’s everyone’s God-given right to eat T-bone steak every night. But it’s not expensive if we’re talking about using one Italian sausage to make a meal for six people, like making a risotto, where meat is flavoring.
Fat is a big part of that, too. For instance, if you make a rice dish and fry the rice in chicken fat before you add the stock to it, it not only makes it more tasty, but also more filling and substantial. There’s lots of things you can do to add meaty aspects to a meal and keep them virtually vegetarian.
Q: What mistakes do home cooks often make when preparing meat?
A: If cooking pasture-raised meat, people cooking steaks or chops or chicken breasts tend to use this crazy high heat. But pastured meat doesn’t take too well to extremely high heat. It makes it very tough. It’s one thing to have a hot pan to get a sear, but then you need to drop the temperature down to medium heat, whether in a cast-iron pan or on the grill or what have you.
Once you’ve gotten the color on it, you need to cook it more gently. It will also be juicier. All pasture-raised meat benefits from more gentle cooking. And that’s not in accordance with the prevailing French hotel food cooking instructions from over the past 100 years. But for pasture-raised meat, it’s accurate.
Q: Any other suggestions for the home cook?
A: People are afraid of seasoning meat ahead of time and letting it sit out at room temperature. Mostly that’s because they are used to meat that will go bad if left sitting out, but that isn’t true of pasture-raised meat. But salting liberally and letting pasture-raised meat get to room temperature before cooking will allow the salt to get in there and will make the flavors of the meat pop. People think it’s pulling juices out to do that, but that’s exactly what you do with dry-aged meat. A dry-aged steak weighs 25 percent less than it did right after the time of slaughter. Good meat loves salt.
Q: Any other thoughts on cooking?
A: One of the key things is, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s how we learn. There’s a lot of foolproof cookbooks out there. I’m an advocate for a different kind of cookbook. Certainly all the recipes in the book have been tested and they’re fairly idiot-proof. But a lot of the instruction in there allows for a good amount of wiggle room – and there’s a reason for that.
I wasn’t opposed to making a rigid recipe. But cooking is inspiration and experimentation. Cooking with a sense of fear that you might fail or you might screw it up is what predominantly blocks people from enjoying cooking. My notion is that you need to give up that fear of failure. No matter how well-laid your plans are, at some point you will cook something inedible.
Don’t worry about it because that’s how we learn. I had to radically overcook and undercook a lot of steaks and chickens and whatever to learn how to properly cook meat. And that’s how I learned – not through books. Many cookbooks don’t allow people to fail. They rigidly say, “Stick to these guidelines.” And I think that’s one of the ways that fear is instilled, which reduces enjoyment and reduces the self-education of the average cook.
Q: Your book seems to offer an alternative voice.
A: This book is not for everyone. That’s just the truth. It’s for people who want to take a little bit of a leap. It’s a very strange book. There are diagrams of exploded meat parts on a background of interstellar space. Visually, you know it’s a different kind of book.