Meat & Poultry Fabrication
The extent of meat cutting and fabrication performed in professional kitchens today depends on the philosophy and goals of the operation. Some restaurants, because of the consistency and simplicity, prefer to purchase portion cuts. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some chefs today are adopting whole animal utilization and prefer purchasing carcasses or sides of meats to use in various menu applications. The success of a meat cutting program depends on quality control, food cost control, and product utilization. It requires a knowledgeable person skilled at accurately cutting meats, poultry, fish, and shellfish, plus cooks dedicated to using not just the prime cuts but under-utilized cuts, trim, and bone for other culinary applications.
Butchering is a term commonly used for the process of slaughtering and preparing meat for retail or wholesale use. Meat cutting, or fabrication, is the process of cutting, boning, and portioning large cuts of meat to menu specifications. Becoming proficient at fabricating whole carcasses or primal meat cuts takes practice often through an apprenticeship under a master meat cutter.
Dressed carcasses are processed whole, split into sides, or cut into quarters (fore quarter and hind quarter). More often carcasses are fabricated into primal cuts of meat. These are large cuts based on the muscle and bone structure of the animal. From there the meat is further divided into sub primal cuts that are often vacuum sealed and boxed fresh or frozen (the origin of the term “boxed meats”) or the meats are processed further into portion cuts as needed.
Skeletal and Muscle Structure
There are seven major bones in a skeleton that aid in meat identification and fabrication. Each of these seven bones are found in relation to one of the major muscles in the carcass (see skeletal meat chart).
There are four major primal cuts, the shoulder, rib, loin, and leg, found on all animal carcasses, but depending on the species there are some differences in naming and fabricating these cuts. For example, a beef chuck is the same cut as a lamb shoulder or pork shoulder butt. A beef round is the same as a veal leg and a pork ham.
Learning the appearance and formation of major cuts along with the basic structure helps in fabricating as well as cooking. See specific meat charts on beef, veal, pork, and lamb for the names and locations of primal, sub primal, and portion cuts.
There are several minor primal cuts found on each type of carcass which are usually fabricated differently depending on the animal and its size. For example, on a beef carcass the brisket, plate, and flank are separated into three distinct cuts, but on a veal carcass it is kept whole as a bone-in veal breast.
Lamb shanks and pork hocks (or shanks) are often cooked and served whole. Veal and beef shanks are usually cross-cut for braises or soups.
Pork carcass breakdown is notably different from beef, veal, and lamb. Whereas beef, veal and lamb split the rib and loin muscles between the 12th and 13th rib, pork carcass fabrication leaves this muscle intact and names it simply the loin. Pork back ribs are marketed for barbecuing. The pork belly is a much more prominent cut producing bacon and spare ribs. The pork shoulder is split into two cuts; the shoulder butt and the picnic shoulder. The jowl produces a type of bacon, and the excessive fat often found along the backside of the animal is used as fatback or rendered for lard. The leg, known as the ham, is often cured and sometimes smoked.
Fabrication Differences Based on Size
Size matters when fabricating meats. A beef carcass weighing in at 600 Lb./275 K is about 33% larger than a veal carcass at 400 Lb./180 K. A pork carcass weighing approximately 270 Lb./125 K. is about 33% smaller than a veal carcass. A lamb carcass weighing about 65 Lb./30 Kg. is about one-fourth the size of a pork carcass and one-tenth the size of a beef carcass. The yield on the same muscle from different species can be dramatic. A steer tenderloin can weigh in excess of 6 Lb./2.7 K, compared to a veal tenderloin at about 2 lb./900 g, and a pork loin at about 1 lb./500 g or a lamb tenderloin at a couple of ounces. Some viable cuts on a beef carcass such as a hanger steak or flank steak are not marketable on a lamb or pork carcass given their small size.
A beef full loin is an example of a primal cut. From the beef loin three major sub primal cuts are produced; the strip loin, the sirloin, and the tenderloin. A strip loin will yield New York strip steaks and if left on the bone can be portion cut into T-Bone and Porterhouse steaks. The tenderloin will yield filets, medallions, and tournedos. The sirloin yields top sirloin and beef culotte steaks. Each muscle eventually is portion cut whether raw, or as in the example of a roast, after cooking.
Start with a clean station and practice high standards of sanitation when cutting meats. Keep the product cold, and if needed place it on a pan of ice. Some operations will have temperature controlled rooms to keep the meats cold. It’s also important to have the right tools that are properly sharpened and a honing steel handy.
Meats are fabricated or ordered according to the specifications of an operation based on portion size usually by weight and also at times based on thickness. These guidelines ensure uniformity in appearance and purchasing costs. Weight tolerance also helps to achieve consistency in quality from the perspective of customer satisfaction. The chart shows the generally accepted weight and thickness tolerance range according to The Meat Buyers Guide.
Although whole muscles are fabricated without regard to the grain of the meat, portion cuts follow the general rule of cutting across the grain of the meat. This produces short fibers of meat that when served are easy to cut and chew.
While some cuts, like the loin and tenderloin, consist of whole muscles that are portioned by cutting across the grain, shoulder and leg cuts are made up of many muscles with varying degrees of tenderness running in different directions and making it more of a challenge to portion. For these cuts some muscles can be seamed out while others are too small and are used for braises, as stews, or for grinding.
Bone-In or Boneless
Some cuts of meat, including T-Bone steaks, pork back ribs, rack of lamb, and shanks are fabricated bone-in for appearance and flavor. Bone-in meat will have more intense flavor upon cooking versus the boned variety. Today there is a preference in the United States for boneless meats that are easy to eat without the need to separaate the meat from the bone.
Connective tissue, found throughout the carcass in the form of elastin and collagen holds the muscle fibers together in bundles and also binds them to the skeletal structure. Elastin is tough and elastic, as the name implies. It does not break down in the cooking process and therefore it is best removed. Collagen when heated melts and creates gelatin and is often left on the muscle for flavor and texture.
Cover fat and intramuscular fat in the form of marbling provides flavor and juiciness. When the marbling in meat muscles melts during the cooking process it provides flavor and juiciness. Cover fat on meat roasts baste the meat naturally while cooking when roasted fat side up. Removing cover fat or seam fat is necessary at times but because it adds flavor care should be taken not to remove too much.
Poultry fabrication techniques are similar across the different classes from chicken to turkey, and duck. Chicken being one of the least expensive birds on the market is a good item to practice cutting, boning, and portioning skills. because of their similarity to turkey, ducks, and pheasant. Although the muscle and carcass structure is similar from one class of birds to another there are some differences that should be note.: Young chickens including fryers and roasters, Cornish hens, and poussin have softer bones and cartilage making them the easiest to fabricate. Turkey and chicken capons are bred for their large breast meat ideal for roasting whole, or portioning into cutlets including scallopini and schnitzel. Turkey legs have more tendons in their legs, along with harder bones and cartilage. Ducks and geese have dare dark meat birds with less breast meat. Pheasant use their legs for running resulting in tough tendons and cartilage along with darker meat from increased myoglobin, while the breast is relatively tender and lower in fat and counective tissue. . results in gives the meat a tough texture and cartilage that runs along the legs. results in tough and have more tendons that are the result of their ability to run and move about rapidly and the bones will also be harder and more brittle. Squab and quail are small and require precision and a delicate touch when fabricating.
Skeletal and Muscle Structure
The major muscles of a bird include the breast, leg, thigh, and wings, with the breast and the thigh being the largest of the muscles. There is approximately a 50% meat yield when removed from the bone and about 35% when skinned. Breast meat is tender due to its lean nature and lack of connective tissue. Legs, thighs, and wings have more tendons and connective tissue because these muscles get the most exercise. In the case of mass produced chickens, the legs and thighs are still relatively tender because of their confinement during breeding.
Turkey or chicken wings have more usable meat than quail or squab wings. Similarly, turkey breast meat is easily suited for processing as boneless cutlets and slices including escallops, cutlets, and schnitzels. Chicken or duck breast is boned, and optionally skinned, to produce a suprême. The relative lean nature of the breast meat and the fact that it cooks up quicker is often a reason to separate the leg and thigh from the breast.
As with meat cutting, before beginning the cutting process examine the basic carcass structure of the bird to become accustomed to the major bones and how they integrate with the muscles.
The major muscles of a bird include the breast, leg, thigh, and wings, with the breast and the thigh being the largest of the muscles. There is approximately a 50% meat yield when removed from the bone. Breast meat is tender due to its lean nature and lack of connective tissue. Legs, thighs and wings have more tendons and connective tissue because these muscles get the most exercise. In the case of mass produced chickens, the legs and thighs are still relatively tender because of their confinement during breeding.
The size of the muscles also is a major determinant in their fabrication. Turkey or chicken wings have more useable meat than quail or squab wings. Similarly, turkey breast meat is easily suited for processing as escallops and cutlets or schnitzel. Chicken or duck breast can be boned, and optionally skinned, to produce a suprême. The relative lean nature of the breast meat and the fact that it cooks up quicker is often a reason to separate the leg and thigh from the breast.
Cutting across the muscle grain is important for poultry processing but less so than for meats. This has to do with smaller muscles and the tender nature of poultry. When fabricating breast meat it becomes more of a factor and a cross-cut approach should generally be observed unless the meat is being pounded or flattened for escallops or cutlets. Thigh meat can be boned and cut into emincé for use in sautés and stir-fry. Used in this manner grain direction tends to be inconsequential.
Bone-In or Boneless
Poultry is often fabricated and portioned bone-in or by partial boning. Breast meat is easily boned and provides a simple and elegant presentation style. Breast meat from smaller birds is often portioned with the first joint of the wing attached producing a Frenched or airline breast. Poultry can also be completely boned and stuffed to create roulades, galantines and ballotines.
Fat is concentrated more in the legs and thighs of the animal and less so in the breast meat. This commonly creates the problem of dry breast and juicy leg and thigh meat. For this reason separating the breast meat from the bird is often favored to optimize the taste, texture, and juiciness.
Poultry skin provides a number of benefits in poultry preparation. It acts as a natural casing, provides texture when crisped, plusadd flavor and color through the Maillard browning effect.
Connective tissue can be a problem for birds that are older or for ones that use their legs more. Turkey and pheasant have hardened cartilage tendons that are quite tough that should be removed to maximize tenderness and palatability.
Basics of Meat & Poultry Fabrication
Ensure proper space for butchering and storing meats. If aging the meat is also part of the program, added cold-space will have to be allocated for the meats. Some operations will have a fabrication room separate from the kitchen with temperature control to ensure the meats and poultry stay cold.
Be aware of the temperature of the meat. Cold meats will be easier to cut than warm meats not to mention the safety factor of minimizing bacterial growth and food borne illnesses. Keep on ice if the need requires it.
Start with a clean work station and remember to sanitize it regularly. Keep the station organized and have a place for all tools and equipment. Keep the product cold and don’t allow raw meats to sit out at room temperature for extended periods of time. A steady hand is important and a decisive commitment to a particular cutting stroke is important beyond whether it is precisely executed from a meat cutting diagram.
There is no substitute for a mentored approach with a knowledgeable meat cutter combined with dedicated practice. Time spent with practical repetition focused on boning and fabricating meats will pay off in confidence and consistency in skills and production.
Meat & Poultry Fabrication Tips
- Keep the product cold
- Keep the area sanitized
- Allocate ample space for cold storage
- Use the correct tools for the job required
- Sharpen cutlery regularly
- Observe safety precautions including steel-reinforced mesh gloves to protect fingers and hands.
- Use a saw to cut through bone and a knife to cut through muscle.
- When cutting meats with a knife, avoid sawing motions that will create a jagged surface. Instead use long smooth strokes to create a clean finish.
- Whenever possible cut meats across the grain to maximize tenderness
- Always cut close to the bone for maximum efficiency. When boning meats, knives should produce scraping sounds
- Remember that minimal waste equals high yield!