[01:32] Jacob Dickson
[03:05] How Jacob Got Into the Meat Industry
[08:15] Jacob's Animal of Choice To Butcher
[12:10] What to Look For On The Label When Buying Meat
[16:36] Humanely Versus Non-Humanely Raised
[24:25] “Natural” Meats
[27:19] The Use Of Antibiotics
[35:48] Dry Aging
[41:55] The Difference Between Curing And Dry Aging
[47:55] Curing Meats At Home
[51:50] Best Way To Cook a Steak
[54:54] End of Podcast
In this episode of The Ben Greenfield Fitness Podcast:
“In our country, we have kind of, I say, jumped the shark in terms of what is acceptable for consumers in our agriculture system. The consumers just don't know it.” “‘Cause there's natural how I mean it, and then there's natural how, again, the USDA allows people to define it. So in our country, the term natural means almost nothing.” “People have been raising pigs in Iowa for three generations. They don't believe inherently what they're doing is wrong. And so convincing them to change over, you're not convincing them to change philosophically. All you can do is convince them that they can make more money if they change their system.” “We've been curing meat for thousands of years. So before the advent of a lot of technology that we have, it can be done safely at small scale for sure.”
Ben: Hey, folks. It's Ben Greenfield, and if you're like me you've occasionally wandered into the meat section of the grocery store, or a butcher shop, or one of these fancy charcuterie-style restaurants and you’ve been kind of perplexed about which cuts to get it, and how to know if the meat is actually safe and actually healthy, the difference between words like natural, and grass-fed, and grain-fed, and hormone-free, and CAFO-free, and humanely raised, and all these terms that tend to be associated with meat these days. It seems almost more complex than it should be.
Well, today we're going to delve into the mystery of meat with Jacob Dickson. And Jacob is with Dickson's Farmstand Meat and he describes it as “a candy shop for carnivores” and one of the most sought after purveyors of fine quality meats in the city of New York. And they offer things like artisanal meats, and house-made charcuterie made from animals raised without added hormones, or prophylactic antibiotics, or animal byproducts, whatever those are. So we're going to delve into all of that with Jacob today. So Jacob, thanks for coming on the call, man.
Jacob: It's my pleasure. I'm happy to be here.
Ben: So from what I understand, you came into the food industry originally from the world of corporate marketing. How did that happen?
Jacob: Well for me, I used to work for American Express for many years. And I was looking for a business I wanted to start, and I wanted to start something in an area that I was passionate about. I was looking not to start a business in something that would start and then sell it, an entrepreneur from that perspective. I was looking for a very industry that I would start and be in for the next 35 years. And kind of I was enjoying my time in American Express. I got to say I used my brain every day, but it wasn't satisfying. I was looking for something bigger. And at the same time, in parallel, I would call my foodie. I was passionate about cooking and I was a big carnivore, and one day to kind of realize, “Here, I eat meat every single day almost, but I know nothing about how it gets from a farm, and what a farm might even look like, to my plate.” And so I went about educating myself, and I started researching, and reading books, and going online. And the more I learned, the more kind of horrified I was about the industrial agricultural processes in our country.
Ben: Like what kind of stuff, were you going to specific websites like watchdog websites, or were you reading books that made you nervous about this stuff, or like what was it that you found that you were using as a resource?
Jacob: A little bit of everything. Seriously. I mean it started with reading, I think a great primer for everybody is Michael Pollan's “Omnivore’s Dilemma“. It's not my favorite now that I'm more into the industry for a lot of reasons, but I think it's a great starting place. It kind of an eye-opening book for you. Kind of makes you start asking a lot of questions. And then from there, I just started basically becoming a massive consumer of information online, what was out there, and then books I was buying, all Joel Salatin books, so the big jumping up point from Omnivore's Dilemma, getting into his perspective of things. But really the more I was learning, it started then driving me to look for a better solution, “Where can I buy meat that I was happy with?” And the truth is, I was struggling to find them. There weren't great options. Either I could buy at the farmer's market, but everything was frozen and pre-cut, or you could go to the supermarket, and I wasn't happy about the way things were raised. I couldn't find someone doing kind of the whole package. And I kind of said to myself, “Maybe this is it. Maybe if you could figure out how to do this well, there was a business there.” Because either there are people out there like me looking for a better option. Or if you could open people's eyes and educate them there would be a near infinite amount of people that would be interested in what we could offer.
So I started reading more and working on a business plan. But the thing about meat is that they're very hard to do right. There are so many moving parts, so many things to learn. I said, “I got to just throw away the business plan for right now, and quit my job, and just dive into the field.” And I spent a year just kind of traveling the country, working on farms, working in a butcher shop in Minneapolis, working at the slaughterhouse that we now use just 'cause I felt that to do meat is a hands-on industry, I needed to have hands on experience with it. And so I just said, “I'm not even going to think about what this business is going to look like. All I know is it's going to be in meat, it's going to be working with small farmers, and I'm going to learn, and then let the business kinda [0:06:30] ______ as I go through it. And then at the end, I kind of crossed my fingers that there's going to be a business plan that's going to be the way forward after this year.
Ben: Yeah. I mean I could imagine it'd be a very steep learning curve even for just myself, learning how to field, dress, and skin, and quarter a deer has been just an enormous process in and of itself. My wife recently butchered a whole hog, and for her, that was having to be in most in learning about it for literally weeks. So I can't imagine what would go in learning what you would need to know to do what you're doing now. ‘Cause you're like the main butcher at this Dickson's Farmstand now, right?
Jacob: I actually don't consider myself a butcher. I believe that my role in Dickson's Farmstand is kind of a curator of both product and people. So for instance, it would take me a decade to be as talented as a chef as my chef, and it would take me six years to learn the skill set that the butcher has. So I bring everybody together. So yes, I can cut meat. And yes, I know a lot of agriculture. And yes, I know a lot about sausage making. But I hire individual specialists, and bring them into my organisation, and then we work together to create what is now Dickson's Farmstand.
Ben: So I've got kind of a weird question for you, but if you could choose like one animal, and I'm going to totally gross out all of our plant-based listeners, but if you could choose one animal that you were going to butcher in terms of just like out of the ease, or the enjoyment, or whatever it is that turns you on with your butchering an animal, what animal would it be?
Jacob: For me personally, probably in the business aspect of it, it's the pig. Pigs are great for so many reasons. From a farmer's perspective, it allows a small farmer with minimal investment, and infrastructure, and time to really get a farm going in a short period of time 'cause pigs grow quickly. From a butcher's perspective, the yield on them is tremendous. Almost the entire pig, when we butcher a pig, we can get as high as 86% of the carcass as a retail sellable product. That's tremendous 'cause there's so little waste there compared to beef and lamb. And then from a chef's perspective, pork is just so versatile in what you can do it. Making sausage, charcuterie, it is the most versatile and profitable species because of all these things kind of throughout the whole supply chain. So that's why I like pigs. And they're great, and they're delicious, obviously, if they're good. Also for pork's perspective, the pork that I offer is a huge gulf in difference and quality than what you find from commercial hogs in the US. I mean there is, it may not be well-raised, and I might have problems with the supply chain and the ethics behind it, but you can go into a high end to market and buy, I'm going to say in quote 'cause you can't say “high quality beef”. Or you can buy prime steer, if dry aged, is going to taste good. But you can't really go into a supermarket and buy delicious pork. It just doesn't really just anymore in the US. And there's such a gulf between that product that I offer that we call pork and the product that's in the supermarket called pork.
In terms of home butchering, I think the best pieces by far for people just getting started is lamb actually. ‘Cause they're super simple to break down and you can basically do it, you could watch a couple videos online, and with a cleaver, and a butcher's knife, and a boning knife, you could break down a lamb pretty easily. Like I could teach you in one session enough that you could break a lamb home like a beautiful job with it, but you could break it down. So I think lambs are great starting place for people, and then pig. Now if you ask my butchers what their favorite species is, they all say beef 'cause beef is challenging, and complicated, and big. And everything about it's big. It's expensive to buy, there's a lot to waste, so you can afford to waste a single piece of things. I mean there's a lot of fat and trim that goes in the garbage. So beef, if you're a butcher, it's probably your favorite. But I think pigs are great for everything else and lambs are great for home. It's a long answer to a simple question, I guess.
Ben: Yeah. When my wife went and butchered the whole hog, she actually just got one from a local farmer and just the bacon alone, you say that it's hard to get good quality pork, and I remember the first time that we had bacon just cooked over the cast iron skillet at our house, and it's a night and day difference between like the best, most expensive bacon we could find at the grocery store. She used this book called “Beyond Bacon“. Have you heard of this one?
Jacob: I have not.
Ben: Really interesting recipe. It's actually a paleo book and it's called “Paleo Recipes That Respect The Whole Hog”. But really, really cool book in terms teaching you some interesting pork recipes, and I'm totally in agreement with you that pork tastes completely different than anything we could find anywhere else. So I've got a few questions for you here about meat and knowing what to get when you walk into a butcher shop or into the meat section of your local supermarket. When you do that, how do you know that the meat that you're getting is actually healthy? Like what kind of things should you look for on the label?
Jacob: Well, I mean I guess they're healthy in a lot of ways. There's a couple questions that you're asking. Healthy could be the fat content. I don't believe that that's the kind of healthiness that we should care so much about in our meat, especially where I suggest people eat in moderation. When I think about healthy, I want to put in my body things that are well-raised from a humane treatment perspective. That matters a lot to me. But then also how the animal is raised in terms of what went into its body. ‘Cause I think that affects what goes into our body. It in our country, we have kind of, I'd say jumped the shark in terms of what is acceptable to consumers for agriculture in our agriculture system. The consumers just don't know it really. But we've done a really good job of slaughtering on a massive scale, raising animals on a massive scale up, and nobody sees it. If you think about it, there's like 6 million steers a month that I believe are slaughtered in our country. And has anybody ever seen it? Right, the average person? Because it's kind of tucked away and we don't see it. We have this massive system in place to supply us and it develops [0:13:27] ______ the bad practices are out there. Those practices for me are basically widespread use of hormones, growth promoters, beta antagonists in beef, antibiotics in pork and chicken. Those are the things that I'm trying to avoid. Because I believe that they have both humane implications for the animal and also for ourselves from a healthfulness perspective.
Ben: Okay. I want to ask you some targeted questions about that stuff. Because we hear those terms thrown around like all the time. Like humanely raised, and no added hormones, and no antibiotics. But for example, humanely raised. Like how do you know? How do you specifically know that the animal that you're getting there at the, well I actually don't really even know how it works. So you just get these big dead animal carcasses, or are the animals coming live to you?
Jacob: So because I want to opt out of the commercial meat industry, I have built my entire supply chain from scratch. So the slaughterhouse that we use is where I work. It's three hours north of here. I'm going to be there tomorrow actually with a group of students. We use that as kind of our point of consolidation. So each of my farmers, I work with just four farmers, we grew our businesses together. I want to work more deeply with these farmers so we can control more variables, know more about each other. Those farmers bring the animals to the slaughterhouse. [0:14:56] ______ and his two sons run the place. They slaughter for us there. And we have our own truck in the farm that we use to transport the animals in. They actually live up there. My driver lives five miles from the slaughterhouse.
So every Tuesday morning he pulls up, and all the animals have been slaughtered for us for that week, are loaded into the truck, and brought down. The pigs and lambs come in whole and the beef come in quarters so we can control as much as the butchering and processing in our store. So we bring them in as largest pieces as possible. Nothing comes in a box, nothing comes from an outside supplier. It only comes from my group of farms who are raising specifically for us and bringing to our one slaughterhouse. Basically I want a very deep relationships so I can understand as much as possible about these farms. I've been working with most of our farmers for about seven years now, since the very beginning. And for me to bring in a new farmer, I've got to get really comfortable, and we start really slow, one animal here and there. And as we become closer with each other and our organisation, their farm and our butcher shop, and the quality and consistency, and how the animals are raised, we'll start building our business up together.
Ben: So when an animal is humanely raised, what exactly does that mean? What's happening to the animal as it grows up that causes them to be humanely versus non-humanely? Because I've been in some places where it seems like it's a commercial feed lot and the animals still seem to be kind of in the field, like there's a lot of them out there kind of in close quarters. But I'm curious where you draw the line between something being humane versus non-humane?
Jacob: Well I believe that as humans, as a species, that we have an internal mechanism, and a feeling, and understanding about what is correct in terms of scale. And I think a lot of agriculture as humane, not that you can't be small and inhumane, but a lot of agriculture and food production, it's about scale. And small scale and controlling variables, that's where we're concentrating on. I'm looking for small scale producers that are interested in staying, they want to be viable farms, but staying on the small scale and raising animals well, where they have room to roam and express themselves. And when you start getting into scale or mistreating, they'll more likely need antibiotics and other things to keep them healthy. So we're looking at a small scale operation where animals can be themselves, their piggy-ness, not that they're wild animals but they have room to root and socialize, access an outdoors at all times. And these are the things that we're looking for.
And I agree with you, some of it is kind of hard to pin down. How do you define it? Because one of [0:17:53] ______ in our country is when things become defined term by the USDA, once it's written on paper and it says this is what it means, the industry then can follow the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law. A great example of that is the term “free range” for chicken. Free range, when the term was developed was really about the happy chicken running around in the field that farmers are leaving it. That you picture. But when it was written down on paper by the USDA, companies could follow the letter of the law saying it has access to outdoors, but not necessarily that the chickens ever go outdoors. And then they describe what the outdoors look like or how much access there was. So free range became a term that at one point meant something. But once it became a defined term by the USDA, it ceased to lose its meaning. You see that a little bit with “grass-fed” as well. “Grass-fed”, you can follow the letter of the law by feeding them forage, no grain during their life cycle. But you could be a grass-fed feed lot as well. And that's a term that when it came about, people were trying, it was really that pasture-raised ideal that you're picturing for beef.
So one of the reasons during my journey why I spent time working on farms before I got started is that I need to learn from myself, not the way I was reading a book, I have first-hand knowledge of what I consider to be acceptable agriculture practice for my business and for myself what I would want to eat. And that's why I went and worked on farms. And the first farm I worked at actually was kind of right on the border. There are things that I thought were great about that farm, it was Cornell University Sheep Farm. One of the things that I said, “You know, I'm not really comfortable with the way they're doing things. Yes, these animals are pretty healthy, but they never go outside from when they're born to when they're slaughtered for the lamb.” It was a little bit too commercial of an operation for me, so I kind of wanted to go a little bit farther towards the small scale and independent farmers than what I was seeing there. But I'm glad that I worked on that farm because it kind of gave me that first-hand experience about that kind of middle road. It wasn't a massive feedlot, but it wasn't quite what I was going for my farm.
Ben: Gotcha. So if I pick up a piece of meat at the store and it says “grass-fed”, is there a way for me to know if that's humanely raised grass-fed versus kind of like the half-assed version of grass-fed that you're talking about where still a feedlot but they're technically getting grass?
Jacob: That's a big problem. And that's why my business is so extreme in one direction is that there isn't a great way to know. The best thing you can do is start asking lots of questions in the food market, and if there's no one to answer those question, it means that it probably isn't as far down that, the path of humane, and small scale, and healthful as a shop that can answer those questions. It's really hard to get to scale in the kind of business that we run. To run a wholesale branch, you’re paying farmers a lot. It's very difficult, but it's something, and you need to get a high dollar value for it. So it's low cost and it's sitting on a food market shelf, but nobody to kind of explain why it is, chances are it's either [0:21:12] ______ a commodity or somewhere in between. Very [0:21:17] ______ can get the premium you need for raising animals on a small scale and sell it wholesale. So that's like buying small scale places like mine, or other premier shops opening around the country, or buying directly from the farmer where they can capture more of the retail dollar. That's a much more likely place where you're going to find meats like ours, raised in small scale, well raised meat.
Ben: So it's a better idea if you're actually going to buy meat to not go into a grocery store and buy it. I was actually recently at a conference and I was sitting with a guy named Daniel Vitalis, a friend of mine who also has a podcast. And the way he described it was he said that basically poor people have the mentality of buying food in these small quantities, like a pack of carrots or like a piece of steak from the grocery store, and that healthy people or people with an attitude of abundance, they'll purchase their meat as like the whole hog, or they'll go out of their way to go to the butcher shop and buy larger quantities of high quality meat, or they'll like grow their own carrots or go to the farmers' market and buy big bundles and learn how to store those properly. So when it comes to purchasing meat, would you say that people should just, for the most part, avoid the supermarket and the grocery store and just find like a specialty butcher shop to work with if they're not going to buy the whole cow themselves?
Jacob: Yes. I mean that's obviously a specialty…
Ben: Well, yeah.
Jacob: But, yeah. I mean I think that's your best option. I mean say if you have directly to a farmer and you want to buy in bulk, I think you're buying half the Earth whoever a family, it's the most economical way. If you don't have access to a place like us and don't want to buy in large quantities, I think farmer's markets are the next best thing. And those are the best solutions. And I think when we think about economics, the ground beef from a well-raised animal is just as healthful as a rib eye from a well-raised animal, and it's going to cost a lot less. You're always going to have keep cost and quality in perspective, especially when we're talking about healthfulness and nutrition because there's not more nutrition in a rib eye, it's just more tender. So I always say, “Rib eyes are not sustainable. Ground beef is sustainable. There's a lot of ground beef on the animal and there's not a lot of tenderloin and rib eye on the animal.” So if you want to support local farmers, and local butcher shops, and local agriculture, and have well-raised meat at a reasonable price, it's about buying sausage, and ground meat, and those other cut. It's not about buying middle-meat, those premium cuts that are used.
Ben: Gotcha. Okay. Now how about the word “natural”? You see the word natural appear on a lot of this packaging. What exactly does that mean? I mean is that just something that anybody can slap on? How's the word “natural” work?
Jacob: Anything that says natural in our logo, that's like one of my regrets. I got to go back and sort of stop. ‘Cause there's natural how I mean it and then there natural how, again, the USDA allows people to define it. So in our country, the term “natural” means almost nothing. There's two ways they can be used. There can be the term “natural”, which means minimally processed. Basically that it has no additives and it's not mechanically separated, which means basically spraying something down with a pressure washer and then collecting the bits and parts from the drain, for lack of a better description. So in that sense almost any meat you buy, regardless of how it's raised, it can be labeled as natural for that perspective. The other way you see natural, you'll see a “natural**” at the supermarket. Now what that allows is it's a marketing firm that companies can go and register with the USDA and give their definition of natural.
So I can say, let's say what's called the “Verified Angus Program”. They can say, “For us, natural means no hormones and no antibiotics.” And they register that definition with the USDA, and they can put it on their marketing materials, and you'll always see the asterisk. And you can look on the back of the package, or often it's even more misleading, they'll say, “See pamphlet,” or “Go online for our definition of natural.” So it can mean something different everywhere you go. So we define natural, I mean the way I personally define natural is the same kind of trying to gather up these feelings about when I visit my farm, and our profits, and the things that we make. So it's about small scale family farms, it's about small slaughterhouses that take care with each animal, it's about handling every carcass in the optimal way and respecting the animal. And in our store, we make everything by hand and small scale, small batches. That's kind of what I meant by natural. So I think it is a very confusing term for the consumer.
Ben: Yeah. Okay. So natural pretty much means jack squat, really. I mean if it's on the label…
Jacob: Pretty much. When you see it on a package, so if you come into my store, and now we've got “Natural” in our logo, but none of our materials ever use the term because we kind of realized that we gonna, it's kind of a loaded term in the US. And at some point, we'll probably revise our logo and eliminate that term because it means so little in the US at this point.
Ben: Now you actually had some blog posts on your website, at the dicksonsfarmstand.com site, and in one of the articles you have over there, you talk about antibiotics, and why they're actually used, and how there's kind of some misconceptions out there about why antibiotics are used. Can you get into the idea behind those misconceptions? Like why is it that animals are fed antibiotics?
Jacob: Well there's really a few reasons why you would feed an animal antibiotics. So the first is for growth promotion and the second is for healthfulness, for the animal. Now the way we started using, why antibiotics are problematic in our country, we’re getting about creating a resistance for the human population. So you have animals, animals can get sick, and you treat them with antibiotics. You always we see in our marketing, we say “No prophylactic antibiotics.” So even in the best of circumstances of well-raised animals, animals get an eye infection, they have a foot problem. We always want our farmers to be able to treat that animal with antibiotics if it is injured. The problem is more with prophylactic antibiotics. So using it on an animal that is not yet sick and as a preventative to keep it from getting sick, that's where we're getting into a practice that allowed agriculture to exist at densities and treatment levels that I don't believe we should be doing. So it allows you to put more chickens into one coop, more pigs into a warehouse at once. If I treat them with antibiotics, you keep them from getting sick. And the way the industry justifies is saying that, “Oh, if we didn't treat them, then they would get sick, and that would probably be inhumane.” But I believe it's a system of density and scale that is inherently inhumane and antibiotics are just an enabler of that industry at that scale.
Ben: So do you think it's ever okay to use antibiotics with meat?
Jacob: I do.
Ben: In which case?
Jacob: In the first case. So the way we would allow our farmers, so if there is an injury or an animal gets sick, you treat the animal with antibiotics. Small scale farmers can't afford to not use an animal that may have gotten an illness. And just like people, we get over illnesses. It's about minimal antibiotics use as much as possible, and for very short courses, and far before the animal's ever brought for slaughter.
Ben: Have you ever wondered if, like in humans, how nowadays with alternative medicine, in a lot of cases when people get sick, we'll use things like probiotics, and essential oils, and vitamin C, and zinc, and things like that to assist the immune system with natural healing? Why is it that something like that couldn't be used with animals?
Jacob: It is, actually. And all of our farmers practice that as much as possible. We really try to use as little antibiotics and call the vet as little as possible for an animal. You can do it through a nutritional supplements. People use oregano and oregano oil. We use probiotics and preventive measures as a natural deworming methods as much as possible on an animal. But I don't want for our farm, I never draw a line that says you can never use antibiotics on an animal that is injured or sick. But yes, I believe, just like with people, we should do as much as possible to minimize the use of antibiotics for short. And that's a big difference. At one point, I was watching a video of a farmer at a big pork place in Iowa, at a big pork warehouse and factory farm. And he just walking around with, it looks like a caulk gun basically full of antibiotics. And any animal that looks a little pale or it looks a little kinda light lamb, he's just hitting it. In the five minutes in the video, he must've given antibiotic treatment to 20 or 30 different animals. And he's just hitting them and then spray painting them as if they've been, hitting them and spray painting them. So he doesn't double dose them. That total near indiscriminate use of antibiotics in that way, that's a problem. And this is also one farmer in the industrial system that's caring for thousands of animals. In one day, they can feed 15,000 pigs. So much is automated.
On our farm, even our largest farm, and it's raising 600 pigs a year, which is not a lot, they know every single pig. They're keeping an eye on that pig, they saw an eye infection. If you think about it, I think of our farmers as like the headmaster of this small high school. A headmaster, they know every kid and what's going on. They know the personality, they know the issues, and so they are looking out for those. These pigs are also, each individual animal is extremely valuable for a small farmer. And so they are looking out for the best interests of every single animal. They can't afford to have high mortality rates. Whereas if you look at the industrial system, there is an expected loss on each animal. And each animal is kind of a widget, and the more widgets they raise, the more is that they are growing. They're automating as much as possible, so each individual animal is not that valuable to the system, and that leads to all these issues that we're talking about, about inhumane treatment, devaluing the life of the animal. And when you devalue the life of the animal, the healthfulness and the way you raised it doesn't become as important anymore.
In terms of like antibiotic use and humane, they become marketing terms. They actually don't really mean anything [0:32:45] ______ of the farmer and the animal itself. It's not about caring for the individual animal, it's being able to say, “Oh. Well if I can be never ever antibiotic, I can sell more meat, or at a higher premium.” Those things are important to a farmer from an economic viability, but that's not why we should be raising animals and caring about what we consume. That's about what can I put on my label so I can get 10 cents more a pound, it's not about what do I believe in how I raise animals. There's a huge barrier to converting our system because people have been raising pigs in Iowa for three generations, they don't believe inherently for the most part is that what they're doing is wrong. And so convincing to change over, you're not convincing them to change philosophically, all you can do is convince them that they can make more money if they change their system. And that's the challenge. And I think that's kind of for everyone. ‘Cause if you don't actually believe in it, are you really going to follow, are you just going to follow the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law of what you practice?
Ben: Yeah. It's a good point. It's kind of like this concept of when you raise your own animals. When you have Bessie the cow in your backyard that you're going to eat in two years. You're going to take a lot different care of that animal because it is this single individual animal that has a spirit or a soul and that you have a connection with, and that you're going to treat far differently versus that faceless, nameless cow that's in a feedlot.
Jacob: And that's one of the reasons why in our shop we put [0:34:25] ______ every week when they arrive. Nobody ever buys the pig's head, but it's about reminding people that that pork chop at the other end of the case came from a pig that had a head and lived on a farm not that far from there. We always have to try to remind people of the connection that meat is not the same as a protein shake. It came from an animal that was living somewhere, took a long time, whether it be nine months for a pig or almost two and a half years for a steer, someone took a long time and a lot of care in raising that animal.
Ben: Yeah. It's a good point. Well, I want to shift focus here and ask you a little bit about this whole curing and dry aging process. The first thing I want to ask you about is when it comes to dry aging, one of the things I've seen out there is that when you dry age, and I know this is something that Dave Asprey of Bulletproof exec will talk about, mold and fungus will form on that meat when it's dry aging, and that's part of the curing process. And he says that that could potentially unhealthy or cause health issues. What's your take on mold and fungus? Why does it grow when you're dry aging and what's the purpose of that? And then do you have any thoughts about the health, or lack thereof, when that happens?
Jacob: Interesting questions. So the first thing I would say about dry aging that it is more art than science and there are different ways to practice. And then when it comes to mold and fungus, there are millions of different strains, whether it be dry aging or dry curing, and strains that you are cultivating could be positive or negative. So answering the first question, so we do a lot of dry aging in our store. But the style of dry aging we do is about high air flow, very cold temperatures, and lower humidity. So we actually, in our dry aging process, cultivate almost no molds and fungus. We don't get that funky flavor, but we're actually cultivating more a dehydration, so evaporation of water from the meat to concentrate the flavor, and alter the balance of water to fat to make it seem juicier, and an enzymatic process which tenderizes the meat. So what we actually, our dry aging process as we practice it has almost no mold growth, no fuzzy growth. I can send you pictures of it. We don't have that kind of funky looking exterior with fuzzy mold of any color.
Ben: Is that because of the actual temperature? You said it's colder than usual? Or is that because of less humidity?
Jacob: Actually, it's a more a function of humidity and air flow. The higher your humidity…
Ben: What humidity do you guys cure at?
Jacob: So our humidity is a little bit lower. People usually do it from the low 80's to the high 80's, and we concentrate on the low 80's in terms of relative humidity for our practices. But what we also do is we use what I call extreme airflow. So we have 18 inch fans that are about 20 inches away from the face of each piece of rib eye or New York strip that we're aging. And what that does is that it dehydrates very quickly the front surface of the animal and it creates a crust, almost exactly like beef jerky actually, and it's a very thin and hard crust. And what that does is twofold. The first thing is it protects the meat on the other side of the crust. So if you develop that crust slowly, it thickens and you end up having more weight than we go to cut off and throw it away to get to the good meat. So that's from a loss perspective aesthetic.
The other thing it does is by dehydrating it very quickly, there isn't a surface, there's so little water that there isn't an opportunity for the mold to really form. It needs moisture, it needs a hospitable surface. Just like beef jerky does not mold even at room temperature, by dehydrating the surface, you lower the water activity, another factor, to make it a place where mold growth won't happen. So kind of those two variables together, lower humidity and high airflow, prevent the mold growth. This is not the style of dry aging that other people are doing. Some people are actually purposely trying to get more mold growth to get that more funky style, like aging a funky cheese.
Now in terms of healthful versus not, I would think that there's two factors there. One is the type of molds. There are great molds for you and there are bad molds for you, and great fungus and bad fungus. Now knowing which ones you're cultivating would require sending them to a lab to analyze. You can inoculate, just like you would if you're dry curing Salumi or hams, you could introduce penicillin or other varieties which would then have positive molds that could grow on them, positive molds and bacteria. So that's one way to do it to create, to cultivate a better mold that you actually want instead of just what's randomly around. But the other thing I would say is that no one ever really eats the moldy part. The first step when we get to it is that we cut it off. So I'm not sure how much of that mold, even if they were harmful molds there, that the individual is actually consuming.
Ben: You mean you guys cut it off there at the butcher shop or when people purchase it?
Jacob: Exactly. So when you dry age something, even if you're going for the funky flavor, very little of that mold, if any, really penetrate into the meat itself. Almost all forms on the surface and that you would cut it off before you would cook that meat or serve that meat. So I would be curious how much of, even if there were harmful molds and bacteria, or fungus on the outside, how much of it you would actually consume even if there were a lot on the exterior surface.
Ben: How long do you guys dry age your meat? How long is it actually sitting in there in that high airflow, slightly lower humidity type of situation?
Jacob: Minimum two weeks is our kind of standard, everyday product that goes in our case. And with a well raised piece of meat, we'll go up to 60 days, on a well-marbled piece of meat I should say. If there aren't enough fats, it doesn't age very well. It has a lower shelf life. We often don't age the grass-fed beef as long because the higher percentage of unsaturated fats are more volatile and you're more likely to pick up off flavor in the grass-fed. So we stick around two weeks for the grass-fed only. We don't go further. You would benefit from some additional tenderizing, and I know some people like to go more like four weeks or more with the grass-fed beef because they want the additional tenderization. But we find with the grass-fed beef there's enough tenderization and we don't want the fats to start souring or pick up off flavor at all.
Ben: Gotcha. Okay. So let's say that somebody wanted to try this at home, like when I have a deer and I want to cure my own meat at home. Have you ever run into people who kind of try to put together their own home meat curing type of set-ups with an old refrigerator or something like that?
Jacob: Well I want to clarify. Are we talking about curing or dry aging?
Ben: What's the difference?
Jacob: Okay. So when we talk about dry aging, it's about taking a fresh meat product that you will still cook. And we typically, dry aging is done with beef, sometimes lamb, almost never with pork, and it's about aging it in a temperature, humidity, air velocity controlled environment to create a different product that is still a fresh meat product. Now we talk about dry curing, typically we're talking about a salumi or charcuterie product where we're taking a raw product and converting it to a ready-to-eat product through using time and salt, time like the one, two, three, four, minutes, not thyme as in the herb, but through time, and salt, and other ingredients creating a ready-to-eat product through curing it. Now that also involves a temperature, humidity, air velocity controlled environment. Typically dry curing would be done above refrigeration temperature, whereas dry aging is always done under refrigeration.
Ben: Okay. Gotcha. So which of those processes, the dry aging or the curing, is the process where the mold or the fungus kind of forms on the meat?
Jacob: Well, both actually. I would say with dry curing, you need to cultivate the positive one, and mold and fungus plays a very integral role in creating those products, and their flavor, and what people call [0:43:27] ______ , and having different molds and funguses. And again even with those products, you would typically cut off those molds and funguses as well. They're always going to be on the outside. If you see when you go into an Italian specialty shop and you get salami that's really white, like it's almost like a powder coated white color on the outside, that is a specific mold that they have cultivated for the outside. And they're cultivating a positive mold because they want to ward off negative mold that they're not controlling. They're introducing molds that they want.
Ben: Now is another word for curing “wet aging” versus “dry aging”? Or is wet aging something also different?
Jacob: So wet aging is also something that we do for beef. And that would kind of be paired in terms of what we're talking about. The aging goes with dry aging, not with dry curing. So curing kind of, we put that off to the side, like making salumi, and prosciutto, and charcuterie. Wet aging is a process where instead of putting that beef New York strip in a temperature, air velocity, and humidity controlled environment, we vacuum seal it in a plastic bag, typically in our country it happens 24 hours after slaughter, and keep it under refrigeration and under vacuum, and what happens is you get the enzymatic process that makes the meat more tender, which is necessary for beef, less so for pork and lamb. But the enzymatic process breaks down the meat into more tender, but you don't get any of the water loss or any additional flavor enhancement through natural bacterias or anything like that. So the wire industry likes wet aging 'cause it's easier to transport 'cause it's already broken down, you can put it in a box. They like it because there's less water loss, so that same piece of meat will be heavier at evaporation, and they like it more because you don't have what we call trim loss. That exterior surface that I talked about that you would cut off and throw in the garbage, there's nothing that you got to, there's another that you would throw away.
Now the problems with it are is that, yes, you get tenderization, but you get a wetter product, and you get something that sits in its own blood or juices. What that can do is give it what people call a serumy flavor often, like almost tastes bloody. And also when you go to cook it, what happens is there's a lot more moisture in the product. So it's less likely that you get a nice sear on the outside and more likely to kind of gray or brown 'cause you basically have to boil off the liquid before you can really get a nice crust on it. And 95% of the meat in our country is wet aged. And even the dry aged meat that you get at supermarkets was often wet aged, vacuum sealed before it got to the butcher shop where then they dry age. Very little amount of beef is actually never put in plastic in our country.
Ben: When you are getting charcuterie at a charcuterie shop, is that mostly wet aged then? Is it dry aged? Is it cured? Is there way to know?
Jacob: I would say in terms of wet age or not, it would all depend. There's no kind of way if you go to a charcuterie shop, it doesn't mean anything [0:46:40] ______ animals are aged at all. Now typically shops like mine where we're making charcuterie and they're coming up in the country, most of us are also paired with the ethics of working with small farms. That does not mean that they exclusively are that way. There have been companies that make salumi in our country for the last 40 years that are just using commodity regular old pork. People trying to make the distinctive high quality products are looking for better quality pork typically. If you think about all of the Applegate Farms stuff that's out there, they're just using commodity pork [0:47:16] ______ . There's nothing special about the pork. There might be creating a more specialty product out of it, but it's nothing special about the pork that goes into it.
Ben: I see. Okay. So in many cases, you'll read nowadays about how people are curing meat in their basement, like folks with a basement or a cellar with the right temperature and a humidity range. Is that something that you think is doable? Like is it okay? Is it safe if you've got a good temperature and humidity range, to just use your basement or your cellar, like one of these old refrigerators that you can turn into a curing chamber, to do this yourself at home?
Jacob: For sure. I mean it's not something that you just decide one day to do. I'm on a lot of Facebook groups about this. It has a mix of professional and home enthusiasts. If you do want to do it, it's something you should be passionate about and really take the time to educate yourself about the safety behind, and read up, and join a group on Facebook that you can e-mails question you have, a lot of the amateur people are taking pictures and say, “Hey, what do you think about this mold that I've got on my bresaola,” and you've got people who are out there who've been doing this for 30 years who're like, “I'd just throw that one away,” or “I'd wipe it off with vinegar. You should be fine.” So definitely you have to take it seriously and respect it, just like if you want to become a mushroom forager. You've got to actually invest the time in learning. And if you do, you could do it safely and enjoyable.
Ben: Right. And if not, you're going to be tripping out for days underneath that [0:48:50] ______ where you picked the mushroom of…
Jacob: And these are serious things. You can cultivate some really nasty bacteria, and fungus, and mold when you dry cure. You are curing something for a long period of time outside of refrigerated safety zones. So bad things can happen if you don't practice correctly. Now that being said, we've been curing meat for thousands of years. So before the advent of a lot of technology that we have, it can be done safely at small scale for sure. So you should be scared in a way that makes you respect the process, but not so scared that you really want to do it, you shouldn't move forward.
Ben: Okay. Gotcha. Are there any books that you'd recommend if people out there are listening in and want to learn how to cure meats themselves?
Jacob: Sure. I mean my basic starter book, I said everyone is the Michael Ruhlman book, “Charcuterie“, and he also has one called “Salumi”. There are great starter books for getting started. And it also will recommend further reading in other ones. And his book is kind of, it's technical enough that a lot of professional kitchens have it around, like we have it as a reference, but it takes that technical knowledge and brings that down to the home cook and home enthusiasts. It's enough detail in there that you use it safely. It stresses the safety behind it and the basic practices that you need to now. It doesn't have, like some of the other more technical books, lots of graphs on humidity and things that you don't need yet until you get more advanced. And also in the beginning, it is very important I think not to make up your own recipe. Find an established recipe and follow it to a tee because it might get across your mind that an individual ingredient might be a bad idea, but it could be. Maybe it will increase moisture in a weird way inside that you don't want. Or increase the chance of the [0:50:42] ______ or alter the pH. So in the beginning, it's not like a press office that you're like, “You know something? I love oregano. I'm going to put tons of oregano in it. It's [0:50:52] ______ in the very beginning until you're very comparable and doing it for a long time. Follow the recipes. Really stick to it.
Ben: Gotcha. Okay. Well for people listening in, you've mentioned “Omnivore's Dilemma”, some of the books by Joel Salatin, I know I mentioned “Beyond Bacon” and then this “Charcuterie” book. What I'm going to do is put links to these books for anybody who wants to pick these up. The URL for the show notes for today's post is at bengreenfieldfitness.com/chooseyourmeat. That's bengreenfieldfitness.com/chooseyourmeat. And I'll also put only cover to Jacob's Dickson's Farmstand Meats for those who are in the New York area.
Jacob, I've got another question for you, and this is going to be kind of like a rapid fire, 60 seconds or less style question. But what would you say in about 60 seconds or less is the ultimate way to cook the tastiest steak?
Jacob: My universal method for cooking any steak pretty much is to use a cast iron skillet. I take my skillet, I put it on high on the stove for about six to eight minutes. You want it smoking hot, can't even touch the handle without burning yourself. Steak at room temperature, took it out an hour ahead. Lots of salt, little bit of pepper, more salt than you think you need because you're going to leave a lot in the pan. Right before I put it in the pan, I put a little bit of grapeseed, canola oil or a vegetable oil, no butter or olive oil, they'll burn at really high temperatures. I sear four minutes on the side on a typically inch and a quarter thick steak. If it's a little thinner, a few minutes less. A little thicker, maybe up to five minutes. And that'll get you to the rare side of medium rare on almost any steak. If it's a bigger steak, anything over a pound and a half, it's thicker, I would then take the whole pan and throw it in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes depending on the size of the steak. And then most important thing after you're done with the cooking, put it on a cutting board and don't touch it for 8 to 15 minutes depending on the size. Bigger the piece of meat, the longer it needs to rest. And then slice it and serve it.
Ben: Why do you let it rest like that?
Jacob: When you're cooking meat, it's a high temperature extreme heat that causes the muscle fibers to contract. And if you cut right away while the muscle fibers are still contracted, the pressure inside the cell pushes all of the liquid and juices out. And even a great tender steak is going to eat very dry. But by letting the meat rest whether be, a sausage, a burger, a steak, a chicken breast, you allow it to come down from temperature a little bit, the muscle fibers relax, and it will eat much juicier. You can really take the same steak and it will eat completely differently if you cut it right away.
Ben: Cool. I like it. Alright. Well I took some furious notes during our conversation. So if you're listening in and you want to check out some of the things Jacob and I talked about, the books, his website, his steak recipe, et cetera head over to bengreenfieldfitness.com/chooseyourmeat. Jacob, thanks for coming on the show, man.
Jacob: Yeah. It's my pleasure. It was a lot fun.
Ben: Alright, folks. So this is Ben Greenfield and Jacob Dickson from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats signing out from bengreenfieldfitness.com. Have a healthy week.
Have you ever wandered into the meat section of the grocery store, a butcher shop or even a fancy charcuterie-style restaurant and been just slightly perplexed about which cuts to get, how to know if the meat is safe and healthy, the difference between words like natural, grass-fed, grain-fed, hormone-free, feedlot/CAFO free, or humanely raised?
In this podcast, we delve into the mystery of meat with Jacob Dickson of Dickson's Farmstand Meats. Dickson's is a”candy shop for carnivores”, one of the most sought after purveyors of fine quality meats in the city of New York, and offers things like artisanal meats and house-made charcuterie made from animals raised without added hormones, prophylactic antibiotics, or animal by-products – whatever those are.
-How Jacob came into the food industry originally from corporate marketing…
-Which animal is the most efficient animal to eat from nose-to-tail…
-What you should you look for when you walk into the meat section (or a butcher’s shop) to know that the meat you’re getting is actually healthy…
-Why some grass-fed meat is not actually healthy grass-fed meat…
-What it really means for an animal to be humanely-raised and how you can know it’s really true…
-Why the word “natural” on a label means pretty much nothing…
-A big misconception about antibiotics, and why they're actually used…
-Whether the mold and fungus that forms on meat in the curing process is really bad for you..
-How you can cure your own meat at home…
-The ultimate way to cook the tastiest steak…
Resources we discuss in this episode: