Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | June 24, 2009

Knife skills: Chicken, beef & fish

Meat: it’s what’s for dinner.

Without getting too much into interesting facts about animals or what dishes their various parts best lend themselves to, let’s take a second and talk about how your knife is going to be used on them.

There are three primary “proteins” you’re likely to use, chicken, beef and fish. Yes, pork and lamb (and many others) are also important — and in the case of pork, critically important — but not necessarily from the view of your knife.

First up, chicken. I love chicken. Roasted chicken, friend chicken, braised chicken … yum. Anyway, chicken ain’t cheap (cheep!) anymore. Last time I checked Whole Foods, a boneless, skinless (organic, free-range) chicken breast is somewhere north of $9 per pound. Whole chicken, with all it’s beautiful tasty bones and skin intact, is less. Sometimes significantly less, about $4. Again, not cheap, but cheap-er. All you need to do is a) be flexible with your menu, and b) have a sharp knife.

Breaking down a whole chicken into its constituent, tasty parts is pretty easy. Never done it? Okay, so it’s totally intimidating. I think the most important thing to do when fabricating chicken (cutting it up into it’s main, or primal, cuts) is to keep clean. Modern mainstream growing and processing include many nasty places for bugs to live and grow — and get all over your food. Sally-from-Manilla is the main one to worry about with chicken, so don’t skimp, that one is nasty.

Hey — total aside — have you ever had a 24-hour flu? You know, aches, fever, barfing, diarrhea — all gone somewhere between 12-36 hours, from first symptoms to final “I think I’m not going to die” sigh? No. You haven’t. Why? Because the flu — all of them — take about 3-5 days or more to “get through” the system. Ditto “the common cold”. So … what is that 24 hour thingie? FOOD POISONING. Yes. Don’t believe me? Google that sucker, you dirty bird. But wash your hands first!

This is a great video showing you all the steps, and prep, you need to take apart your own chickens.

“Fabricating” Chicken

When you’ve done it a couple of hundred times, you can get quite quick at it. But no matter how strong your kung fu, Martin Yan is going to crush you.

Trimming beef (or lamb, goat, or game) is pretty much all the same. Wherever you got your cut of beef, from Whole Foods (shockingly priced) or Costco (cheap and shockingly produced) or your local butcher (if you can find such a thing), the process is pretty much the same. You want to take off the larger hunks of connective tissue, silver skin, sinew, tendon, and of course, the fat. This is called, “trimming”.

Taking this a natural step farther, you can get or order larger cuts of meat, like a whole leg of lamb, a large beef roast like a “picnic roast”, or even a side of beef, and simply cut it down to what you want and freeze the rest. Given that non-aged prime beef, say, for steaks, can easily be $20/lb (aged, while dramatically better, also costs 20-40% more), while a side of beef can put that cost down to about $3-4/lb. Of course, now you have 800lbs of beef, but hey, you like food, right? The point is, the larger and less processed — that is, the fewer people that need to touch it or do things to it, like cut it — the cheaper. And, generally, the better to boot. Get a group of foodie friends together and go buy a cow, a pig or a couple of lambs. But chicken you can do all by your lonesome.

Fish is a whole different beast, if you’ll pardon the obvious, but a lot of what we’ve just covered applies pretty equally, but most especially this: buy whole, save money. Fish is really “good for you”, or it can be, but whatever, it’s tasty. And fresh fish is the tastiest! How do you know it’s fresh? Because you prepped it!

Processed fish, that is, fish that’s been frozen, skinned, and/or filleted, isn’t necessarily bad. Many fish can take this pretty well — your lean fish, like tilapia for example, seems to stand up to this pretty well. Salmon? Not so much. And shellfish? A definite no go.

Oh, by the way, that shrimp you just bought? If it doesn’t have the head on it, it was frozen. Standard procedure for bulk shrimpers — catch it, wash it in a disinfectant/preservative (sodium metabisulfite, the same stuff you use to sterilize beer bottles if you’re a home brewer — mix it with water, and you get sulfur dioxide, a respiratory allergen that also happens to stink), freeze it, keep fishing. Fresh shrimp are terrifically hard to find for the average home cook. There is one place I know of that farms them local to the DC area, called Marvesta, which will drop ship their fresh, head-on, never-frozen shrimp to wherever.

Ok, back to fish.

When buying fish, look for the following. Fresh fish have bright, clear eyes. Dull eyes on a fish can either mean it was frozen or that its been sitting in the case too long — either way, it’s no longer fresh. Avoid it. What does it smell like? Fishy? If so, it’s not fresh. This doesn’t mean its spoiled — far from it — but as it is exposed to air, it’ll start oxidizing, which will free up some rather odiferous volatile chemicals. Luckily, the majority of this is all on the surface and can be washed away. But still, this isn’t what you want in a fish when you’re standing at the counter. A fresh fish should smell like … nothing. Or the sea. And that’s about it.

A quick note about fish. Round fish have an up/down spine & ribs with very little in the way of horizontal bones and have two primary fillets. Tuna, bass, wahoo are all round fish.

Now, time to cut that sucker up. Grab your hacksaw!

Okay, so, maybe not. A filleting knife would probably be a better bet. Or a deba. Or even a paring knife! Whatever, as long as it’s sharp, you’re good to go.

Prepping salmon (or other large round fish)? Pulled the pin bones yet? Pin bones?!? Yes, pin bones.

Flat fish are weird. They are just like round fish, turned on their sides. Sort of. The main difference is that they have four fillets. It may be just easier to show you:

I think it’s always interesting to see pros doing it too, just for comparison.

Tuna at a fish market in Okinawa:

Last topic: bones! If, after all this butchering, you have a pile of bones left over — don’t toss ’em! Save them for stock! Especially chicken and fish bones. Beef bones, unless it’s veal, not so much — they’re way too “beefy” flavored and are likely to crush your resulting sauce or dish as all that flavor gets reduced. Ditto for your oily fishes, like salmon, trout or mackerel. Skip those in favor of halibut, cod and flounder. And yes, even if you’re making salmon, do not use salmon bones for a matching sauce — it’ll be nasty, as too much flavor, concentrated, is just revolting. Ok, enough said.

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