Breaking the Spell

We have gotten in the habit of letting others do for us what our most recent ancestors did for themselves. This is not news. My dad was no mechanic, but he could tune up the Oldsmobile and change the oil. When we were kids, we didn’t know what a landscaper was. Come to think of it, we didn’t know what a power mower was until I was 7 or 8.

My parents didn’t butcher their own meat, but THEIR parents did, and even my dad knew how to break down a stag. Mom could pluck and dress a chicken without cringing. Now we find ourselves assuming that eggs roll down a conveyor and milk comes out of a nozzle. I guess it’s to be expected.

On the hoof

And so it is with anatomy. I don’t assert that people should learn the Latin term for every bone and muscle in the body. Unfortunately, most of us don’t know the difference between the front and hind quarters of a steer. Most of us don’t even know what a steer is, for that matter. Milk comes from a cow, but beef comes from a STEER, or at least a heifer. FYI, a steer is a neutered bull. A heifer is a neutered female. Neutering makes a huge difference in the growth pattern and also the characteristics of the meat down the road.

People feel helpless when faced with the prospect of cutting their own steaks, even though few things are simpler. Cutting steaks is easier than updating your email password on your cell phone after you were forced to change it on your computer. I still haven’t figured out how to do that. I’ll probably have to take it down to the Apple store, so you see my point.

If you are familiar with the commentary on this website and in the FB Group that I admin, you have seen my explanations of how to save a little money by cutting your own filets, New Yorks, and rib eyes. Most people are a little embarrassed to find out just how easy it is, and even more embarrassed to consider how much money they have spent in the past just to avoid this simple task.

Nice Butt

There is a little bit more to breaking down a top sirloin, but not much.  Let’s get started.

Above: skin side down, the primal is “blockish.” It’s referred to as the “butt” for a reason. It corresponds almost exactly to human anatomy. Up at the top of the picture, you see that sort of leathery, pale pink spot–that is where the muscle connects to the femur bone–the bone that connects the hip to the knee. Cattle don’t have knees. Well, they do, but we call them shanks.

The surface that you see above is where the New York/Strip loin intersects with top sirloin.

Below: if you rotate the top sirloin 180 degrees, you can see the three basic muscles that compose the top sirloin.

At the bottom of the frame, you see the culotte/picahna muscle, and then above that is a solid piece that composes the major bulk of the primal cut. At the very top, you see a flap whose grain runs from left to right. That is generically referred to as the “mouse.” It is small and fairly insignificant. We will get back to that.

First, we are going to remove the picahna/culotte. Flip the whole cut over so it looks like the picture below–you may see the mirror image, depending on which side of the animal the sirloin came from.

Use a sharp pointed knife to make a cut at the end of the seam and start peeling.

It almost comes off by itself. Just pull it away and follow along with a pointed knife.

Now you have this. Flip it over.

Try to use long strokes, and save all the trim–very little will get wasted so don’t worry while you develop a little skill at it. Again–ancient populations did this with a sharpened rock or a seashell.

Eventually, you get something more or less like this. My butcher friends will look at this and laugh at what a hack I am, but, I don’t see them trying to help anybody. By the same token, never ask a butcher for advice on cooking. That’s like asking a carpenter how to repair an air conditioner.

Flip the coulotte over.

When you see picahnas depicted, this fat cap is frequently left attached. Picahna purists may freak out if you trim it off. Up to you. There is no evidence that the fat can interact with the meat in any way during the process of cooking other than to start a grease fire in your BBQ. The amount of fat on the surface of the meat is not necessarily directly related to the amount of intramuscular fat, also known as marble.

I take it off. You see all that trim on the right? Watch THIS when you get a chance.

Above: this is the top sirloin after the culotte/picahna/flap has been removed. Keep removing trim, and, again, do not discard.

After a while, it will look like this. Flip it over again.

There’s that leathery piece that connects to the femur, we talked about it earlier. Remove that with your boning knife and discard it–just that one piece goes in the trash. Nothing else. After you remove that, you can see the “mouse” that I talked about, I have no idea why they call it that. It comes off easy too…

That does not look like a mouse to me. Pre-cut top sirloins in the case usually have this still attached because nobody has come up with a way to market it on its own. I use it to make ground beef, so, stage that into the trim pile.

Now you have this, and a lot of people stop trimming at this point and start cutting steaks. That practice seems to be based on the notion that goes something like “it’s cheaper than most steaks, so people expect it to be tough and have some gristle.” I don’t buy that, so I cut it into three “logs” and remove the seemingly random sheets of gristle as I find them. Again, you’re not wasting them.

Whole top sirloins can be found for less than $4/lb if you look around, which means if you really removed and discarded ALL the trim, you would still be only paying about $8/lb for a steak that they will gladly charge you $30 for in a restaurant.

The log on the right had the least apparent gristle, so I cut it into 4 steaks of about 12 oz/330 g each.

I cleaned up the larger piece on the left, which yielded that fairly large piece with quite a bit of gristle, again, into the pile. That large piece gets cut in half lengthwise, yielding 2 roasts of approximately 2 lb/1 Kg each.

Everything gets vacuum sealed–the total weight of the four steaks, the two roasts and the picahna was still over half of the original weight. But we’re not done harvesting yet.

The packaged steaks are staged into the refrigerator/freezer, depending on the plan. Then, the pick through. There was over 3 lb/1.5 Kg of trim perfectly worthy of being turned into ground beef.

After that, there was still 2 lbs of fatty trim, all of which was still worthy of being utilized to make the brown stock that I linked above, here it is again Top Sirloin Espagnole.

Processing Notes

Top sirloin is sous vide processed just like New Yorks, rib eyes and filets/tenderloins, but I usually process it considerably longer. Top sirloin is very dense and high in myoglobin, and my unscientific and anecdotal experience has been that it retains its color better and longer than the other tender steaks. The picahna/culotte is one of the few steaks that I have been able to process, shock, and then smoke while still retaining that “medium rare” appearance.

Here are some links to other recipes for top sirloin.

Sous-B-Q Top Sirloin Center Cut/London Broil

Top Sirloin Picahna/Culotte

Smoked Sirloin Cap

Norm King