If you start with the best ingredients, you’ll wind up with the best product, right? In BBQ, that starts with your meat, and more specifically, the source of your meat.
Before opening Cleveland’s acclaimed new butcher shop, Ohio City Provisions, owner-operator Adam Lambert spent years learning about where quality meat comes from. While working as a chef in some of the city’s best restaurants, Lambert studied animal husbandry and feeding at Wholesome Valley Farm, in a nearby rural part of the state.
He’s put that knowledge to work with butcher Vinnie Delagrange at Ohio City Provisions, a shop that serves both professional pitmasters and at-home enthusiasts. Part of their business is working with local BBQ pop ups, supplying them with kielbasa and ribs. Lambert and Delagrange sat down with BBQ Industry staff writer Jen Picciano to talk about what you should be looking for in your butcher.
“You should know where their ability lies on how they can help you,” Lambert pointed out right away. “He should have no issue with how you want things cut.”
His philosophy is that the relationship between a pitmaster and butcher should be transparent and honest.
Q: What should pitmasters request and expect from their butchers?
A (Lambert): It depends on what they want. The biggest thing is: Is your butcher going to be accurate and knowledgeable about what you want? Are they willing to listen to you? A lot of guys will say, ‘You don’t cut it that way. Cut it this way.’ Especially now a lot of them want the money muscle in the shoulder, trimmed fat out and almost seamed out so it’s easier to get at after BBQ, after cooking as well.
A (Delagrange): You should be able to walk into a butcher shop, ask for something to be custom fabricated and then get that. If they told you we can’t cut it that way, that would be a red flag that they’re not bringing in animals, so they’re limited by what a national packer is going to sell them, or it’s just lackadaisical on their part.
Q: What makes for a good smokehouse butcher versus a household butcher? Is it simply the volume they’re able to handle?
A (Lambert): Yes. We’re kind of in the middle. We are a butcher shop that deals with nothing but directly whole animals, so we don’t have five cases of prime rib if they want to do smoked prime rib or six briskets in the back. We get two briskets per animal. If you want to use a proper butcher, by that I mean someone who knows exactly how their animals are raised, where they come from, how they’re processed and everything they go through before they hit the shop, that’s a sacrifice you’re going to have to make.
Q: What are the questions that a smokehouse or pitmaster should be asking if they are starting a relationship with a butcher? What should they want to know in order to ensure that it’s a good fit for them?
A (Lambert): Depends on their standards. If you’re trying to produce the best quality barbecue, it’s a simple rule that translates across every industry: start with great products and you’ll end with great products.
Q: So how do you trust that butcher?
A (Lambert): You can fact check. You can ask them about their products. The more in detail that they respond to your questions, the more you realize how legit or proper they are.
Q: Would you suggest someone take a trip out to where they’re sourcing their animals?
A (Lambert): If it’s local or not too far away, 100 percent.
Q: What about spending time in the butcher shop itself?
A (Lambert): You can ask to come and stage, or just come in and watch them cut. Set them up for questions you already know the answers to, like ‘What’s the best way to cut these ribs?’ And if they don’t peel them for you or trim your spare ribs up properly, or sell you on something false, then you know they’re full of it.
Q: What do you look for in good BBQ cuts?
A (Lambert): Something with a decent amount of fat and connective tissue, something that’s not lean. We just did a grilling class yesterday where our conversation was centered around the difference between grilling and barbecue, which is the low and slow aspect. So while you can do your rubs and injections, you still need that inter and intramuscular fat that’s moist and tender that will actually break down as you’re cooking.
Q: Is that something that differs cut to cut, or animal to animal?
A (Lambert): Both. Cut to cut you have your briskets, your ribs, or tri tip for more intermuscular fat. You can also use your beef ribs. We do a really cool barbecue beef neck here. We take the whole neck roast out, clean up the tendon out of the middle, roll the thing back up and smoke it. It works unbelievably. It’s super beefy. It’s insane flavor on it. There is a little more connective tissue in there, but low and slow you can break it down and shred it apart for BBQ beef and things like that.
Q: What’s the difference in taste between commercial corn-fed beef versus grass?
A: Straight beef flavor. There’s almost a natural sweetness to it as well which you would expect coming from corn. The grass has it as well. You’ll definitely notice in the fat itself, the flavor of the beef fat. For us, we do grass fed beef. So we’re getting minimum 26 months on organic basher all the way through. But what we’ve done is blend lowline black angus with standard black angus and the result of that is a calf that’s going to be able to finish out, turn into a steer, correctly on grass. That being said, we’ll still have a fat cap, still have strong intramuscular fat, and be a properly raised steer. When I say proper, our version of proper is the way it’s intended which is 100 percent grass. It helps to debunk the BS that grassfed is horrible and dry.
Q: With the BBQ industry being a 24-hour operation, is there anything you can do in terms of cutting or breaking down the animal, to help streamline the process for pitmasters?
A: Ask for your spare ribs to be trimmed, peeled, everything trimmed up to your specifications, so you can literally just come and pick up your meat order, get going to your destination, set up your pit and start going. That way you don’t have an an extra few hours of trim time.
Q: Is USDA Prime worth the extra price?
(Delagrange) A: If you’re talking about barbecuing, you’re cooking for so long, you start to lose some of what you would pay for in prime. So you’re going to pay that prime markup and you see a big difference in steaks that you’re going to grill for a short period of time and you can really notice the extra intramuscular fat there. But once you barbecue something for 18-20 hrs, at that point I don’t know that I would pay the extra for that, just because you’re out going to notice the output difference, which is 20-30 percent more.