Monday, July 18, 2011

The cost of the cuts

(This is another one vegetarians or people who get queasy when talking about how meat is made might want to skip.)

There have been a ton of questions about the latest example of how crazy I am bulk-meat purchases; for once, I’m going to try to get around to answering them before so much time has passed that I’m all, wait, WHAT blog post?! and having to contact an archeologist to dig it up for me because it has been buried under three centuries worth of sand.

Not that this has ever happened, mind you. It’s just a hypothetical possibility. (Ahem.)

No matter where you get your whole, half or quarter animal, there are some gotchas along the road; while they aren’t necessarily intentional, they can make something seem like a much better deal than it actually is…like when somebody like me is all, “Ya, so, I bought this 1,000 pound steer for two dollars a pound.”

This naturally leads one to believe that I have brought home 1,000 pounds of beef for $2,000.

Which just ain’t so.

So. If you’re thinking about getting into the by-the-whole-animal game…here’s some of what you might expect expense-and-finished-meat-wise if you buy your animal in this sort of venue, where you’re bidding on a live animal for custom processing.

The first term to throw out is live weight. This is the weight of the living animal, and your bid on auction day is going to be multiplied by this figure; how much that is will vary depending on a variety of factors, from your location to who is doing the selling to what the overall quality of the animals themselves.

On auction day, you’ll get a list of the auctions to be held that will have the auction number, breed, weight of the animal, and seller information on it – unless otherwise noted (some animals like turkeys and rabbits are sold ‘flat rate’ rather than by the pound), whatever bid you put in will be multiplied by this weight and that’s the biggest part of the check you’ll write. There will also probably be a fee or two; at my fair venue, for example, there is a $115 charge for the transportation and slaughtering of a steer.

So let’s say that I’ve picked a 1,050 pound steer (let’s just say), and I’ve bid $2 a pound for him, and by golly won. The check I write at the fair that day will be for $2,215, and the steer goes first to the slaughterhouse, and then to the processor that I selected.

Now, the processor will charge a certain price per pound to turn the carcass into finished meat for your freezer – this charge will be based on the hanging weight, which is the weight of the carcass when it arrives for processing. This is going to be roughly 60% or so of the live weight, because at this point things like the head, hide, offal and other “unusable” bits have already been removed.

So the 1,050 steer arrived as a 619 carcass; at $0.73 a pound, that was a $451 check.

This is also, by the way, one of the “gotchas” when you’re purchasing “a quarter” or “a half” steer from your neighborhood farmer, without going through the live-weight-live-auction drama.

When you ask the seller “how much is a quarter,” the answer will probably be “about 150 pounds.” What they’re quoting you there is this hanging weight, not the final packaged (or cut) weight. That is going to be considerably less than this 150 pound figure, because there’s still an awful lot of stuff that you don’t want or can’t reasonably use in that carcass.

It may feel a bit unfair that you’re paying the processor for pounds you won’t take home and eat…but, well. You’re also not driving home like Wilma Flintstone with a huge beef femur on your roof that you now have to deal with in some way, sooooo…this is a good thing.

So how much meat do you actually get? This will depend on a few things, but the general rule of thumb is to take the live weight and divide it in half – that’s the ballpark figure (or, 525 pounds for my 1,050 steer). That would make the total price per pound $5.08 ($2,215 live weight at auction + $451.14 to processor / 525 pounds finished meat).

Now, I actually took home a bit more than that, about 580 pounds – dropping my price per pound to $4.60. [ed: this is almost a dollar higher per pound than I thought the other day...I'd mistakenly added almost half of the finished lamb to my beef weights. Then I was looking at it again and went, "Wait, wha? That's not possible, I could NOT have ended up with over 600 pounds of finished beef from a 619 pound carcass..."] [for bonus "what the HECK?!" points, I then cheerfully used that finished lamb AGAIN when doing the lamb calculations, because when I get math wrong? I DO IT ALL THE WAY!]

That is an insanely high “finished” weight for that 619 pound hanging weight, and I got that mileage for two main reasons.

One is the steer himself – he was at the very bottom of his weight class, had very little fat to speak of, and was also…well…this sounds weird considering I’m talking about a cow here, but…he was dainty. He had small, fine bones (for a steer) (ahem); that translated to less overall weight loss as he went from carcass to packaged meat.

The other is my own processing preferences. I ask them to leave as much as possible intact – give me fewer small cuts and ground up bits, and more large roasts. Even if they’re ugly. Even if they’re “weird.” Even if they don’t have an easily recognizable name or couldn’t be bought at the supermarket. And go ahead and leave the bone in there, rather than opening up the roast – what I’m looking for is improved freezer life, and these things can add months to the length of time that sucker can be in my freezer before it starts to lose its luster.

Months from now, when I’ve run out of pre-ground ground beef and stew meat but want to do a big cooking day, I can defrost one of those BIG roasts, do my own Processing Lite on it with my big knife and meat grinder (and the occasional cuss word), and there you go – “fresh” ground beef and stew meat, right from my freezer.

(Important Note: After you've defrosted it, do NOT just cut it up and refreeze it. Trust me on this one. Cut it up, COOK IT, and refreeze? Fine. Cut it up, re-wrap and stick it back in there? Beef-flavored mush. Blech.)

I also take more of the stuff that is ordinarily just tossed aside. I go ahead and take the suet (hard fat from around the organs) and other fat-trimmings, to render into tallow for use as cooking oil or soap-fat. I take as many soup bones as we can reasonably get – awkward-shaped, fatty, “too big,” “too small,” I’m not proud. Go ahead and give ‘em to me, and I’ll make gallons of beef stock to can up and put in the pantry. It’s a bunch of huff and bother at the time, sure, but nothing beats it for “quick” meals over the year.

And I’ll just toss this in here, because it’s the second question most commonly asked: The 525 pounds of beef that would be the more-average haul from a 1,050-pound steer would fit – barely – in a 14.8 cubic foot chest-style freezer.

But there will not be room for anything else. Not even a single Otter Pop. Nothing. If a hair falls off your head into that freezer? It will no longer shut right.

I am (almost) not kidding.

I’ll try to talk about inventory management later this week.

Hopefully, I won’t get all distracted and oh look, a squirrel!!!!


PipneyJane said...

I am glad I'm not the only person who renders the excess fat from their meats. For me that's one of the reasons for buying a goose - the 1-1.5lb of readily removable fat for rendering. ("Schmalz" in my mangled Yiddish.) Before anyone yells at us, Food Nazis need to remember it's the total amount of fat in your diet that is important.

Have you tried making suet pastries, etc? Steak and kidney pudding is the British classic and very yummy, although it takes hours to make (non kidney eaters can make it with liver instead - for an almost kosher version* - or with mushrooms). Somewhere I also have a leek suet pudding recipe (Sophie Grigson's), which looks tasty.

- Pam

* I don't think beef suet is allowable under the kosher-keeping rules because it comes from around the kidneys. However, there is a vegetarian "suet" that works well.

Anonymous said...

Nice explanation of how buying a whole or part of a big critter works. I just want to point out for those that might do this for the first time - the front = roasts, the back = chops/steaks (and ham in a pig). Often you can order a "half of a half" which is a mix of front/back parts.

And if you have an upright freezer, I highly recommend putting things in boxes. They serve 2 purposes - organization, and they also serve as "cold air trays" so when you open the door, less cold air dumps out.


Anonymous said...

I forgot to add that here in Iowa, you can go to the locker/butcher and order an animal, and you don't need to find an auction or a farmer willling to sell one animal. Another idea is to visit the local farmers market. There may be someone there who sells (or knows who does) animals for custom buthering.


Mother of Chaos said...

@Pam! Lard / tallow meat pies are the BEST THING IN THE WORLD. And it IS all about the *balance* - I don't think ANY food is necessarily inherently "bad" or "good," it's all about the balance among EVERYTHING you consume.

Anonymous said...

One of my dog raising friends regularly buys a freezerload of raw split marrow bones. It's fabulous for dogs - cleans their teeth, keeps them busy for hours and gives them that nice fatty marrow and calcium that is fgood for them. Watching a 15 pound terrier shove a split femur around is ... amusing.