Do you know how a cow gets from the pasture to your plate?
By Carly Deacon
I have taken on a new appreciation for the flawless, perfectly cut and wrapped steaks neatly displayed in the beef cooler at Sobeys. Prior to my new found appreciation, I had a hard time differentiating between a rib steak, tenderloin, sirloin, or T-bone. Then add rump roasts, arm roasts, chuck roasts and round roasts to the equation. Seriously, my decision usually came down to the price. The pricey steaks and roasts were obviously the best cut from the best cow right?
In my own self-defense, my ignorance came honestly. I did not grow up on a farm, and as of yet, have not harvested and processed any big game animals to familiarize myself with their anatomy. I am excited to learn the process and start big game hunting this fall, so this winter I took a week of holidays from MWF to work in a meat shop in North Dakota. I wanted to share this experience, as we often take for granted the behind the scenes work put into providing accessible “ready to cook” meat products at local grocery stores. I had no idea the hours and labor put into perfecting the art of butchery. Quite frankly it is an astonishing trade! In a short week I learned more than I anticipated on the process of how a cow gets from the pasture to your plate. I hope by sharing my experience, it will also help you connect the dots the next time you are sitting down to enjoy a good beef BBQ.
The Slaughter House
My time in the slaughter house was what brought this entire experience full circle. Like I said, I’m a passionate duck hunter, but to date I have not pulled the trigger on a big game animal. I claim I can harvest a deer, and have no problem throwing a juicy steak on the BBQ, but I had serious reservations about killing a cow. I got through this experience with careful coaching from my friend and butcher extraordinaire, “Mentally draw lines from the top of each ear to the opposite eye, where the lines cross is where you shoot. “Take your time, take all day if you need to, just be sure to place the rifle in the correct location,” he explained. Before I could say no, I had the .22 cal rifle in my hands. Thankfully, the procedure was fast, flawless, and over before I knew it. Afterwards I waited for the flood of guilty emotions, but the only emotion I felt was thankfulness. Thanks for that animal and for the food we were about to produce from it.
The steps that followed, as you can imagine, are much like processing a deer: removing the head, feet, hide, guts and lifting the cow on a chain hoist in preparation to be washed and cut.
Quartering and Hanging
After the cow hide was removed and the animal is properly gutted and cleaned, we split the cow along the axis of symmetry (i.e., the spine) into halves, and then again across into front and back quarters (called the hindquarters and forequarters).
The beef was then transferred into the large cooler, where it remained cold until sold for up to 21 days.
We cut the meat in the front butcher shop, one quarter at a time. Here we worked on cutting the quarters into primal cuts, which are pieces of meat initially separated from the carcass from which steaks and other subdivisions are removed. Looking at the hindquarter, these cuts included sirloin steaks, tenderloins, T-bones, porterhouse steaks, rounds steaks, round roasts, and soup bones (from the shank). In the forequarter the primary cuts are the rib eye steaks, standing rib roasts (known as prime rib), short ribs, brisket, chuck roasts, and arm roasts. The remaining meat was deboned, cleaned of excess fat and cartilage, and put into the grinder for delicious hamburger. Have you ever wondered how and why we pay higher prices for extra lean ground hamburger? Well it is because it is a royal pain in the butt and extremely time consuming removing all the access fat by hand to get the meat to the proper “extra lean” standards. I will never again complain about hamburger prices!
Learning the cuts can be overwhelming, but an easy tip to remember when you are trying to figure out what cuts are tender and what cuts are tough, is to remember that the animals leg and neck muscles do the bulk of the work so they are the toughest meat, as you move away from the hooves and horns, the meat becomes more tender.
Preparing, wrapping and packing
Our journey from pasture to the plate was completed on the wrapping table. Mastering the technique of meat wrapping was a huge component of my time spent at the meat shop. This stage involved preparing, scraping, trimming and neatly wrapping each steak and hamburger ball like it was a precious Christmas gift. It is fairly laborious and meticulous work actually, and as we all know in retail, presentation is everything! At this particular meat shop, some of the product was packaged away for special orders, some was sold for retail, and some was taken a further step into the smokehouse and made into sausage, jerky, and other delectable treats.
Reconnecting to the Food Chain
The many pieces of the puzzle involved in the art of butchery definitely fell into place for me that week. I thoroughly enjoyed the laborious work involved; it was a fast and furious learning curve and eye opening experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect walking into the meat shop on my first day, and honestly I had no idea I would be processing a domestic animal from a living creature to a carefully packaged steak. Making this connection to the food chain for me was no different than harvesting a duck. As I hunter I have always felt a sense of pride harvesting my own wild-game. Processing a cow from the pasture to the plate gave me this same fulfilling feeling of respect, appreciation and pride. If that wasn’t enough, as an added bonus I have honed in new skills that will help me process my own deer this fall.