The Case for Cooking with Lesser Cuts of Meat

April 18, 2016

Today: The versatility of off-cut cooking. This article is brought to you by Ten Speed Press. Head here to learn more about the recently released cookbook Home Cooked by Belcampo founder and CEO Anya Fernald.

A few months after Anya Fernald, founder and CEO of Belcampo Meat Co., moved back to the United States after living and working in Italy for six years, she went on a search for good, affordable beef. It wasn't easy to find in 2005, even in California—so she ended up buying a whole cow.

Left, Anya Fernald, founder of Belcampo Meat Co., in prep mode. Right, a grill at Belcampo's farm. Photo by Brown W. Cannon III

This was the only way she could get her hands on the cuts she had cooked with while living in Europe, the ones that barely make it into the butcher case in America because they go bad before they're purchased—that is, they don't garner the same demand in America that they do in Europe.

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Her time at both the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia (the Italian group that manages the denomination of origin labeling for cheese) and Slow Food in Italy had reinforced in Anya her interest in contributing to food systems that benefited farmers as much as consumers.

So, a few mountains of meatloaf later, Anya found herself starting a produce-distribution business with small California farmers, organizing the seminal event Slow Food Nation, and then going on to found Belcampo in 2011. It wasn't a hard decision to go into the meat business as opposed to the produce industry—more money and less competition, Anya says. Belcampo is a nose-to-tail, top-to-bottom supply chain for pasture-raised organic meat; it's a farm, production plant, butcher shop, and restaurant. They raise cattle, swine, chicken, ducks and geese, sheep and goats, game birds, and turkey. Up until recently, they raised rabbit, too.

Gorgeous goats. Photo by Brown W. Cannon III

Anya's deep knowledge of and love for what she calls an "old-world approach to food and craftmanship" is clear in her new cookbook Home Cooked: Essential Recipes for a New Way to Cook . It's full of delicious anecdotes about her time in Italy, her childhood, and more than just meat—with actually helpful entertaining directives. What's most apparent, though, is her commitment to whole animals, to using more than just prime cuts (the fattier middle meats from an animal's rib section). But, you might ask, how do you prepare these "lesser cuts" so that they have similar qualities to sought-after pieces? And why would you buy them, if the others are available?

"Lesser cuts are, like, 90% of the animal," Anya explains. "The hangers and the flaps and the briskets—600 pounds of beef are braising cuts." Half of the meat produced in America is thrown away, Anya says. Simply put, that means that if you are at all concerned about food waste, lesser cuts are what you should consider buying. It's also worth mentioning that these cuts are the cheapest in the case.

Most beef cuts can take a spin on the grill. Photo by Brown W. Cannon III

Lesser cuts are often from the load-bearing muscles, the ones animals use to mount or jump, and the parts of the body that get the most exercise. They're also the leanest. You may need to marinate or boil them, or slice them incredibly thin, but they often make up for the extra step or two with incredible flavor. "So much of off-cut cooking—you can make a delicious roast from so many cuts—it's just cooking things well and cutting against the grain," Anya adds.

Home Cooked includes meat recipes almost exclusively made with what are called the lesser cuts—like eye of round, top round, spare ribs, London broil, brisket, and even rack of goat or lamb. (She mentions an example from Belcampo's Meat Camp, an open-fire cooking retreat: They teach attendees how to bone a whole lamb leg so that they're able to pull four small roasts off.)

Offal—tongue, heart, liver—are also, to Anya, underused "cuts," and she cites chicken hearts as a favorite (especially prepared as this simple, 3-ingredient recipe). "It's my daughter's favorite thing that I make. Everybody knows chicken liver pâté is good, but nobody knows about chicken hearts."

A grill treats most of these cuts well, as do curries and stews—or in recipes in Home Cooked like the Agrodolce (in which the meat is served alongside a sweet-tart tomato sauce) or Vitello Tonnato (wherein very thinly-sliced, boiled meat is served cold in a tuna-caper sauce). Anya also shares in her book loose steps to always follow to ensure a perfect roast no matter the cut:

Always bring the cut to room temperature and salt it a day before you plan to cook it, and then cook it at a lower temperature and for slightly less time than you think it needs. With leaner cuts, the residual heat matters more.

Left, beef eye of round being pounded for Beef Involtini with Ham and Provolone. Right, slicing beef eye of round for Vitello Tonnato. Photo by Brown W. Cannon III

At the heart of Anya's cooking, and what she shares through Home Cooked, is simplicity. Her ethos is to not beat yourself up over complexity, and to not see cooking as a chore—and that if you pare down and use good ingredients, the food you make will be yours, and its natural flavor will shine through.

Recipe and excerpt reprinted with permission from Home Cooked: Essential Recipes for a New Way to Cook by Anya Fernald with Jessica Battilana, copyright 2016. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

This article is brought to you by Ten Speed Press. Head here to learn more about the recently released cookbook Home Cooked by Belcampo founder and CEO Anya Fernald.

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