This butcher has a message for home cooks that he offers with humor and insight. Shake those fears away and try something new, he says. And make sure your knife is sharp.
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. He’ll be in the Twin Cities for a cooking class next Sunday.
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?
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.