Goat meat, the final frontier

April 5, 2011

Special to The Washington Post

In 30 short years, we have watched goat cheese morph from a high “ick” factor to an outright cliche. Goat’s milk and goat butter have become supermarket staples, no longer relegated to health-food stores. Yet goat meat sits out on the horizon, with trendspotters periodically informing us that it’s the next big thing.

Pam Adams, head of the Maryland-Pennsylvania-West Virginia Meat Goat Producers Association, says demand for the goods from the group’s 64 farms has increased 20 percent over the past five years.

“I’ve even had to band growers into collectives to keep up with the requests,” she said from her Bridgestone Manor Farms in Eldersburg, Md. “I’ve got an order for 60 goats right now to go down to North Carolina. I’m scrambling.”

This does, in fact, reflect a national trend. Goat meat production is ramping up in the United States. The number of goats slaughtered has doubled every 10 years for the past three decades, according to the USDA. We’re closing in on 1 million meat goats a year — and still growing, despite the economic downturn.

It’s no surprise, given that goat is the world’s most-consumed meat: almost 70 percent of the red meat eaten globally. Its cultural caveats are few, as it can be kosher and halal as well.

Nutrition-wise, goat meat is a wonder. A similarly sized serving has a third fewer calories than beef, a quarter fewer than chicken and much less fat: up to two-thirds less than a similar portion of pork and lamb; less than half as much as chicken.

More good news: Goats represent sustainability, without the curse of factory production. They are browsers, not grazers.

“The meat’s better for you, and the animals are easier on the land,” Adams says. “I can put at most two steers on an acre, but at least 10 goats. Maybe more.”

Out in California in 2008, Bill Niman originally fielded a herd to tend his cow pastures. The goats would even out what the cows mangled, chewing down the less-desirable weeds, giving the plants a haircut before the bovines tromped about.

The founder of Niman Ranch, a well-respected network of farmers who produce humanely raised pork, beef and lamb, soon found that meat goats were for more than just lawn-mowing. He is now on the cusp of doing for goat what he did for pork years ago: putting together a consortium of ethical, mindful farmers and ranchers who can demand a higher price for a superior product.

That said, goat farming is still not big business. “People call me up and ask if they can have goat meat at their dinner party this weekend,” Adams says. “I have to tell them it still doesn’t work that way.” It’s akin to putting in reservations for kid goats being born, or lucking into a goat someone no longer wants.

Which is, in truth, a good thing. If you want to try goat, you’ve got to get local. Kathy Weld raises the critters at Sugarloaf’s Breezy Valley Farm in Frederick County. The farm nurtures the animals for at least six months, then takes them to a processing plant. You pick up meat from the plant that you custom-ordered (whole animal, half, leg, etc.), vacuum-sealed or paper-wrapped.

Or you can head to a local butcher shop. Your best bet is halal markets, such as the Madina Super Halal Market in Gaithersburg. The store gets twice-weekly goat deliveries from local suppliers. You can be assured of the meat’s quality because you’re speaking directly to a butcher, not staring into the meat case at a supermarket.

So why has this sustainable, locavore, world-class meat remained below the radar for most of us? Some people have had bad experiences, perhaps offshore during a winter cruise. Caribbean cultures often prize the rankest, toughest bucks beyond their first rut. It’s the meat from mature male goats that has the characteristic pungent barnyard aroma.

“I have a Jamaican friend,” Weld says, “who always tells me he’ll take any bucks off my hands.”

Generally, though, people don’t want that for dinner. The best meat comes from goats that are slaughtered early, usually at six, maybe nine months. They might yield 40 pounds of meat, nose to tail, which is another reason goats escape the industrial food chain. Meat-mammal processors are geared for monster hogs and beefy cows. Weld has had a hard time finding a facility to take one of her animals.

“They tell me they don’t butcher rabbits,” she laughs.

During the past year, while developing recipes for our all-goat book, “Goat: Meat, Milk Cheese” (Stuart, Tabori & Chang), we often wondered about supply. But we were never stymied. A quick Internet search led us to dozens of suppliers within an hour’s drive of our rural Connecticut home. We kept it local and got what we needed every time.

Goat meat is savory and not as sweet as beef. It’s neither buttery nor beef-tenderloin tender, but it offers a wider palette for culinary foreplay in the kitchen. It works well with bold, big flavors, particularly spicy and sour notes.

Cuts of goat meat can be easily divided into two categories: quick-cooking and long-braising. The short list of quick-cookers includes rib chops, loin chops and the tenderloin, which is something of a rarity in many butcher shops, weighing in at only three or four ounces. All of those can be handled in a fast saute; with a hot sear with good caramelization; or grilled in minutes. The meat on the back legs, too, lends itself to one quick-cooking technique: It must be sliced off into strips and pounded thin before battering and frying, about as you would cube steak for chicken-fried steak.

The rest of the animal yields the long-braising cuts: front shoulders and neck slices to back shanks, and almost everything in between. Most of the meat is laced with lots of interstitial collagen, which must break down to create a satisfying, rich stew, braise, curry or tagine. In other words, the meat is a boon to ragu, as well as hearty soups and stews. Lots of connective tissue around the bones translates to more flavor in the pot.

And there are lots of bones. There’s a smaller ratio of meat to bone on, say, goat shoulder chops than on similar cuts from cows, pigs or even lambs. But that’s actually a good thing, because bones mean culinary flavor at every turn.

Unless you’re “going island” with a dish from a big buck, most of the goat meat you’ll find comes from smaller animals, which is a plus. A pot of four shanks isn’t a daunting dinner, as it can be with beef or pork shanks.

However, we’d be remiss not to offer one warning: Goat is still the Wild West of butchering in this country. While other animal carcasses are cut up based on standardized charts, goat has, by and large, escaped the bureaucracy. One butcher’s goat roast can be another’s goat steaks.

While we were writing the book, we discovered that the hard way. We found that one local farmer near us tossed the liver into his ground goat meat because he didn’t think anyone would notice. (The liver is delicious and milder in flavor than calf’s liver, but you wouldn’t want it in your hamburger.) Another carved the quick-cooking rib chops into big hunks that were still attached to the long-braising breast.

So when you go to buy goat, you need to ask questions. Which cut? How was it cut, and when? Step up to the butcher counter informed, with a willingness to learn more. If the guy back there seems surly or uninformed, take your business elsewhere. It’s your dinner.

Got goat questions? Scarbrough and Weinstein will join Free Range chat on Wednesday, April 6 at noon.

Recipes

Inside-Out Goat Cheese Goat Burgers

South African-Inspired Goat Curry With Apricots and Buttermilk

Goat Chops With Cherries, Bourbon and Cream

Goat RaguWith Pappardelle

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