I've been hesitant to resume writing here because I've felt like I owe it to anyone who still bothers to check in to see if I'm still here to do some reportage of what the last half of culinary school was like. But I just haven't been in a frame of mind to do that yet. So, without regard for or further acknowledgement or explanation of the lengthy pause in the appearance of entries here, I'm just going to jump right in and start with whatever I want to throw out there.
At the moment, what I want to throw out there is a little instructional piece that I suspect interests me a lot more than it interests you: a "how to" showing the process of frenching a rack of rib meat and cutting it into chops. For most readers, this process will fall into the category of trivial knowledge, in that it's not something they are ever likely to do. But this is what cooking is all about to me: it is about knowing as much as you can about your ingredients and how to handle them, how to make the most you can from them, how to take charge of all of the details of a piece of food that you want to put on someone's plate and make it as good as you can make it.
The example used here is a pork rib roast, but you can go through the same process to prepare a beef rib roast or steaks (beef cut into steaks this way is sometimes called a "tomahawk chop"), or a frenched rack of lamb or cut lamb chops. I always trim my own pork racks now because I enjoy it: once you become comfortable with the process, it's a relaxing thing to do while you think about what you're going to do with the meat or what you will serve with it. You will also usually get a better result than if you just buy finished chops, even from a good butcher, and in addition you can use most of what you trim off to make a sauce.
So let's get started. I'm working with 8 ribs of a pork rib roast. Unless you know your butcher really well and know how he'll cut your meat, you should probably ask for at least one more rib than you need, because when the rack is cut using a butcher's bandsaw, at least one and maybe both of the ribs at the ends will be unusable as chops. (This is because the ribs don't run through the meat squarely, but are on a diagonal, so when the butcher cuts through them on a bandsaw, although he starts out neatly between two ribs, he'll often end up cutting through one of them, leaving an unusable end.) Three ribs is probably the smallest chunk of meat it would be reasonable to work with -- anything less will be unstable enough on your board that at some point in the process you'll either cut yourself or knock the whole thing onto the floor.
The line of the first cut to remove the meat above the rib bones. The cut is made by marking the back end of the eye of the meat at each end of the roast, then cutting a line between those marks.
The first and easiest step is to cut away the meat on top of the ribs with a slicing or boning knife. There are a couple of things to watch for as you do this. First, the size of the "eye" of the meat, the big round neat chunk you can see on each end of the roat, can be much different from one end to the other. Before you make the cut, use your knife to make a small cut on each end to mark the meat above the ribs just behind where the eye ends. In the picture below, you can see from where I've made the first cut that the eye on the near end is smaller than the eye on the far end, and the meat to be removed is larger on the near end.
First cut completed. In a restaurant, the removed meat would be further trimmed of visible fat to make a sauce for the finished dish.
Once you've marked the ends of the line you're going to cut, the other thing to pay attention to is the angle of your cut down through the meat. It's a very natural motion to cut straight downward, and it seems to make sense because it would leave equal portions of meat on the top and bottom of that side of the eye of the roast. But if you look at how much of the meat you want to serve would be left in contact with the rib bone, you'll see that at one end of the roast you'll very nearly end up cutting the rib bones all the way off. So make your cut at a slight angle away from the main chunk of the roast all the way down the line. This will look a bit incongruous when you first make the cut, but the chops will take on a nice shape when we tie them at the end of the process.
Scoring across the ribs on the underside to cut through the membrane.
The next step is to score the membrane on the underside of the ribs. Using the knife tip, cut a line across all of the ribs, so that you cut completely through the membrane all the way to the bone -- you want to cut the membrane, not just mark it. Make this cut right below the line of the first cut where you removed the meat on top of the ribs. Then cut through the membrane right in the middle of the bottom of each rib, from the line you scored across all the ribs to the end of each one. Poke a sharp paring knife through the meat between the ribs right on the line scored across them. I do this a couple of times, once with the knife each direction (once with the blade against each of the two ribs surrounding the cut), and work the knife around a bit with the blade against the rib to cut the meat all the way down to the bone.
Scoring along the length of the ribs.
Cutting between the ribs.
Now, instead of cutting, we want to clean the bones on three sides (the bottom side, where we cut through the membrane, and the two sides of the ribs) by scraping away the meat with a paring knife. Be careful throughout this process not to tear or cut through the membrane between the meat and bones -- you want to separate the membrane from the bones by scraping sideways with the paring knife, never moving the knife forward or backward in a slicing motion, but only scraping sideways. By doing this, you can get the bones completely clean almost all the way down to the top of the bones resting on your board. You don't want to cut all the way through the meat to the board though -- remember that you never want to cut through the membrane anywhere. The intact membrane is what will make it possible to cleanly remove all of the meat from the ribs.
Scraping the membrane and meat from the ribs. Be careful not to tear or cut the membrane, including not cutting through it as you work your way down and get near the cutting board. Scrape only sideways; never move the knife forward or backward in a slicing motion.
The membrane completely scraped free from the bones.
To finish frenching the rack, stand the rack up so that the rib bones are pointed up in the air. Carefully and firmly pry and pull the meat away from the top of each rib. The meat will be slippery, so it helps to use a kitchen towel or paper towel to get a firm grasp on it. If the membrane is in good shape, not torn or cut too much in the prior step, you'll be able to get the meat off nearly in once piece. It won't come off without a bit of force, you won't be able to just tear the whole thing away in a couple seconds with one hand, but if you work one or two bones at a time the meat should be free with just a minute or so of work. After the meat comes off, finish cleaning the ribs by scraping your paring knife lengthwise along each of the bones. Any tiny bits of meat, fat, or membrane can become charred and blackened when you cook the meat, and will spoil all of the work you just did to get nice clean-looking bones and chops.
The frenched rack. The removed meat can be used to make a sauce.
This next bit can be tedious, and you might skip it if it drives you nuts. Next to the meaty ends of each of the ribs, you will often find the tip of another bone left in the meat. These are parts of the chine bone, which the pig's backbone, most of which the butcher cut away with a bandsaw when preparing the rib rack for you. I dig them out with the tip of a sharp paring knife or boning knife, using the fingers of my opposite hand to work them free as I cut. (I also sometimes find little splinters of the chine bone by running my fingers over the surface of the meat near these bone tips, in the same way that I would check a fish fillet for pin bones.) Leaving these chine bone tips in will not affect how the meat cooks, but it will make the finished chop a little more difficult and confusing for the diner to cut on the plate, since these little bones buried in the meat and lying off the line of the rib will come as a surprise. Most people will be perplexed enough by this to leave a fair amount of the meat behind on the plate, still attached to the bones, so I prefer to remove them before cooking.
The chine bone tips left in the meat -- there is a bone tip right at the end of each of my fingers here.
The chine bone tips removed. You can see the holes left in the meat by their removal. The removed meat and bones can be used in a sauce for the finished dish.
At this point, you could cook the whole trimmed rack as a roast in the oven, but instead we'll keep going and cut it into chops. Many chefs trim away excess fat from the top surface of the meat at this point, but I find that often results in tearing up the edge more than I would like, so I prefer to trim the fat after cutting the chops. Place the rack on your cutting board, and pretend for a moment that the rib bones don't exist. Look at how you would cut the meat into chops if the bones weren't there, by cutting squarely across the large cylinder of meat. Now consider the rib bones, and notice that those bones do not run squarely through the meat, but are on an angle so that they run a little diagonally through the roast. We want to cut the chops between the ribs but using cuts that run squarely across the meat rather than parallel to the bones -- those cuts will yield nice chops of uniform thickness. To finish the preparation of the chops, trim away any excess fat or loose bits of meat around the edge of each chop. Then use a piece of cotton string to tie up each chop to give it a nice even and round shape.
The first chop about to be cut. Notice that the rib bones run diagonally through the meat: the end of the bone that points upward to the right of the knife blade is the near end of the rib whose far end is right behind the tip of the knife.
Two tied finished chops, and one ready for tying. You can see from the color of the meat how the tied chops had the same little "tail" of meat hanging awkwardly off the rib, but tying the chops pulls the main part of the meat back toward the rib.