Irish Stew

The defining element of Irish stew is the use of lamb neck, or scrag.

Traditionally it is made more like a casserole than a stew.  Actually it bares an uncanny resemblance to boulangère potatoes.  Lamb, potato rounds, and other vegetables are layered in a casserole, then covered with stock or water and baked in an oven.

Lamb neck is a very tough cut of meat.  I sear and braise the necks to tenderize, then use the shredded meat and cooking liquid to make the stew.

Once the necks are very tender to the tip of a paring knife, I remove them from the liquid and let cool briefly.  While the necks are still warm I fold back the meat and remove the neck bones in one piece.  There is also a large band of yellowish elastin that should be removed.  You can see it running down the centre of the neck meat below:

Removing the bones and elastin from the braised lamb neck.

 

Irish Stew

Ingredients

  • 2 lamb necks
  • 75 g bacon fat
  • 240 g yellow onion, 3/4″ dice (roughly 1 large onion)
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 200 g carrot, 3/4″ dice (about 3 medium carrots)
  • 200 g celery, 3/4″ dice (about 2 large ribs celery)
  • 1/2 tbsp dried herbs (I use a mix of thyme, rosemary, and savoury)
  • 75 g all-purpose flour
  • 1 x 341 mL bottle ale
  • 375 g turnip, 1″ dice (rutabaga for all you moderns…. about 1 medium rutabaga)
  • 425 g yellow potato, 1″ dice (about 2 smallish potatoes)
  • spinach or kale

Procedure

Part One: Cooking the Necks to obtain super tender meat and flavourful broth

  1. Season the lamb necks with salt and pepper.  Sear, either in a pan or a very hot oven, until amber in colour.
  2. Transfer the seared scrags to a pot.  Cover with cold water and put over medium-high heat.  Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to maintain a very gentle simmer.  Regularly skim the surface of the water with a ladle to remove foam and fat.
  3. Gently simmer the scrags until very tender when poked with a knife.  This will take at least a few hours.
  4. Remove the necks from the liquid.  Let cool, then remove the meat from the necks.  Vertebrae and a very hard bit of yellowish connective tissue.  Reserve 450 g shredded meat for the stew.  The rest of the meat can be used for other preparations.
  5. Reserve 1 L of the cooking liquid for the stew.  The remainder of the liquid can be reserved for another purpose.

Part Two: Making the Stew

  1. Melt bacon fat in a separate pot.  Add the onion, garlic, carrot, celery, and dried herbs.  Sweat the vegetables until the onions are starting to turn translucent.
  2. Add the flour and cook briefly.
  3. Slowly add the ale while stirring.  A thick sauce should form.
  4. Slowly add the 1 L of lamb stock.  Return mix to a gentle simmer.
  5. Add turnips and potatoes.  Return mix to a gentle simmer.  Simmer until turnips and potatoes are tender.

A bowl of Irish stew with buttered bread.

Corned Beef

Originally posted on March 18, 2012

Corned beef and its delicious, delicious juicesCorned beef, also known as salt beef and spiced beef, is a national dish of Ireland.  Recipes vary, but the cure is usually made of kosher salt, curing salt, a heap of brown sugar, and spices like clove, allspice, black pepper, and mustard seed.  The cured meat is gently simmered (usually in water, sometimes in beer) until tender, and can be eaten hot or cold.

To clarify, corned beef has nothing to do with maize.  “Corn” was once a broad English term for a small bit, whether a grain of wheat, or a crystal of salt.  “Corned beef” is beef that has been covered in corns of salt.[1]

Like most charcuterie, corned beef was first developed as a way to preserve the meat.  Because of its good keeping quality, the British navy adopted Irish corned beef as a ration for its sailors.  Wherever the British navy went, there was money to be made in provisioning its sailors, and many, many inferior corned beef producers sprang up around the world, notably on the Hawaiian islands and in South America, where the cured beef was later canned.  Sailors detested the canned meat, and apparently called it “salt junk.”[2]

Inferior corned beef was also used extensively as cheap, long-keeping food for British and French slaves, especially in the Caribbean.[3]

Despite its bastardization at the hands of imperialists and industrialists, corned beef remains one of the great festive dishes of Irish cuisine, along with colcannon, discussed below.  It is commonly eaten on Christmas, Easter, and St. Patrick’s Day.

Corned beef is made of brisket, a cut of beef from the breast of the cow. It is actually comprised of two muscles: a long muscle on the bottom called the flat, and a smaller muscle on top, off to one side, called the point.

The bulk of the flavour of corned beef comes from the pickling spice used in the brine.  Don’t buy pickling spice; make your own. Here’s a simple procedure. I divide my pickling spices into two families: the “sweet spices” like cinnamon, clove, and allspice, and the “deli spices” like mustard seed, black pepper, coriander, and chili flakes.  Combine one measure of each of the sweet spices with two measures of each of the deli spices by weight.  Add the spices to the brine as you are heating the liquid to dissolve the salt and sugar.

I’ve had some issues with brine-penetration when curing brisket in the past.  It seems that the tough, fatty muscles of the brisket resist curing more than, say, a pork loin.  Some tips on achieving uniform cure:

  • Consider separating the point and flat from each other before curing.  This creates two, tabular muscles that will brine more evenly than a whole brisket.
  • Don’t overcrowd the meat in the brine.  It’s tempting to try and cram as much meat as you can into the tub so that it is all just, just submerged.  If you do this there will not be enough salt to cure the entire mass of meat, and there will be grey, un-cured pockets in the centre of the brisket.  Maintain the ratio in the recipe below: 4 L of curing brine for every 2.25 kg of meat.
  • Inject the meat with some of the brine.  A good rule of thumb is 10% of the weight of the meat.  This is especially important if you have decided to keep the briskets intact.
  • Curing time: 5 days should be sufficient if you follow the guidelines above.

As a side note, once you have cured the brisket, if you were to coat your corned beef in crushed black pepper and coriander, then hot-smoke the meat, you’d be making pastrami.  If your hot-smoker were in Montreal, you’d be making Montreal smoked meat.  Anyways.

Brisket is a tough cut that requires extensive cooking.  I put my corned beef in a casserole, add cider until the meat is half submerged, cover the dish with parchment and aluminum foil, then kept it in a 250°F oven until a fork slides easily into and out of the meat, about eight hours.

The water left in the casserole is extremely flavourful, though very salty and greasy.  Cool the liquid, remove the solidified fat from the top, then dilute with water or more apple cider until the salt content is tolerable.  Serve as a brothy sauce for the beef.

Corned beef is a fantastic dish to serve to large groups.  Once the beef is tender, you need only gently reheat it.  You can throw it in a low oven an hour or so before you plan on eating, then bring it to the table and slice across the grain of the meat.  I probably don’t need to write this, but the leftovers can be sliced and used to make superlative sandwiches.

Corned Beef

Ingredients

  • 4 L water
  • 450 g kosher salt
  • 450 g dark brown sugar
  • 25 g curing salt (6.25% sodium nitrite)
  • 25 g fresh garlic
  • 25 g pickling spice
  • 2.25 kg beef brisket

Procedure

  1. Combine half the water with the salts, sugar, garlic, and spices.  Heat on the stove, stirring periodically, til the salts and sugar have dissolved.  Remove from the stove and add the remaining cold water.  Chill brine thoroughly.
  2. Inject the brisket with 10% of its weight in brine.  Focus injections on the thickest parts of the brisket.
  3. Completely submerge the brisket in the remaining brine, weighing down with ceramic plates as necessary.  Keep refrigerated for 5 days.
  4. Remove the brisket from the brine, rinse with cold water, then let rest in the fridge a few hours, preferably overnight.
  5. Put the cured brisket in a large pan with a bit more garlic, bay, and cinnamon.  Add about an inch of apple cider to the pan.  Cover loosely and cook in a 250°F oven for several hours (maybe 8-10?).  The corned beef should be fork tender and wobbly when fully tenderized.

 

 

References

1.  Kurlansky, Mark.  Salt: A World History. ©2002 Mark Kurlansky.  Vintage Canada 2002 Edition.  Page 125.
2.  Ibid.
3.  Ibid!  Is it bad to have three citations from the same page of the same book?

Butcher’s Cake

A slice of butcher's cake with a dollop of crème fraîche and a salad.I’ll mention right off the hop that this concept is from the brain of Emmanuel (Manu) Thériault.  He might have made this when he was at Woodwork, but I’m not sure.  He calls it “Butcher’s Cake”.  He told me about it and I think it’s one of the most brilliant food ideas I’ve heard in a very long time.

Part of the reason I am so enamored with butcher’s cake is because I work in a sandwich shop. When you work in a sandwich shop, you have at least three significant sources of possible waste.  The first is bread.  Bread is a problem ingredient because it has such short shelf life.  It can be difficult to maintain fresh inventory, and some bread invariably gets stale before it can be used.

The other potential sources of waste are meat and cheese ends.  When using a commercial meat slicer, the last inch of a roast or block of cheese is difficult to get through the slicer without putting your fingers at risk.  For some items you might not even want to slice and serve the outermost part.  For a roast or a ham, the very end is often harder, smokier, and generally less succulent that the rest of the meat.

Ham endsThis butcher’s cake is an ingenious and delicious preparation that uses all these waste products.  It is basically a savoury bread pudding studded with little chunks of cured meat and cheese.  I use trim pieces from ham, salami, mortadella, roast beef, even prosciutto and speck.  Of course, if you don’t work in a sandwich shop you can use plain old ham and cheese; there’s no reason it needs to be the trim or waste.

When Emmanuel told me his idea I knew immediately how I could go about making it: by adding chopped meat and cheese to Serviettenknödel, the Austrian bread dumplings discussed here.  I’ve found that a bit of black pepper and chopped herbs like parsley and rosemary are a nice addition.

Butcher’s cake makes a fantastic lunch, especially when served with with a refreshing salad.  I have a sneaking suspicion it would also be good for breakfast (bread, egg, milk, ham, cheese…. sounds like a breakfast pastry to me.)

Thanks, Manu!

 

 

Butcher’s Cake
Concept by Emmanuel Thériault
Recipe by Allan Suddaby

Ingredients

  • 8 whole eggs
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 8 oz unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 lbs stale bread
  • 1 lb cured meat ends, coarsely chopped
  • 10 oz cheese ends, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped rosemary
  • 1 tsp coarse ground black pepper

Procedure

  1. Combine the whole eggs, yolks, melted butter, milk, and salt in a large measuring cup.  Whisk thoroughly until eggs are completely incorporated.
  2. Put the bread, meat, cheese, herbs, and pepper in a large mixing bowl.  Pour the milk mixture over the bread.  Mix gently but thoroughly with your hands until all the milk has been absorbed by the bread.
  3. Move the mixture to the fridge for one hour.  This will give the liquid ingredients time to fully soak into the bread.
  4. Butter a large casserole dish.  Lightly press the soaked bread mixture to the casserole.  If you like you can top the bread with more grated cheese and herbs at this time.
  5. Bake in a 350°F oven until the interior is cooked and the exterior is golden brown and crispy, maybe 50-60 minutes.
  6. Let cool slightly before cutting and serving.

Yield: Butcher’s Cake for about 12 people

A casserole of butcher's cake, fresh out of the oven.

 

Boning Out Rabbit

In my experience rabbit is usually hatcheted into quarters and saddle, as described (and lamented) in this post.

One year Lisa and I were in Piedmont in northwestern Italy in September, and it seemed that every restaurant was serving rabbit, and all of them had boned-out the entire animal, then rolled it into a cylinder and braised it, usually in Nebbiolo wine.  It’s a beautiful, thoughtful way to prepare the animal.  At first it didn’t make sense to me: I was hung up on theoretics, asking ridiculous questions like, “Won’t the tiny, slender loin get over-cooked before he belly tenderizes?”  This might be true of pork, but I can tell you from empirical study that it is not an issue with rabbit.

So: To Bone a Rabbit.

Make an incision along the breast bone.  Remove the flesh from the breast by following the rib cage from the breastbone to the underside of the foreleg.  Bend the foreleg up as you go.

Boning rabbit: removing meat from the breast

Continue to remove the meat from the rib cage, moving down the rabbit, folding the meat up and away from you.  Once you have removed the meat form the last rib you will then be at the belly flap.  Fold this up and away from you as well.

Bend the hind leg up and away from you.  Snap and cut through the joint where the thigh and hip meet.

boning_rabbit_3.JPG

Carefully remove the loin from the backbone.  At this point you have removed half of all the meat from the main body.

Flip the rabbit and repeat all these steps to the other side.  The meat should only be connected to the skeleton in one place, a line along the top of the rabbit’s backbone.

boning_rabbit_4.JPG

Remove the last connections at the top of the spine.  At this point you have a relatively uniform sheet of meat, but the fore- and hind-legs still contain bones.

boning_rabbit_5.JPG

There’s no trick to removing these bones: make small cuts following the bones as closely as possible.

boning_rabbit_6.JPG

You now have an entire rabbit sans bones.  Season assertively with salt, pepper, and herbs.  You can roll the entire thing into one large spiral, or your can roll each side in towards the centre to achieve a double-scroll, with the two loins protected in by the centre of each roll.

Braise this little bundle in red wine.  The meat will be tender in only a couple hours.

braised_rabbit.JPG

Braised rabbit with polenta, eggplant, and bell pepper.

Cretons

Originally posted December 15, 2009 (if you can believe that).  Re-posted today with some major corrections.  I first read about cretons in an article in The Ottawa Citizen by then-food-columnist Ron Eade.  He presented cretons as a Quebecois variation on rillette.  A while back Emmanuel (Manu) of Pied Cochon, Joe Beef, and Woodwork fame gave me the skinny on cretons, and they really are not like rillettes at all.  I am not able to find that original Ron Eade article to expose it.  Presumably someone from the lower St. Lawrence forced him to remove it as libel or lies.  Anyways.  

A ramekin of cretons.Cretons is a pork spread made by simmering ground pork and aromatics like onion, bay, and clove in milk or cream.  As with any Quebecois dish there are as many variations as there are Francophones.

Pork.  You can use regular ground pork.  Actually the pork can be quite fatty as any lard that renders into the pan will be bound up with the dairy and (in my recipe…) breadcrumbs.

In addition to ground meat, Manu also adds gryons. This is the Quebecois word for greaves (see this post on rendering lard for more info).

Usually I’m a fanatic about searing meat, even the ground meat used in chili and meat sauce.  Searing generally improves the colour and flavour of a dish, but there are a few notable exceptions.  In my book those exceptions are veal blanquette and cretons.  We want a soft texture and a light colour.

Onion.  To me onion is essential as a sweet-‘n-savoury bridge between the pork and the spices.

Speaking of Spices.  Clove seems to be the most commonly used spice in cretons.  I use a standard quatre-épices blend of black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.  These baking spices can easily become cloying, so use a light hand.

Dairy.  Some use milk, some use cream.  I use cream because it gives the final dish a rich texture but a happy, bright white colour.

Breadcrumbs.  Again, not all recipes include breadcrumbs, but I like using them to bind up any pork fat that has gone adrift and floated to the surface of the mixture.  Starch such as breadcrumb makes for a smoother, more cohesive spread.

Basically all these components are combined and simmered until the dairy has reduced and become a stodgy porridge.  At this point the mixture is potted and chilled.  It is most commonly eaten for breakfast, on toast.

Lazy Man’s Cretons.  Oftentimes when I make pie I misjudge the ratio of dough to filling, and am left with a surfeit of one or the other.  Excess pie dough is easy to get rid of (pie sticks!)  Excess filling can be a bit trickier.  If I have leftover tourtière filling, I put it in a heavy pot and cover it with heavy cream.  If you simmer this mixture for about an hour it’s hard for an Anglo such as myself to differentiate it from true cretons.  I have no idea what Quebecers would think of that, but it’s already happened so we should all move on.

Like many rustic preparations, cretons is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it’s almost impossible to not be tasty; on the other it is truly impossible to make it look appetizing in the modern sense.  It is cold meat porridge, after all.  But it’s delicious, and a great way to use up leftover ground meat.

 

Cretons

Ingredients

  • 600 g ground pork
  • 150 g onion
  • 10 g garlic
  • 1 tsp quatre-épices
  • 470 g heavy cream
  • 30 g bread crumbs
  • 1.5 tbsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Gently cook the pork in a heavy pot.  Do not colour the meat.
  2. Add the onions, garlic, and quatre-épices.  Cook gently until the onions are starting to become translucent.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients.  Simmer until the cream has reduced.  The mixture should have the consistency of porridge.  Roughly 45 to 60 minutes.
  4. Transfer immediately to ramekins or ceramic dishes.  Chill thoroughly.
  5. Spread on toast.

Cured Fatback – Lardo

Originally posted on July 5, 2014.

 

Cured fatback on toast.This post is about cured fatback, most commonly known by its Italian name lardo.

Fatback is the subcutaneous fat that covers the pork loin.  Resist the urge to say “back fat”: it’s called fatback.  Industrially-raised pigs are intentionally grown very lean, so the fatback is typically only an inch thick.  Heritage pigs can have three inches or more of fatback.  These are the animals you need in order to make lardo.

Two autumns ago I got a side of Tamworth pork from Nature’s Green Acres.  The fatback was two and a half inches thick in some places.  It was the first pig that I ever cut that truly deserved to have its fatback cured and enjoyed on its own, instead of, say, simply being ground into sausage mix or rendered into lard.

The procedure for curing fatback is simple.  Cut the fat from the lean meat.  Rub with salt, sugar, herbs, and spices.  Rosemary is common.  I used thyme, juniper, bay, and black pepper.  Store the fat in a cool, dark place for six months or longer.  A cool, dark place could be a centuries-old Carrara marble box in a dank Tuscan cellar, or it could be a drawer in the bottom of your fridge.  In the latter case, put the salted fat in a Ziploc bag and cover tightly with aluminum foil to keep out light.  Light promotes oxidation and develops off-flavours in fat.

Six months later your slab of fat is ready to taste.  My first taste of lardo was in a salumeria in San Daniele.  Raw pork fat sounds so outrageous to my Anglo-Saxon ears that I expected an audacious flavour and grotesque texture.  Truth be told lardo is an extremely subtle preparation.  It is mild, sweet, faintly lactic, and above all creamy.

My homemade lardo is similar to the stuff I ate in Italy, though I think I was a bit heavy-handed with the sugar.  And the exterior was extremely salty: the first few slices were frankly inedible.

I’ll use this word again: subtle.  Lardo is so subtle it promotes contemplation. How could something so crude be so nuanced in flavour and texture?

A civilized preparation, this cured fatback.

A slab of cured fatback, or lardo.

Plain Jane Garlic Sausage

It recently dawned on me that I don’t have any sausage recipes on this site.  Which is crazy.  So I’m going to post a bunch.  For details on procedure and technique, I have two posts linked below.  Also… I happen to be teaching a sausage-making class for Metro Continuing Education on October 19, 2016.

 

A plate of sausage, toast, apple sauce, and braised red cabbage.This simple sausage goes by many names in my house, among them “everyday sausage”, “plain Jane”, and occasionally “garlic brat”, though it is not a bratwurst in the strictest sense.[1]

I wanted a relatively neutral sausage that would go well with most of the food I cook at home, which I would describe as North American farmstead with a serious central/eastern European slant.  So instead of making ten different types of sausage each year, I could make one or two and have all my bases covered.  This sausage is most often eaten on a bun, or with Austrian potato salad, or other simple plates like the one at left.

The predominant flavours in this recipe are pork, garlic, and black pepper, with some secondary, supporting flavours in the background.  Since I so often eat my sausages with something from the mustard family (prepared mustard and cabbage, especially) there is a touch of mustard powder in the recipe.  There is also a hint of cayenne pepper, enough to warm the palate and reinforce the black pepper, but not enough to make this a “spicy” sausage.

My ideal texture for this sausage is achieved by what I call the “lazy brat” method.  All the meat is ground through a 3/16″ plate, then a portion of the meat, anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2, is set aside, and the remaining meat is ground a second time.  Then all the meat is re-combined for the mixing process.

Here’s the detailed recipe.

 

Plain Jane Garlic Sausage
your everyday sausage

Ingredients

  • 2 kgs pork butt, boneless and skinless, but with entire fat cap (about 1.5″ thick)
  • 33 g kosher salt
  • 40 g fresh garlic, minced fine
  • 6 g black pepper, coarsely ground
  • 10 g mustard powder
  • 2.8 g cayenne
  • 200 mL ice-cold water
  • about 10′ hog casing

Procedure

  1. Chill the pork butt thoroughly by spreading it out on a sheet tray lined with parchment and storing in the freezer.  The meat should be slightly crunchy on the exterior, but not frozen solid, and still with some give.
  2. Grind the meat through a 3/16″ plate.  Set aside about 1/3 of the ground meat.
  3. Re-chill the remaining 2/3 ground meat as described in step 1.
  4. Grind the chilled 2/3 meat through a 3/16″ plate a second time.
  5. Re-combine all the ground meat.  Add the remaining ingredients (except the casings…) to the bowl of a stand mixer.  Mix with the paddle attachment for 90 seconds on a medium speed, then 30 seconds on a medium-high speed.
  6. Fry a small piece of the mixture in a pan.  Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  7. Stuff into hog casings.
  8. Twist into 6″ links.
  9. Poach until the meat is just cooked, reaching an internal temperature of 150°F.  Transfer the links to an ice bath to arrest cooking.
  10. Let links dry thoroughly.

Yield: about 20 x 6″ links

 

 

Footnotes

  1. It’s a common misconception that bratwurst are so-called because they are fresh sausages that are pan-fried.  “Brat” does happen to mean roast, or fry, as in Schweinsbraten (roast pork), but that is a coincidence.  A true bratwurst is made with a fine-textured emulsified mass called a “brat”, which is studded with small chunks of chopped or coarsely ground meat.

Breakfast Sausage

It recently dawned on me that I don’t have any sausage recipes on this site.  Which is crazy.  So I’m going to post a bunch.  For details on procedure and technique, I have two posts linked below.  Also… I happen to be teaching a sausage-making class for Metro Continuing Education on October 19, 2016.

 

Breakfast sausages frying on a griddle.I wanted to create an artisan version of the little sausages you get at dive-y breakfast institutions like the Commodore.  The kind of diners that that pour you bad coffee all morning.

North American breakfast sausage is usually made entirely of pork.  It is ground quite fine and mixed to emulsify so that it has a very delicate texture.  It is often flavoured with sage and other versatile herbs.  And, most characteristically, the links are narrow and short compared to, say a smoky or even a hot dog.

For my fancy breakfast sausage I use pork butt with all of the 1.5″ fat cap.  It is flavoured with both fresh and dried sage.  I find you have to add a prohibitively expensive amount of fresh herbs to get the flavour to come through in a sausage.  And to amp the fancy-factor up a notch I use orange zest and ginger.

I double-grind the meat for delicate texture.  That’s two passes through a 3/16″ plate.

And finally to get the narrow diameter characteristic of breakfast sausage I use lamb casings.  Being lamb, these are a bit expensive, but they’re essential here.  I twist the links into 4″ lengths.

A detailed recipe follows.

 

Breakfast Sausage
with sage, ginger, and orange

Ingredients

  • 2 kgs pork butt, boneless and skinless, but with entire fat cap (about 1.5″ thick)
  • 40 g kosher salt
  • 44 g fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1.6 g dried sage
  • 18 g fresh sage, chopped
  • 47 g fresh garlic, minced fine
  • 5.4 g black pepper, coarsely ground
  • 22 g orange zest (I use a packaged orange zest made by The Perfect Purée)
  • 222 mL ice-cold water
  • about 2 m lamb casing

Procedure

  1. Chill the pork butt thoroughly by spreading it out on a sheet tray lined with parchment and storing in the freezer.  The meat should be slightly crunchy on the exterior, but not frozen solid, and still with some give.
  2. Grind the meat through a 3/16″ plate.
  3. Re-chill the ground meat as described in step 1.
  4. Grind the meat through a 3/16″ plate a second time.
  5. Add the remaining ingredients (except the casings…) to the bowl of a stand mixer.  Mix with the paddle attachment for 90 seconds on a medium speed, then 30 seconds on a medium-high speed.
  6. Fry a small piece of the mixture in a pan.  Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  7. Stuff into lamb casings.
  8. Twist into 4″ links.
  9. Poach until the meat is just cooked, reaching an internal temperature of 150°F.  Transfer the links to an ice bath to arrest cooking.
  10. Let links dry thoroughly.

Yield: about 35 x 4″ links

A plate with breakfast sausage, fried eggs, and toast.

Burger Freak-Out

Originally published September 29, 2012.

Burger: A Sneak PeekThis summer I had a little burger freak-out.  I thought about hamburgers more in the last few months than my entire life previous, and I came to realize that, despite eating them for about twenty five years, I knew very little about them.

The following burger info will be obvious to many of you, but circumstances conspired to stunt my burger knowledge from a very young age.  For instance, the burgers I ate growing up were a bit like squished meatballs: they contained bread crumbs and eggs and were mixed to bind the ingredients together.  They were tasty and comforting, but they hampered my understanding of proper hamburger flavour and texture for years.  To aggravate the situation, I make sausages at work every week, and in days past I would often apply the same theories and practices to hamburgers.

In other words I had to unlearn everything that I thought I knew about burgers.

Let’s start at the beginning.

 

Beef.  The best burgers are made from quality beef that you’ve ground yourself.  Chuck usually forms the bulk of the mixture.  Fat is important as a source of beefy flavour and moist mouthfeel, so I usually spike the mix with a bit of brisket.  I aim for roughly 25% fat by volume.  There’s no science to this: you have to eyeball it.   I trim my chuck and brisket of all connective tissue, then give it one pass through a 1/4″ plate.  If you’re using meat from which you can’t remove all the silverskin, like shank, you’ll need at least two passes through the grinder to tenderize properly.

Of course, you can make good burgers with pre-ground meat, just make sure it’s not lean or, God forbid, extra-lean.  I’ll say it again, in case the recent E. coli outbreaks haven’t already convinced you: only buy quality beef from trusted producers!

Other Ingredients.  As I mentioned above, I grew up on homemade burgers that contained eggs and bread crumbs.  Some burger joints swear by Worcestershire and granulated garlic.  For reasons that will be discussed in the “Mixing” section below, I currently add two ingredients to my ground beef: salt and pepper.

One big way that burgers differ from sausages is salt content.  If you season a burger mix as you would a sausage mix, for some reason the burgers taste way too salty.  The right amount of salt is also important for the final texture of the patty.  Salt aids in protein-extraction, and helps bind the ground meat together.  This is something that we encourage in sausage-making, but discourage in burger-making.  Again, this will be discussed further in the “Mixing” section.  For sausages I take the weight of the meat and fat, divide by 60, and that is the amount of salt I add.  For burgers I divide by 90.  In other words my burgers have 2/3 the amount of salt that my sausages do, about 1.11% of the weight of the beef.  Even this is fairly aggressive seasoning for a burger.

If you want to taste pepper in the final patty, add 0.2% of the weight of the meat in freshly ground black pepper.

Mixing.  This is where my sausage-making background seriously affected my understanding of burgers.  Sausages are ground meat, combined with salt and water, then mixed to develop a cohesive, springy texture.  The large dose of salt helps extract proteins.  The water and the mixing develop those proteins into a strong network, very much like kneading bread.  Sausages are usually stuffed into casings.  Sausage patties are not stuffed into casings, but they are still combined with salt and water and mixed prior to shaping, so that they have the resilient texture of a sausage.

Burgers are emphatically not sausage patties, because they have not been mixed.  They have a texture all their own.  To quote Harold McGee: “the gently gathered ground beef in a good hamburger has a delicate quality quite unlike even a tender steak.”

The most critical part of burger preparation, once the right grind has been selected, is to season and shape the patties without developing a protein network.  We have lowered the amount of salt added because salt extracts protein from the meat.  We have omitted all liquids, whether egg yolks or Worcestershire sauce, to discourage protein development.  Now we must minimize mechanical agitation.

When grinding my own meat for burger mix, I add the salt and pepper to the cubed meat, before grinding.  This way the salt is evenly distributed through the grind, without my having to mix the meat and develop the protein.

Working with pre-ground meat, I add the salt and pepper, then, instead of folding and compressing the meat, I pretend I’m tossing a delicate salad.  I lift the ground meat, then let the individual strands fall between my fingers so that they don’t get pressed together.

A raw beef patty

Shaping.  Gather the desired amount of seasoned, ground beef, then gently compress it between your palms, using your fingers to maintain the round shape of the patty.

The diameter of the patty should be tailored to the diameter of the bun.  The height of the patty should be tailored to the size of the diner’s mouth.  A lot of people like tall, messy burgers that you can barely get your mouth around.  I don’t.  I find that once the bun and condiments are in play, a final patty height of 3/4″ is all I can handle comfotably.

Remember that the burger will shrink in diameter and grow in thickness as it cooks.  The raw patty should therefore a bit wider than the bun, and very thin.  I start with a patty that is 5″ across, and 1/2″ tall.  After cooking it will be 4″ across, and 3/4″ tall.

Cooking.  The cooking of hamburgers is taken very seriously.  Anthony Bourdain says to order a burger anything besides medium-rare is “un-American.”  On the other hand it is actually illegal to serve a burger anything less than well-done in Canada, though apparently a few places are doing it.

Frankly I think the whole issue is overblown.  Well-done burgers can be moist and tender, as long as they contain the right amount of fat and haven’t been over-mixed.  Medium-rare burgers are safe to eat as long as the meat as been handled properly.  I would never buy factory-raised, ground beef from a grocery store and eat it anything but well-done.  At home, using quality beef that I have cut and stored myself, I aim to cook my burgers through, but if there’s some pink meat in the middle, I don’t freak out.

If you subscribe to Bourdain’s jingo and absolutely must prepare a medium-rare burger, here’s Harold McGee’s suggested method:

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, immerse the pieces of meat in the water for 30-60 seconds, then remove, drain and pat dry, and grind in a scrupulously clean meat grinder.  The blanching kills surface bacteria while overcooking only the outer 1-2 millimeters, which grinding then disperses invisibly throughout the rest of the meat.

Note that if you’re cooking a burger mid-rare, there will be less patty-shrinkage.

While there is a time and a place for cooking burgers on the barbecue, most afficianados maintain that very hot griddles or skillets are the ideal cooking surface.  These methods don’t develop the open-flame char flavours of the barbecue, but you can get a very heavy, uniform crust on the flat sides of the burger.  The crust has good flavour and a distinctive crunch.  Burger-freaks call this “burger candy.”

Bun.  My childhood burger was placed on a lean kaiser roll.  We have gone to great length to avoid developing the protein in the meat so that we have a loose, tender amalgam of beef.  If we put this burger on a kaiser bun, with its lean, glutenous chew, we have ruined dinner.

True burger buns are a bit like cake: pains have been taken to avoid the development of gluten.  Fat and sugar have been added to the recipe to interrupt gluten strands.  The batter has been mixed only to combine the ingredients, not a stroke further.  Burger buns are therefore rich, sweet, and tender.

I’ve never tried my hand at baking my own burger bun.  My understanding is that the dough is quite runny, and very hard to work with by hand.  Many joints around town use brioche batter for their burger buns.  I use commercial hamburger buns (sorry…)

Whichever bun you decide to use, show it some love and toast it.  One of the advantages of cooking your patty on a griddle or in a skillet is that you’ll have a bit of burger fat in which to fry the bun.

Condiments.  These are obviously a matter of personal taste.  My own thoughts:

Some form of tomato is necessary.  If I have fresh tomatoes, I use fresh tomatoes.  If I don’t, I use ketchup.  I don’t like using both.  If I use fresh tomatoes, I add mustard.  Raw onion and dill pickles are also required.

While I do have a soft-spot for processed cheese, I usually use gouda, Gruyere or Emmenthal for cheeseburgers.  The younger versions have better melting properties.  I find that the cheese-flavour is stronger if the slices are only partially melted.  Overheating will thin out the cheese and make it run off the burger.

Money Shot

The finished burger, top bun removed for full photographic affect

My burger, half eaten

 

Addendum: Cherry Coke

Traditionalists will argue that I’m ruining coke; locavores will say I’m ruining Evans cherries.

This is my perfect cherry Coke, the ideal accompaniment for burgers, Montreal smoked meat, and fried chicken:

 

Sources

My two main sources of burger info were Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking and Heston Blumethal’s In Search of Perfection episode on the burger, which you can watch here.

Chicken Skin

Crispy chicken skin.Really you shouldn’t end up with an excess of chicken skin very often.  The skin is a delicious and coveted part of fried chicken and roast chicken, and if it’s well-rendered it can also go into some cold, day-after preparations like chicken salad sandwiches.

But if you are shredding leftover chicken to make chicken noodle soup or chicken stew, you may want to set the skin aside for another application.

Here’s how to turn cold, flabby, leftover chicken skin into golden brown, crispy pieces of crackling. Line a sheet tray with parchment and lay out the pieces of chicken skin so they are flat.  Place another sheet of parchment on top, and then another sheet tray on top of that, so that you have sandwiched the skin between the trays.  This is just to keep the skin from curling up.  It may also help them cook evenly, now that I think of it.

Bake in a 350°F oven until crisp and deep golden brown with an amber hue.

You now have what are essentially chicken skin crackers.  You may be wondering what you should do with them.  Here are some ideas.  Crumble them onto soups, and into salads.  Use them as a base for an hors d’oeuvre, or as a crispy garnish for any number of dishes.  Mac and cheese comes to mind.  In my opinion the supreme usage for crispy chicken crackling is to layer it generously onto a tomato sandwich.  Spicy chili mayo, pickled red onions, and rocket can play welcome supporting roles in this venture.

A sandwich made with tomato, chili mayo, pickled onion, and crispy chicken skin.