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When it comes to butchery, the beef carcass is probably the most challenging. As it's very big and very heavy, cutting beef is physically hard word that requires stamina as well as skill. And it's complex, meaning there are many ways of breaking it down, resulting in lots of options for different cuts. Most butchers start by breaking it down into forequarter and hindquarter 'primals' – these are the big sections initially taken off the carcass. The primals are then cut into subprimals, which start to take shape as some of the pieces of meat you'd recognize on the butcher's counter. From a consumer's point of view, having a rough idea of where a cut originates on the carcass gives you a clue as to what the flavour and texture might be. Hardworking external muscles in the shoulder and rump have strong, open fibres resulting in lean meat with plenty of bite; internal muscles from beneath the spine are more tender, while those located around the rib are prized for their luscious marbling.
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There's a whole of a lot more to lamb than just leg and shoulder, although those are definitely two excellent cuts with very different textures and characters. A well-finished lamb carcass will have plenty of muscle evenly distributed across the forequarters, the hindquarters and the middle. A thin layer of fat is desirable as it's full of flavour and keeps the meat naturally basted as it cooks. Marbling is less conspicuous in lamb than in beef, but it can be achieved if the animal has grown slowly. This slow growth also contributes to lamb's rich ruby-red colour and texture that's either tender or robust, depending on the cut.
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The pork carcass is tremendously versatile, and if we did a poll on the street, we bet people could name more cuts of pork than they could any other meat. The same idea of cutting the carcass into primals applies as it does to beef but as it's smaller, the primals are fewer. Rearing pigs and deciding when they're ready for slaughter is a very skilled job as they can easily turn very fatty. Balanced fat-to-muscle ratio is what a butcher looks for on a pork carcass and this balance will influence the cuts that are taken. Smaller, younger pigs will be used for meaty pork joints and chops; older animals that have grown bigger make great bacon, while the very biggest pigs produce gammons and sausages.
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As a wild meat, venison is super-lean and the flavour's very much influenced by the diet on which the deer have grown. The cuts taken from the venison carcass are quite similar to lamb but you wouldn't expect to see much, if any, marbling on the meat. As prey animals, deer are built for speed and that influences the balance of muscle across the carcass and the texture of the meat. Haunch of venison, made up of big, powerful muscles, has been prized across the centuries for having tremendous depth of flavour and substantial grain. Less well-known cuts, such as osso buco taken from the shin, are perfect for slow cooking.
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Chicken is the most commonly eaten meat in the UK, with its popularity most likely attributable to its versatility and reputation as a lean source of protein. Chickens reared for their meat are known as 'broilers' and they grow to maturity in only a few months. That means their meat tends to stay tender, although if grown too quickly, that tenderness can come at the cost of flavour. Our slow-grown birds have active lives and that's reflected in the very different character of the white breast meat and darker leg meat. A lot of the flavour of chicken lies in the thigh or drumstick of the hardworking legs.
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Water fowl are very different creatures from land-living poultry, mainly as they need a good layer of fat to keep them warm and buoyant while swimming. On a duck, that fat is mainly found on the breast and, as well as adding succulence to the meat, it's a source of a huge amount of flavour. Though on the whole ducks are less meaty than chickens, they more than make up for it with well-textured and tender meat from the breast, leg and wing. Duck offal – including livers and hearts – is also appreciated for its taste and substantial size.
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Although widely hunted through the ages in North America, where it originated as a game bird, turkey is a relative latecomer to the British table. It's a bird that has size on its side, which is why it became associated with festive feasting – all that meat goes a long way to feeding big families. Selective breeding has led to commercial birds that carry most of their weight as white breast meat. We prefer the old-fashioned Bronze turkey which has meat well distributed across the carcass to provide a balance of leg and breast cuts. The large size of the turkey means it can be boned and rolled to create easy-to-carve roasting joints. And as it's a lean meat, it's widely appreciated as an alternative to beef and pork when minced.
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