Why do we prize pricey fillet steak over flavoursome secondary cuts that you just chuck in the oven? Good Food talks to four leading butchers about why meat cuts fall in and out of favour, and asks which undervalued bits are back on the radar.
Hardly any of us buy meat like our grandparents did. The intensive animal farming that developed apace from the 1950s and the rise of supermarkets through the 1970s are the two big factors that have transformed the way meat is understood, purchased, cooked and consumed in Australian homes. It's not that long ago that it was normal to behead a chicken in the backyard; now we have absorbent sachets removing any last trace of blood from shrink-wrapped packages.
Industrial meat is relatively cheap and safe to eat, but its consequences include the deskilling of generations of cooks.
"The price of meat dropped and people were suddenly able to have porterhouse," says Oliver Hagen from Hagen's Organics, which can be found at various locations in Melbourne including Queen Victoria Market and Prahran Market.
"But everyone forgot how to cook the pot roast, topside, brisket on the bone; you just didn't see it anymore. People moved away from the lesser-known cuts and now they just get minced."
Hagen finds it sad to turn so much good meat into burgers and bolognese. "A body of beef is about 600 kilograms live weight, which is 300 kilograms killed and dressed, then roughly 70 per cent of that goes as mince and sausages," he says.
"All that topside, blade, skirt, it's beautiful for slow-cooking but we can't sell it all. In a perfect world I would love to sell each cut as what it is – they all have their own characters. It's disappointing to do so much mince."
Part of Hagen's project is to educate consumers about the merits of secondary cuts in order to change their buying habits and thus to honour more of the beast.
He trains his staff to advocate for lesser-known cuts. "If we see a customer buying the same thing every week, we ask them what they're doing with it and point them to an alternative," he says. "That's our job as butchers. We teach them."
Laura Dalrymple owns Sydney's Feather and Bone, a Marrickville butcher that only buys whole carcasses and therefore needs to find ways to move the whole beast, not just the so-called prime cuts.
"I think we need to completely tip on its head this idea that there are primary and secondary cuts," she says. "It's fundamentally wrong and a misunderstanding of the value of the animal. It's also an indicator of the distant relationship many of us have to primary sources. That disconnection has decreased our ability to turn produce into food."
Eye fillet is emblematic. "From a two-year-old carcass, the eye fillet is only about two kilograms," she says. The simple fact of its scarcity drives up its price.
"Supposedly it's the most desirable cut – and it's very tender, there's no doubt – but it's relatively bland. In many traditional societies, when hunters made a kill, the superior people in the group were given the brains and offal. Notions about what's valuable are arbitrary cultural ideas – and we can change them."
Dalrymple has observed an increasing openness and willingness to learn. "I see a desire to empower ourselves again with some of that lost knowledge, whether it's a pickling course, or learning what to do with beef blade or lamb breast," she says. "It makes people feel good, they feel more in control, and better connected to the source of their food."
Food fashions also affect buying habits. Sydney butcher Phillip Mitchell from Castlecrag Meats says the recent popularity of American-style barbecue has prompted new interest in lesser-loved meat cuts.
"It's been noticeable over the past four years," he says. "People are at home with their Webers creating amazing flavours, experimenting with rubs, flavouring their wood chips, even using vinegar, wine and rum sprays."
Fatty, textured bone-in cuts are ideal for long, slow smoking because they have plenty of flavour and retain moisture. "We're boning less," says Mitchell. "People are realising that it's not hard to carve around a bone and you are getting huge amounts of flavour."
A greater appreciation of the benefits of ageing meat has opened up new cuts, too. "When you age meat, you allow muscle tissues to break down and that changes the texture," says Mitchell. "It makes tough cuts more tender and silky and the flavour intensifies."
Some traditional slow-cooked cuts can be grilled once they're aged. "If you hang blade steaks for three weeks you can slice through them and they're barbecue ready," he says.
Dietary trends have an impact too, says Marnee Dixon, owner of Golden Rooster Poultry and Game in Camberwell, and John Cesters at Prahran Market. The popular low-carb-high-fat "ketogenic" diet has seen adherents look for richer cuts with the skin on. "We've definitely seen a change in habits," she says.
On the other hand, there are still plenty of fat-phobes out there. "If people are on a gym program, trying to shred and lose weight, they want a product with no fat and no skin – they still want that chicken breast," she says.
We asked each butcher to point to one cut that they feel is under-appreciated and on the up, and to share tips on how to turn them into delicious meals.
American-style barbecued beef brisket (recipe here). Photo: Marina Oliphant
Brisket is taken from the front part of the underside of the animal. It's generally sold boneless and can also be separated into the front (point) end and the flatter rear section. Brisket loves a slow cook.
"It's an amazing cut," says Oliver Hagen. "It does a lot of work because gravity is pushing it down and it has to work to push up and hold everything together. That means long fibres, which shred beautifully. It's also layered with intramuscular fat so it's self-basting as you cook it. It's so perfect for slow-cooking because it won't dry out, even if you cook it for 10 or 12 hours."
Hagen loves pickling it to create corned beef that's perfect for a Reuben sandwich, or giving it the slather and rub treatment (see Hagen's recipe for slow-cooked brisket tacos). "Because it's a fattier cut, it's great with something acidic like a chimichurri or salsa verde to cut through."
It's also economical. At Hagen's, brisket is $27 per kilogram, while rib-eye is $52 per kilogram and eye fillet is $87 per kilogram. (Bear in mind, that's premium and organic, but the general principle of brisket being about half the price of prime cuts stands.)
Other cuts that Hagen wishes people would prize are flatiron (from the shoulder) and hanger (from the diaphragm). These are both tougher steak cuts but they have lots of flavour.
"People can get so stuck on tenderness as the benchmark of quality," he says. "But it should be flavour. Why is 'melt in the mouth' the mark of good meat?"
He's also a big rap for roasting pieces such as corner-cut topside, from the inner-thigh muscle. You're unlikely to see these pieces shrink-wrapped in the supermarket cabinet, but you can ask a trusted butcher.
"Get to know your butcher," says Hagen. "Rely on them. Take their advice. They have so much knowledge."
Slow-cooked lamb ribs on the bone (recipe here).. Photo: Steven Siewert
Feather and Bone's Laura Dalrymple loves lamb breast. "It's the same as belly in pork or brisket in beef and like both of those cuts can be cooked on the bone – lamb ribs – or off the bone – lamb breast," she says. "When you remove the rib bones you're left with a flat cut that can be stuffed, rolled and slow-roasted." A lot of butchers mince it but it's a rewarding cut to cook whole.
"It's really delicious," says Dalrymple. "It's a fatty cut, but you can choose how much of the fat you consume and, as always, fat equals flavour."
Because it's a hard-working muscle, it loves a long, slow cook. "You can put anything with it – garlic, rosemary – then roll it up and at the end you get this gorgeous, succulent thing," she says. "You slice it and you get these long fall-apart fibres and a very lamby flavour."
That lambiness means strong flavours complement it well. Feather and Bone sells lamb ribs and lamb breast marinated and rolled.
You can prepare the breast yourself, too. Season the meat generously (you can add olives and anchovies for different salty profiles) and sprinkle with chilli flakes and chopped rosemary and sage. Roll tightly, tie with butcher's twine (YouTube is your friend) and sear in hot oil before slowly braising, covered, in the oven in a pool of wine or stock at about 160 degrees for three hours or more. Remove the cover for the last hour or so. Serve with bitter greens.
At Feather and Bone, lamb breast is about $22 per kilogram, about half the price of lamb cutlets.
"It's economical and really easy to cook because the oven does all the work for you," says Dalrymple.
Neil Perry's braised chicken marylands (separated into thighs and drumsticks) with olives and almonds (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
The whole chicken leg including drumstick and thigh is the maryland. The name harks back to a 19th century fried chicken and gravy dish originating in the US state of Maryland, though that recipe doesn't generally call for any particular parts of the chicken. It's only in the antipodes that we apply the term maryland to this cut.
Marnee Dixon is a big fan of the maryland. "It's totally economical and in our opinion it's the best cut of the chicken," she says. "You're getting the chop [bone-in thigh], which on its own is our most popular cut, and you're getting the drumstick, too. It's flavoursome because you have the skin and bone and it's not going to dry out like a breast."
She's a bit mystified as to why it's not more popular. "Some people don't like fat, some people don't like eating on the bone, but it's probably just as much that people don't know what to do with it," she says.
Dixon advises her customers to tray-bake marylands. "I turn my oven up as hot as it will go, put them in to brown the skin, then cover them with foil and turn the oven down to about 180 degrees so the chicken cooks in its juices," she says. "At the end, I remove the foil to cook off some of the liquid and crisp the skin back up."
The whole process takes about 45 minutes. Dixon keeps the flavourings simple. "Sometimes we do Chinese five spice, otherwise garlic, lemon and olive oil, and I know a lot of my Asian customers tray-bake with soy, chilli and garlic."
Tray-baking and cooking under foil (or a lid) avoids a common cause of maryland meltdown: undercooked drumstick. This was seen on a recent MasterChef team challenge, complete with tears, panic and an 8pm-friendly four-letter-word. Meat on the bone always needs a little longer to cook than an equivalent fillet and, in the case of a maryland, the fatter drumstick can need longer than the flatter thigh.
Golden Rooster's marylands are about $9 per kilogram, about the same as drumsticks. But thigh is about $17 per kilogram if you buy it separately. "You should buy a maryland," advises Dixon. "It's an all-round winner."
Karen Martin's braised pork hocks with cider, honey, star anise and Sichuan pepper (recipe here). Photo: Bonnie Savage
Castlecrag Meats' Phillip Mitchell reckons pork hock is on the up. "In a few years it's gone from about zero to about 12 a week," he says.
The hock is the very bottom of the pig's leg bone, just above the ankle. Because it has skin, tendon and ligaments, it needs to be slow-cooked to break down and become fall-apart tender.
Mitchell's elderly customers, especially those of German descent, are hock experts already. "They are used to it," he says. "But there are also youngsters who are into cooking and love experimenting, and families with three or four kids that want something hearty. The kids are playing sport and they can't keep them full. It's a cheaper way to feed a family."
Castlecrag sells pork hock fresh for about $15, ready for roasting, smoking or braising.
"Pork hock, slow-roasted with crackling on the outside, is making a comeback," says Mitchell. "People are starting to crave those type of things, especially in winter."
He also brines and smokes hocks ready for pea and ham soup, including a hefty batch he makes for his employees.
"I cook up a big pot of chicken stock, then I load a pot with onion, carrots, celery, swede, sweet potato and lots of split peas. I brown it off then add the ham hocks, three or four, whatever I can fit in. Then I add the stock.
"I really load it up, then simmer for eight to 12 hours so it's thick and gooey. The hock bones pop straight out, the meat falls apart and you're left with a chunky soup – there's no need to blend it."
That's about as close Mitchell gets to a recipe. "I've learnt it over the years," he says. "It's all hand and faith and feel."