Butchering a steer (Our meat is real, part 3)

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‘What’s this bit then?’ asked Bron. ‘Err, brisket? No, blade!’ I hazard to guess after scrutinising the MLA cut poster for the 107th time. This was on Saturday. By Monday, I was naming unidentified cuts ‘pirate fillet’. So. Much. Beef.

As you’ll recall, this year we’re only eating our own meat here on the farm, and so a couple weeks ago we butchered our first steer with only a poster, an English butchery book and an Australian video as our guides. Oh, and youtube, when the internet was fast enough. NBN anyone?

My butcher told me I was crazy, and I told him to be more optimistic. Turns out we were both right, I’m crazy, but optimism pays off. So do knife skills, perseverance, and a strong back.

The steer was hung for a week at the abattoir before Stuart brought it home in quarters. Our cattle are Lowlines, a breed stemmed from Angus, but short in stature with a high feed conversion ratio, so we got a 209kg carcass back. This sounds a lot (and trust me, it’s a lot to cut up), but compared with many other breeds, it’s pretty small. I hadn’t considered how grateful I would be for that smallness when it came time to butcher it! It still took us three nine-hour days…

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So following on from my growing experience of butchering pigs, I had an armoury of sharp knives at the ready, and a few buckets and bins for all the trim that would become mince or soap (seriously, we planned to make soap with the tallow we would render from the fat… sadly, we failed to do this. It’s on the list for next time though…), and for the glorious bones (I may have shouted ‘phở!’ when I boned out the first leg…). I didn’t think through the irritation of using a book from the UK and an Australian video, so that when I followed one initially, the subsequent cuts wouldn’t match the first ones… ‘live and learn’ was a bit of a mantra…

It wasn’t just me – I had Stuart, my dear friend Bronwyn, and 13-year-old amazing son Oscar to help on Saturday. Sunday was just me and Oscar while Stuart did pork deliveries and dropped Bron back at home.

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Monday was just me in the morning, with Stuart re-joining after farm chores for the final stretch that afternoon. I just want you to know these details so if anyone else reads this thinking a very inexperienced smallholder can just ‘cut up a cow in a day’ you’ll know you really really need more people, not to mention more skills! It’s a Very Big Job to cut up a cow*. (*Never say ‘cut up a cow’ to a farmer, who will make you feel a right idgit for appearing not to know the difference between a cow and a steer.)

So we started with a forequarter. No matter which way I looked at it, it a) wasn’t a pig, and b) didn’t look like any of my butchery instruction pictures.

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Sure, I made the first cut okay, but then it was all just ‘soooooo, I’ll just follow *that* muscle…’ Seriously, though, when Stuart cut the first osso buco, I was totally sold.

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If some brisket was mislabelled as chuck, or blade as brisket, I can live with that – we know it’s all muscle meat and will cook it accordingly. As the first cuts slid into the cryovac bags, the satisfaction of the 2013 Our Meat Is Real project hit full force. Not just pigs anymore, we’re now self sufficient in beef and pork, and soon we’ll be adding lamb to our repertoire – amazing!

As we moved along the first half of the beast, things got more exciting, if only because who can’t identify a rib eye when they see one?! And just as it is with the pigs, it’s very useful to learn just how little of this prime cut you get from one steer, and why it’s therefore so prized. I’ll be cooking these with reverent joy in the months to come – and I reckon each one can feed about four people!

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The flank was also easy to identify, but if you think this section of the carcass went more quickly, you might be wrong as sawing through beef bones (phở!’) is really hard work.

The first hindquarter was also rather daunting – it’s a lot bigger than a ham!

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And then there’s the matter of ‘top side’ or ‘top round’ and ‘bottom round’, as distinct from the rump, and which bit is silverside again? So, yeah, we have some lovely roasts that may not know their top from their bottom, but will surely all taste delicious. We brined three pieces – two for corned beef (we ate the first one last night, actually, and it was sensational cooked up in a pot with kohlrabi & celeriac, onion, garlic, peppercorns and cloves), and one that I’ll be smoking this week for pastrami, along with a streaky bacon… the joys of home butchery and curing! And then there was the second osso buco! Yessssssss…

We finished up around 6pm, washed our hands and faces, and dashed off to our mate Cait’s 40th with a bunch of freshly butchered ribs and the first tenderloin, which we barbecued very simply with salt, pepper and olive oil. It was fun to regale everyone with our amateur efforts, and the beef was as well received as the few pork chops we also brought along in a marinade of plum sauce, soy, and star anise.

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Day 2 dawned. Half a beast remained. Stuart and Bronwyn left Oscar and me with encouraging words…

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One thing I won’t do again, I think, is start at the middle on the second half. My brain is perhaps too linear, but I should have repeated the pattern I did the first time and started at the forequarter. As I was still trying to work all the cuts out, jumping around led to extra unnecessary confusion in an already confusing job!

Straight to the ribs we went, though, cutting out a scotch fillet roast this time instead of individual rib eye steaks. I left it intentionally big in anticipation of a lovely winter feast with a large group of friends… who don’t seem in short supply when they hear there’s Jonai meat on the menu!

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While it was much slower going with only two of us to cut, Oscar was a marvel of knife skills, and served diligently as Chief Trimmer all day. He can trim the silverskin off a cut with less waste than any of the rest of us, I’m proud to report.

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On this side, rather than pulling out the tenderloin (or eye fillet as we usually call it here in Oz), I cut out porterhouse and t-bone steaks – and without a bandsaw, I left them reaaaaallly thick – dinosaur steaks! Each one should easily feed our family, though I suspect there may be some competition for the tender eye…

The porterhouse end...
The porterhouse end…
The t-bone end...
The t-bone end…
Dinosaur steaks!
Dinosaur steaks!

This is also where I realised a mistake I was making all along – I trimmed off too much fat. :-( There are different sorts of fat on cattle, and without an experienced butcher to guide me, I sort of just fell into a habit of trimming most of it off, much to my later dismay when I sat back and thought about it. We love fat – fat is flavour! Nick Huggins was quick to point out the error of my ways on Facebook, and I’ll certainly do that differently next time.

When Stuart got back from doing deliveries all day in Melbourne, he found Oscar and I a mere halfway through the second side of beef, and pretty knackered at that… a very quick dinner of garlic and cashew stir fried Jonai beef served with sweet & sour vegies was our reward before an early night to bed…

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Day 3. For those still with me here, yes, I said ‘Day 3’. I woke to tight shoulders, a sore neck, and growing forearms, feeling pretty pleased with myself. Stuart of course thought this was an opportune time to juice 150kg of windfall apples with our lovely WWOOFer for the week, Arata, and the kids. Oh, how he loves to test me…

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For those wondering where we kept the carcass these three days, it was hanging in the shed. Temperatures were cool, but by the third day we were very conscious that this meat needed to get colder again! The pressure was on…

The two littlest Jonai made it home from a few days with their grandparents and cousins down the coast the night before, so were now ready to help with the home stretch. Atticus quickly discovered just how hard it is to saw through a leg bone…

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As we were cutting the final forequarter around 5pm on Monday night, I carved out a brisket roast, browned it off in my cast iron, chucked in an onion, some lovely Angelica organic garlic and rosemary plucked from the garden, and poured a bottle of Stuart’s homebrew dark IPA over it, then popped it in a low oven for three hours.

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Stuart sawed the fourth and final osso buco (have you noticed I quite like osso buco?), we washed everything down, and sank wearily but happily into our seats to feast on the most delicious roast I think I’ve ever eaten. Cutting up a whole beast has that effect on flavour, I reckon. 😉

I do look forward to the next steer, though it will be nearly a year before we need another one for our own consumption, we think. I also look forward to doing it with a coolroom at my disposal, and a fully fitted out boning room, including a bandsaw!

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If you’d like to support our efforts to become skilful, local butchers of our own meat, in a facility we’ll also make available to other smallholders like ourselves, check out our Pozible project to crowdfund a boning room here on the farm!

Published by

Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a PhD candidate, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and would-be cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community...

11 thoughts on “Butchering a steer (Our meat is real, part 3)”

  1. yes indeedy never say ‘cut up a cow’ to a farmer! hee hee hee I’m still recovering from the ‘gourmet farmer’ episode this week – when the host patted his hanging beef steer carcass and called it ‘a hefty 100kg!’ (chortle snort)

    looks like you’ve had a marvelous time with your beastie… a steep learning curve, but a valuable one eh

  2. What a lovely blog you have here! I’m tired from just reading your post, 3 x 9 hour days is insane! You’ve certainly reaped the benefits though, the beef looks amazing.

  3. Tammi – can i just say ‘you are awesome’! It had never occurred to me how laboursome this would be … you have opened my eyes. Here i am wondering if i will be able to dispatch a rabbit and a chook and prepare them for cooking at a workshop next weekend. I’m going to borrow a bit your backbone and give it my best shot. Also love the fact that you carved out a brisket roast, and cooked it – with a bottle of Stuart’s homebrew – for three hours during the butchering. Love your work!

  4. Am unable to recall how many (full size) beasts I’ve cut up, but I’ve never used, or had anything to do with a bandsaw, and I never want to. I’ve never found the need to do any sawing when cutting up a beast. Most, if not all meat, is not on the bone anyway. Except perhaps T-bone, and if you have scotch fillet instead, well the T-bone no longer exists.

    There is one place, between the hip & the edge, where you can saw through about an inch of bone (I always used a handsaw) and separate the topside from the rump.

    Just hearing the word “bandsaw” gives me the willies. I very much prefer to keep my ten fingers!

  5. Thank you all for the encouragement and virtual high fives! You’re absolutely right that it was really hard work and amazingly rewarding and extremely delicious. :-)

    Rachel – good luck with the rabbit & the chook! I admit that I chuckled to myself a couple of times during the process about our first chook some years ago – we’ve come a long way, baby!

    Steve – what a useful and interesting observation as usual! The t-bone and porterhouse are the only bits aside from the ribs that stayed on the bone, which is quite different to pork, which I largely leave on the bone… and given my boning out skills have been improving rapidly (in fact, it’s possibly my favourite butchering skill), perhaps for the next steer I’ll aim for more of that and less sawing. But I’ll still need a bandsaw in the boning room I reckon – makes cutting a pig carcass in half lengthways a lot easier, and quarters the time to cut chops. But yes, it makes me pretty nervous too!

  6. During art school the bandsaw was my friend. But uh… that was with blocks of wood, sometimes wobbly but wood no less. A pig. Hmmmm…. different story!

    This postest has the mostest! Butcher on!

  7. Quote – “I do look forward to the next steer, though it will be nearly a year before we need another one for our own consumption, we think. I also look forward to doing it with a coolroom at my disposal, and a fully fitted out boning room, including a bandsaw!”

    LOL!
    This is so true.
    I’m into the third day of doing my first side of Beef.(on my own)
    We Slaughtered HER last week & hung in a mates cool room for the week, then on Sat I began cutting her up using the MLA charts you mentioned as a guide.
    Has all gone pretty well so far. Rump, Round, Silverside, Scotch fillet, T bone & Porterhouse all done to a Tee.
    Some prime Scotch Fillet hit the plate on Sat night which was deliscious.
    Just got the Brisket & Sirloin left to do when I get home from work this arve.
    Then it will be onto the Snag mix, seasoning the rolled roasts & puting the silverside into a Brine.

    I can totally relate to the aching muscles too!
    No hoists at my place either.

    Thx for sharing, Mick.

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