Jimmy came inside this morning and was so impressed with my workspace that he took photos. Often I’m quite dismayed at the condition of some of the carcasses that people intend to eat, and I bang on about this a lot. Carelessness and lack of knowledge contribute to meat that spoils more rapidly and gives the immune system a bit of extra work to do!
Bacteria come from three main places on a carcass – the environment, the skin / hair, and the gut. You can think of an animal as having a hollow core of bugs, and a wrapping covered in more bugs. The idea is to carefully remove the “core” and unwrap the animal so that the meat is left clean. Unless the animal is sick with a systemic illness, the meat is sterile until it is touched by dirty hands that transfer crap all over it. I’m not a qualified butcher but I do have a very thorough knowledge of meat hygiene.
Hygienic dressing begins when the animal is on the ground and you are about to make the first cuts to gut it. Field dressing on the ground is not ideal, and some contamination is inevitable. I won’t go into detail here about gutting an animal, but I have a few tips that can be applied to an animal that is taken out whole or in bits.
- As whacky as it sounds, keep some medium sized cable ties in your kit. The inside of a carcass is likely to become contaminated as an oesophagus or rectum is pulled through the chest or the pelvis respectively. Remember that the whole intestine and stomach is essentially a bag that contains all of the bacteria. If you seal up both ends and then don’t puncture it with a careless knife, it is not going to contaminate the meat.
- The other organs, such as liver, kidneys, lungs and heart should be pretty clean so I consider these separately from the gut.
- Expose as little meat as possible by keeping the hide intact. The areas down the neck and between the thighs are inevitably going to suffer some contamination but you can trim this off later.
- Urine and bile are sterile normally, but still not good to get on the meat so take care not to spill these fluids. The bladder can be a bit tricky so take your time. Where you cut the pizzle a cable tie can be used to prevent leakage.
- When skinning, every time you touch the hide and then touch exposed meat and leave a dirty / hairy handprint, you are introducing huge numbers of bacteria. Assuming you have the animal at home now – have a clean bucket of warm water with some dish soap in it. Use it to keep your hands and knife clean, and change it regularly.
- The cleaner you keep the meat now, the easier things are later and the less wastage there is.
When you are actually butchering the meat down into the smaller cuts – try these tips:
- First, clear a work surface. Trying to wrangle a leg on a cluttered bench is no fun at all! Give it a very good clean with detergent and dry it off. Dressing meat in pools of water is poor practice. Use a clean cloth to wipe, not one that has sat on the bench for a day or two.
- Use two chopping boards on your nice clean bench. One is going to be “dirty” and one is going to be clean. The set-up I used this morning (pictured below) was dirty board on the left, sink of clean warm water, and the clean board on the right. The clean board should be the biggest one you have. To the far left I had a bucket to hold bones and any contaminated trim.
- Use the sink of water (or bucket of water) to frequently clean your knife and hands. Empty it frequently, and use running water to clean your chopping board in between each section.
If you are working outside, your work surface can consist of clean chopping boards. When dressing / butchering poultry outside I sweep then hose down the concrete, place my boards, keeping a dedicated board as dirty (putting a wet but feathered bird on it for breasting) and clean (for the meat). I keep the hose handy to clean the dirty board between birds, and have a bucket of water for cleaning my knife and hands.
- Have a steel handy to keep your knife sharp, and use it frequently. You’ll only need a few passes to clean the edge up, if you need more then it may need working with a stone. I use a Wenger boning knife and it is perfect for me. Find a knife you like, that holds a good edge, and treat it with respect. Don’t just throw it in the sink and wash it with the rest of the cutlery.
- Put the clean side of the meat down on the board first. For example, the outside of the shoulder is dirtiest (despite your best efforts) and the inside that you freed up from the rib cage is the cleanest. Trim the dirty surface of any hair, dried out meat, grass or dirt. Put any trim straight in your bucket, without lifting it over your meat.
- Discard any bruised meat, it spoils much more rapidly and isn’t aesthetically pleasant to eat.
- The shins or shanks are more likely to be the dirtiest bits on the carcass. Somehow you just can’t help but touch them when you are skinning, so I treat the dogs to these. They are lovely slow cooked, but not if they are grossly dirty. Sometimes I’m even quite shocked at how dirty lamb shanks are when prepared by professional home-kill butchers!
- On the clean board I only put meat that has been trimmed and is ready for vacuum packing. I try to keep things pretty orderly so that I can identify what’s what when I bag it all up. For example, I put the back steaks and eye fillets in one place, the leg steaks in another, and anything that I consider to be casserole meat or for processing at the butchers goes in another.
Finally, don’t leave meat sitting around at room temperature for too long. Get it cut up fairly quickly after hanging, and into the fridge or freezer.
This may all sound quite anal, but it’s a much bigger sense of pride bringing meat out of the freezer that isn’t covered in hair and shit, as well as helping to prevent premature spoilage.