The Meat Mystique With Michael Puglisi
Imagine a world where only the simplest tools are available. Fire. A knife. Physical strength. These were your tools of survival, the only way to feed yourself.
Fast-forward through the ages and arrive at a grocery store aisle stocked full of nearly identical cuts of meat, ready for consumption. It’s convenient sure, but wouldn’t it be nice to know, thrilling perhaps, that you knew where your meat had come from and you had prepared it yourself?
For people that have a desire to be more self-sufficient in their food preparation, we talked with Michael Puglisi, founder and head butcher of Electric City Butcher in Downtown Santa Ana. Puglisi gravitated towards butchery after working in various restaurants on the East Coast. Inspiration for Electric City Butcher came not only from his hometown of Schenectady, NY; the original “Electric City”, but also from a five-week trip to Sicily with his wife. There he was able to explore the butcher shops, restaurants and local farms in the villages where his family originated, “I learned that butchery is as much about relationships, as it is about skill,” he says. His own shop gets its animals directly from small, family-owned California farms and he recommends home cooks take the same approach, “Sourcing is the most important place to start,” he says. “Knowing where your meat comes from and how it was handled before ending up in your kitchen is why we are so passionate about what we do.”
It’s because of this that home butchering has its merits over buying cuts from the grocery store. It gives you security that you know where your meat is coming from and how it was handled. Additionally, buying a whole chicken versus a boneless, skinless breast is cheaper per pound, and it gives you ingredients like bones, fat and skin to make other ingredients and dishes like broth and schmaltz.
The “Do-It-Yourself” Part
When butchering meat, it’s important to start small and work your way up. Puglisi recommends the easiest and most practical place to start is on a chicken. With chicken being small and inexpensive, it’s easy to learn the basics before moving on to more challenging animals. Lamb would be the next level, as its anatomy is very similar to beef or pork but the animal is significantly smaller. Butchering anything bigger than that in a home kitchen starts to stray into the realm of impracticality. One hindquarter of beef yields anywhere from 100-200 pounds of meat, and that’s only a quarter of an animal! If you are serious about butchering a pig or cow, recruit a few friends to share in the meat and labor. Hopefully, you have a very large fridge.
Puglisi says that an essential tool to have when butchering your own meat is a good knife. His recommendation is a flexible, six-inch boning knife with a composite handle. These knives are durable and comfortable to use, universally found in home kitchens to professional butcher shops. For larger animals, it’s beneficial to have a larger slicing knife, like a scimitar, and a hand saw. Other basic but important tools include a cutting board, trussing twine and an apron.
Sausage making is also equally important in butchering as it uses quite a few components of the animal in the final product. Although it may be a larger investment in gear, Puglisi says it’s worth it, “For less than 300 dollars you can get a grinder, basic hoper, and the other tools necessary,” in one, handy, DIY toolkit.
One of the most common mistakes people make in butchering is cross cutting. Cross cutting refers to cutting meat against the grain rather than with its natural contours, resulting in chewy, gristly cuts that are hard to cook and even harder to eat. Skilled butchers know that each animal is made up of individual muscles that are stacked on top of each other. They ensure consistency by seaming out each individual muscle and identifying each cut before breaking them down, something home cooks should also be mindful of. These muscles create a roadmap for butchers and allows for a variety of cuts you can make yourself that may not be available in a grocery store. Another common mistake but one that can be easily remedied is letting meat warm up too much before working with it. It’s important to keep meat cold not only to preserve it but to also prevent the fats from becoming soft and breaking down. When grinding sausage, meat at room temperature will actually affect the emulsification later, making the sausage crumbly or dry.
As with every culinary endeavor it’s important to be safe in the kitchen. When it comes to butchering meat, make sure you take your time when starting out. Even the slightest cut indicates you’re probably going too fast. You also want to make sure that your workspace is clean and tidy in order to ensure your meats last a long time and won’t be contaminated. “Most importantly” according to Puglisi, “Have fun, experiment, try new things. With whole animal butchery, you’re in charge. Enjoy the freedom.”
Q & A With Michael Puglisi of Electric City Butcher
Q: Tell me about yourself, how did you get started in this business?
Michael Puglisi: I’m from New York and spent my early career working in restaurants on the East Coast. I gravitated toward butchery in the kitchen. My father’s family were butchers in Sicily, so maybe it’s in my blood. After four cities, eight restaurants, dozens of books, hours of hard work, and a bunch of trial and error, I worked my way up to Executive Sous Chef and Head Butcher for Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Beverly Hills.
Inspiration for our shop came from a 5-week trip I took to Sicily. My wife and I explored the macellerias (butcher shops), restaurants, and local farms of the island villages of my ancestors. I learned that butchery is as much about relationships, as it is about skill. That visit inspired me to open Electric City Butcher, the nickname of my hometown, Schenectady, New York. We’ve been open more than two years and recently expanded our shop.
Q: Can you describe a little bit about your own process of butchering at Electric City Butcher?
MP: Electric City Butcher is a whole animal, artisanal butcher shop. We use traditional European and American techniques to create some of the most delicious fresh meats, sausages and charcuterie. We source our animals directly from small, family-owned, California farms, receive the entire animal, and use the entire animal, from Porterhouse steaks, to kielbasa, to pork liver pate, to bone broth.
Ultimately, what makes us different from other butcher shops is our sourcing of the best animals, a fanatic focus on quality, and a little something I learned from Thomas Keller—finesse: refinement and delicacy in everything we do. Those aren’t normally adjectives for a butcher, and delicacy can be challenging when using a handsaw, but we take it very seriously.
Q: What do you think are some of the merits of butchering your own meat versus buying cuts from the grocery store?
MP: It comes down to knowing where your meat comes from, and knowing how it was handled. Home butchery takes many of the middlemen out of the process, ensuring the best quality of product.
Butchering at home can also save you money. The easiest example is buying a whole chicken rather than boneless, skinless breast. In addition to being cheaper per pound, whole chicken also offers you bones, offal, fat, and skin to make things like broth, schmaltz and pate.
Q: What kind of equipment should people have if they are trying to butcher their own meat?
MP: To start with, you need a good knife. A flexible, six-inch boning knife with a composite handle is what we use in the shop every day. They’re durable, comfortable and effective. This is the tool we use 80 percent of the time, and most home butchers won’t need anything else.
It also helps to have a good cutting board, some trussing twine and an apron. If you’re butchering larger animals, you might also need a larger slicing knife—what we call a scimitar—and a hand saw.
Equally important in butchery is sausage making. This is a larger investment in gear, but it’s well worth it. For less than 300 dollars you can get a grinder, basic hoper, and the other tools necessary. Come and take our Sausage 101 class to learn about the best DIY toolkit.
Q: What are some tips or rules that people should follow if they are interested in butchering their own meat?
Sourcing is the most important place to start. Knowing where your meat comes from and how it was handled before ending up in your kitchen is why we are so passionate about what we do.
Sanitation: To ensure your fresh meats last a long time, keep your workspace clean and tidy.
Study: There are lots of great books out there with helpful hints and tips. My favorites are Whole Beast Butchery: The Complete Visual Guide to Beef, Lamb, and Pork by Ryan Farr, and Butchering Beef: The Comprehensive Photographic Guide to Humane Slaughtering and Butchering by Adam Danforth
Storage: Make sure you have ample freezer storage if you’re going to be consuming all that meat at home. A whole lamb can yield anywhere from 30-60 lbs of meat. A whole pig 80-200 lbs, a cow, more than 500. That’s a lot of meat.
Seaming: The finesse in whole animal butchery is to literally seam out each individual muscle, ensuring the most tender and consistent cuts every time. The seams between each cut are like a roadmap for butchers. Pay attention to those lines and contours, and you’ll be amazed—and wow your friends–by the varieties of cuts you can produce that aren’t available in the grocery store.
Safety: Go slowly at first. Take your time. If you’re cutting yourself, even the slightest bit, you’re probably going too fast. Leave the speed butchery to the professionals.
Most importantly, have fun, experiment, try new things. With whole animal butchery, you’re in charge. Enjoy the freedom.
Q: What are some common mistakes people make when they are cutting meat?
MP: It’s a term we call cross-cutting. Each animal is made up of individual muscles that are stacked on top of each other. A skilled butcher breaks those down into individual cuts to ensure consistency. All too often you see steaks in the store that are quickly cut across the grain into chewy, gristly, messes. That’s not enjoyable to cook or eat. Instead, learn how to properly cook each part of the animal, and break it down accordingly
Letting meat warm up too much when working with it. Keep meat cold. Not only to preserve it, but to keep the fats from becoming soft and breaking down. A recently refrigerated piece of pork is much easier to work with than something that has been out on the block for 20 minutes. Grinding sausage at room temperature will actually affect the emulsification later, making the sausage crumbly or dry.
Q: What are the easiest and hardest animals to butcher?
MP: Chicken is probably the easiest and most practical place to start, and where we start all of our apprentice butchers. It’s small, inexpensive, and practical for the home butcher. Pork is probably where everyone would like to go first, but what are you going to do with 300lbs of meat? After mastering chicken, I recommend butchering lamb. Its anatomy is very similar to pork and beef, but the animal is much smaller. That means it’s less expensive to purchase, easier to work with in a home kitchen, and easier to store if you are keeping all the meat for yourself.
Breaking down a whole cow in your kitchen probably isn’t practical. Consider a hindquarter of beef yields anywhere from 100-200 lbs of meat—and that’s only a quarter of the animal. You’ll want a few friends—and a big freezer—if you buy a whole cow. If you are really interested in butchering beef, come take a class from us instead, or better yet, apply for a job. We’re hiring.
Electric City Butcher 4th Street Market 201 E 4th Street Santa Ana, CA 92701 T: 714-474-9096 http://www.electriccitybutcher.com/ Hours: M- Closed, T-Fri 11 am – 2:30 pm, 3:00 pm – 7 pm; Sat-Sun 10 am – 2:30 pm, 3:00 pm- 6 pm.