Austin gets hip to the world's most consumed meat
"Goat is a hard sell because it looks too foreign. Maybe we can start a revolution! People are afraid. But it's so good."
– Ren Hogue
It seems counterintuitive to describe the world's most widely consumed meat as foreign, yet the addition of goat meat to local menus at restaurants such as Lenoir, Trace, and Swift's Attic still intimidates some skittish omnivores. Says Ren Hogue, a butcher at Salt & Time Butchershop & Salumeria, "What we need is to get out on the street: 'Try this stuff! Nothing to be afraid of!'"
If we're talkin' 'bout a revolution – and we always are in Austin – the humble goat is gathering support from its unassuming position in the brush. In addition to its proliferation on Austin menus, it's inspired butchery classes like the one I attended recently at Salt & Time (1912 E. Seventh). Ty Wolosin of Windy Hill Farm would provide the goat, already processed, while Hogue would demonstrate the techniques. Just like an art class, I thought. Indeed, in the modern food renaissance, culinary artistry is second only to the consideration of available resources, so a natural progression is learning the skills necessary to take back our food.
Some facts first: Accounting for 70% of the red meat consumed globally, goat meat has less cholesterol and saturated fat than chicken, and more protein content. The possibilities for goat meat's preparation and presentation are virtually endless, and entirely dependent on preference. It is a staple food in Latin, Caribbean, African, and Middle Eastern cuisines, as well as in some Asian fare; it is considered a delicacy in Italy and France; and it can be kosher and halal, for Jewish and Muslim consumers. Cabrito, chevon, and capretto are the most widely used forms, each with its own age specifications as per regional use. The flavor of goat meat has developed an undeserved bad rap, perhaps due to the cultural tendencies to use mature billy goats in some celebratory recipes, delivering a much more intense, and perhaps acquired, taste. However, the unequivocally versatile goat meat supplying the blossoming infatuation of Austin chefs is light, grassy, and herbal, with a hint of sweetness.
Of course, as with any meat, the animal's environment plays the most vital role in flavor, health, and sustainability. "Animals like this [Windy Hill goat] are just so fresh and so clean. It's the factory animals you've got to worry about," Hogue explained to his butchery class. Boers are the breed most suited to Central and West Texas, and goats pastured in our increasingly hot and drought-prone climate thrive where other livestock struggle to survive. Goats require less water and acreage, and they delight in eating the overgrowth and underbrush that other animals refuse, thereby improving the land itself. Windy Hill Farm uses no antibiotics or hormones and prides itself on the humane treatment of its animals. The goats are 90% pasture fed and given some non-GMO supplemental feed, only during the winter months and especially after the birth of kids. During the class, Wolosin explained that he typically offers chevon (6-14 months) and cabrito (younger than 6 months), and ideally his goats are wethers (neutered males) harvested between 1 and 1.5 years, as well as some nannies. (For more in-depth information on the ways of Windy Hill, and the fascinating environmental bonuses of raising goats, see "Get Your Goat On at Windy Hill Farm," On the Range blog, Sept. 1, 2012.)
This goat, Wolosin explained, was an 8-month kid scaling 80 pounds live weight, 37 pounds hanging weight, and would cost $210 ($5/lb. plus $35 processing). Goats must hang for a few days so the muscles relax, allowing the natural enzymes to continue breaking down the fibers. It does not age as well as other meats, such as beef. Storage conditions are somewhat tricky, with specific requirements for air movement, humidity, and temperature often hampering longer-term storage scenarios at home. Still, as our instructors explained, it is entirely possible to break down a whole animal in a household kitchen.
"There is always this concept of how butchers are so crude and masculine, which is a complete misconception. It's really an art form. It's really delicate." – Ren Hogue
A small class, notably comprised of more women than men, gathered in the meat locker of Salt & Time on a Thursday evening in mid-June. Among the students willing to fork over $150 for the class were a new owner of a flock of sheep and a home cook seeking new skills with which to tackle a hunting spouse's bounty. Everyone in this class was already privy to the wonderful flavor of goat meat, so we knew we were in for a treat with promised samplings that were being cut and cooked during the class.
After quick introductions and a rundown of safety precautions, Hogue explained the most essential tools for novice meat cutters. A beginning home butcher needs a selection of extremely sharp knives, particularly a semi-stiff boning knife, a cleaver, and a handsaw, with optional accessories such as a comb for bone dust and Hogue's favorite, a modified oyster knife. Modern shops, such as Salt & Time, incorporate a band saw for efficiency. The old-school, more laborious method of elbow grease and hand tools is possible for smaller animals, like goats. As Hogue began breaking the goat down into larger primal cuts, his explanations were as entertaining as they were informative, and the class stood at rapt, if chilled, attention.
One way to circumvent the increasingly complicated world of factory farming and avoid processors – "the underbelly of the meat world," according to Hogue – is by returning the power to the hands of the home cook. Benefits of home butchery include more meat yield and the ability to utilize otherwise discarded animal parts. Hogue reiterated this throughout the class, encouraging us to "save everything" and reminding us that "everything can be used." The neck, for example, is great for braising. Meaty bits and bones (safe for dogs, incidentally) are excellent for creative budgeting and can be used in stock, stews, and curries from a variety of ethnic cuisines. Also, nontraditional cuts, such as the Saratoga chop, are typically not available unless cut by a craft butcher or an invested (and practiced) home chef. The individual breaking down of a whole animal acquired from a known rancher allows the meat sources to be kept in check: The story of an animal's health and history can be discovered through an examination of the body, including glands.
As we watched Hogue deftly move into subprimals, separating the goat into shoulders, ribs, loins, sirloins, fore shanks, hind shanks, inside shoulder cuts, collar chops, and more, our group stood attentive and content for two and a half hours. Hogue's easygoing manner and patient explanations were enhanced by the three courses served throughout the class. Chef de cuisine Alex Jackson served mouthwatering bites of shoulder cooked rare and seasoned only with salt, golden and juicy tomahawk chops, and boneless loin with plump french fries. Now in full sensory mode, the lessons gradually revealed an unexpected artistic measure of food preparation.
Hogue encouraged us to use all our senses – to listen for sound changes when sawing and to develop a discerning eye for patterns in coloration and cartilage. "Use the goat's anatomy as a road map," he said. "Finding the seams, finding the joints, that is all butchery comes down to in its most rudimentary style. You get fancier from there." Hogue went on to explain that younger animals are supple (the protein is not fully developed), so it is important to be gentle. Knowing how to utilize the proper grip takes practice, and Hogue demonstrated the classic handle grip, avoiding the surgeon's grip and using the butcher grip sparingly. Though Hogue joked that the cleaver is "more for the iconic image of the butcher," he said he holds his knife like a pencil at times, to allow small, shallow cuts that prevent marring the tender meat.
We learned about feather bones, button bones, and star muscles; we learned a new continuous trussing method and received aesthetically pleasing presentation tips. Hogue presented a Frenching technique (in terms of bones, he hilariously specified) that evoked exclamations from the whole group, and reminded us to "count twice, cut once." He also offered useful suggestions for various cuts: For a South American-style barbecue, simply split, flatten, and slow roast over an open fire; for a fun way to promote even cooking and interesting flavor, skewer small chops with a woody rosemary branch, leaving greenery on one end.
The burgeoning cultural belief in knowing one's food sources and respecting meat consumption corresponds directly with the philosophical beliefs of this Eastside butcher shop. The conversation transitioned into talk of the industrial meat complex. Regarding the slow-but-steady transformation of purchases from chefs and consumers alike, Hogue said the staff at Salt & Time is working to educate the public. It's about "getting away from the factory mentality. It's even hard here. People ask, 'Why are you out of this [cut]?' Well, there are only two per animal ... and they're only so big! It's just the way it goes. It's hard getting people used to that concept. We're doing whole animal. Maybe try this other cut instead. Or reserve it – we'll put it aside for you."
Though exponentially more informed, and definitely convinced of the value of what I'd learned, I still found the idea of butchering a goat somewhat daunting. Hogue offered us reassurance: "It's just the beginning. Start small, work your way up. Buy a whole goat from this man [Wolosin], if you don't have one in your back pasture. Start at home. Invite your family over and make everyone pitch in. Make it a feast. That's what it's all about – community and bringing the love in."
If your adventuresome spirit lies more within your palate than your knife skills, starting with a new dish at any of the many local spots serving goat dishes is an excellent entry point. Whether it's carving your own whole goat or trying goat curry or cabrito tacos for the first time, it's worth it. Austin, already a celebrated spot famous for forging new community pathways in food and art, may be witnessing the renaissance of home butchery and the cultural revolution of goat meat consumption. Lucky us.
For more ideas about how to incorporate goat meat, milk, or cheese into your culinary repertoire, see our review of Goat: Meat, Milk, Cheese by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough online.