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Saturday, 8 June 2013

A game of two halves. What do all these meat terms mean?

From time to time a customer will ask which is the best cut of a joint that has been split in half and for this blogpost I will concentrate on the major beef and lamb roasting joints with perhaps a little foray into the world of pork. These joints all have peculiar butchery names and once you know the terms it becomes easier to make your choice and just think how knowledgeable you will sound at the butcher's counter! On the whole they are all as tasty as each other if cooked properly. Some just have more bone and gristle in than the other and a fattier joint can often be more delectable. As the expression goes “It's just the nature of the beast.”

Lamb shoulder:

The shoulder is a delicious joint from the slightly fattier end of the lamb that needs a longer cooking time than the leg, for example. The whole shoulder can be boned and rolled but mainly folk tend to have a half shoulder, especially if it is just to feed two people. When the butcher cuts the shoulder in half on the bone, it creates two joints. The more regular looking one is called the blade (it has the animal's shoulder blade in it) and the other little legged side is called the knuckle. The knuckle end has more bones in it and slightly less meat on the joint. The marrow in the knuckle end can impart a great deal of flavour though to the cooked meat. Both pieces are easy enough to carve when cooked.

Knuckle and blade side of shoulder of lamb

Full shoulder and rolled shoulder cut through

Lamb leg:

The leg of lamb is a very lean joint and often more expensive than the shoulder. Most butchers cut the leg at a slight diagonal with a steak knife for neat cut showing less bone and then deftly saw through the leg bone to create two joints. If the leg is left whole the butcher can partially cut through the bone at the end of the leg to allow the joint to sit neatly in the average roasting tin or tray. The rounder looking piece is called - the fillet end - and the more obvious leg shaped bit – the shank. Lamb shanks for slow cooking are also cut from the leg shank although they can be surprisingly unpredictable in the length of time needed to cook them. In most supermarket butchers, the hip bone, known as the aitch bone will have been removed for easy carving and so that the protective packing it is transported in doesn't get punctured by a sharp edged bone.

Shank end of leg of lamb and fillet end
Lamb shanks for slow cooking

Despite the myth, lamb carcasses do NOT have four joints of leg of lamb on them!

Topside and Silverside and Top Rump.

Where does topside come from and which is the best joint for roasting? This is a regular question I get asked as the meat authority at Tesco. Well, they all come from the chunky back leg of the cow. This very large piece of meat is called a top of beef looks like a giant shank end of leg of lamb. Traditionally the skilled butcher will bone out and divide this 'top' into four parts -  deftly trimming away all the excess fat and gristle and creating joints by working his knife with the seams separating each muscle. At the foot end is the shin of beef for a rich stewing experience and then the aitch bone is taken out. The remaining piece now has one big leg bone left and the butcher removes this dividing the meat into three sections, topside, silverside and top rump. To save confusion top rump is not rump steak it just has a similar name and can be a good medium beef roasting joint. The silverside is generally considered a slower roasting joint and the topside the best part of the top for a good lean beef roast.

Topside joint

Brisket and chine of beef or blade end.

These two joints are from the fore quarter of the side of beef (half a cow) and make splendid slow roasting joints and are renowned for their flavour. The chine comes from a piece of meat that sits on the top of the cow's shoulder blade and chuck steak (braising steak). Both joints have an element of fat to them which helps the flavour develop through cooking. The best cooking method I find is through sitting the joint in about half an inch of water and letting the meat steam cook rather than cook with oil or fat. Just a personal choice. The image below was taken when I made a wonderful spiced brisket dish with cloves, bay leaves and cinnamon sticks with star anise to flavour.


Our intelligent friend the pig provides the cheapest cuts out of all the three animals. My personal preference in a pork joint is the shoulder of pork or a hand of pork ( below the shoulder and pork hock). I like the pork joint with a bit of extra fat and delight in its sweet tasting meat. I also like belly pork for the same reason and a joint of belly is now becoming very fashionable to eat in bistros and restaurants up and down the country. Apparently, many hungry diners crave the luscious pork fat and crackling.

A hand of pork

I'm including this next piece of information not to be patronising or too basic in my sharing of information but because I get asked about crackling on pork so much. To get the very popular pork crackling on the piece of pig meat it needs to have its skin still intact. You cannot get crackling from the exterior fat of a pork joint sans skin. The Ginger Pig Meat Book by Tim Wilson and Fran Warde say that “The trick to getting crunchy pork crackling is that it is only produced when the skin has been scored and the pork subjected to prolonged, gentle heat.” Do not deeply score into the meat itself as this will let moisture into the flesh and dampen the crispy crackling effect.

Cooked leg of pork with crackling
Loin of pork with no skin on the exterior of the meat

In fact I highly recommend the Ginger Pig Meat book to anyone who wants to learn about meat farming and experience a very accessible insight into caring animal husbandry. A very warm hearted book about a profitable farm throughout the changing seasons of the British year and full of great hearty recipes.

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