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?

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.

Meatballs

Raw meatballs, ready for the ovenIn the summer of 2012 I spent a lot of time thinking about meatballs.  Mostly I thought about them as I was making them, which took several hours every other week.

They are a labour of love for certain.

Once you’ve mixed up the meat and the eggs and the milk and bread crumbs and whatever else you like, you could just press it into a loaf pan, call it meatloaf, and be done with it.  But you won’t do that, because you want meatballs.  Even though they’re awkward, and they roll around on your plate, and don’t quite fit into a submarine sandwich, you want them, because they’re fun.

And so you take the time to shape each one.  To do it well is time consuming, because you have to roll them so they don’t have any seams that will come apart when they’re cooked.  Some cooks roll them between their palms like they’re hatching a plan.  Some nonnas smack them back and forth between their hands, left and right and left again.  Regardless of the details, they must be uniform and smooth on the surface.

While the size of the meatball should be tailored to the circumstance, I think the perfect size for most applications is roughly that of a golf ball, that is to say, a fairly awkward size for most people’s mouths.

And now that the meatballs are shaped the real dilemma reveals itself: how to evenly sear a sphere.  You might ask yourself if the meatball really needs to be seared.  Why not just drop the rosy balls into marinara and simmer them til they’re cooked?  Because meatballs, though made of leftover ground meat and a handful of common pantry items, are not a convenient, peasant dish: they are an idea.

If you want to eat ground meat with pasta, and you want to taste meat with every bite of pasta, you make a bolognese  But now think about spaghetti and meatballs.  Two more different shapes can hardly be imagined, and the twirling and wrapping required for the spaghetti are hardly compatible with the cutting and stabbing required to eat the meatball.

Likewise if you wanted a sandwich with ground meat in each bite you would shape the meat into a patty.  But sometimes you really want a meatball sub, which alternates from bite to bite between more meat than you can handle, to almost no meat at all.

So you’ll sear all the meatballs.  If you’re lucky enough to have a convection oven, they will brown easily on a high setting.  If not, you’ll pan fry them, rotating them often so they’re seared as evenly as possible.  Or you can hack it and line them all on a tray and put them at the very bottom of your oven, near the heating element, which is red hot, turning them every few minutes.

Cooked meatballs

 

Meatballs

Ingredients

  • 1.1 kg ground pork shoulder (see note)
  • 1.1 kg ground beef brisket (see note)
  • 5 large eggs
  • 240 g whole milk
  • 60 g pecorino or other hard, aged cheese – aged gouda works well, too
  • 21 g minced garlic
  • 11 g curly parsley, chopped
  • 30 g kosher salt
  • 3 g coarse ground black pepper
  • 310 g bread crumbs
  • oil for frying

Note on Pork Shoulder: For grinding, use a ratio of 3:1 lean meat to fat.  Bulk with fatback if shoulder is too lean.  Grind once through 1/4″ plate.

Note on Beef Brisket: Before grinding, separate flat and point and trim all fat to 1/4″.  Add pork fatback to approximate a ratio of 3:1 lean meat to fat.  Grind once through 1/4″ plate.

Procedure

  1. Add all ingredients to a very large bowl and mix until just combined.
  2. Shape into 75 g balls, passing quickly between your hands to make the balls cohesive and the surface uniform and tacky.
  3. Brown heavily over medium-high heat.  Turns balls frequently to preserve round shape.  Finish cooking in a 400F oven.  Cool.

Yield: 180 x 75 g (raw) meatballs

 

Addendum: Spaghetti and Meatballs

By now I think we all know that spaghetti and meatballs is about as Italian as macaroni and cheese, which is to say not even remotely.  This is North American comfort.

When I was young there were some households in which the sauce was tossed with the noodles before plating, and others in which the sauce was ladled over the bare noodles.  I prefer the latter for the added interactive element.

Tastes like childhood.

Spaghetti and meatballs

Brisket

Smoked brisketThe brisket is a special cut of meat: I  think it’s the toughest, fattiest cut of meat in common usage in western cooking.

The brisket is actually a pair of muscles, called the flat and the point in common parlance, on the breast of the cow, between the two forelegs.  These muscles sustain a good deal of the weight of the standing cow, and therefore contain a remarkable amount of connective tissue.

It takes ages to cook brisket.  Don’t get upset about this.  On the plus side, it is a low-effort process.

Even if you’ve never had brisket before, you will know when it is done cooking and ready to eat.  If you poke the meat it yields to your finger and wobbles with your release.  It is unmistakable.

The perfectionist will be annoyed to hear that the flat and point have grains that go in different directions, making it impossible to cut across the grain of both of these muscles at once.  In practice, though, brisket is so tender when cooked properly that it truly makes no difference in eating quality.

There are several famous, delicous brisket preparations.

  • Rubbed and smoked overnight it is the central dish in Texas barbecue.
  • Brine-cured with spices it becomes corned beef.
  • Brine-cured with spices, rubbed with pepper and coriander, then smoked, it becomes pastrami.
  • Montreal smoked meat.

 

Barbecue brisket, chopped up and dress with barbecue sauce

Know Your Steaks

Rib steaks, ready for the grillThis post is about the most expensive cuts on a side of beef: the standing rib, the striploin, the tenderloin, and t-bone and porterhouse steaks.

 

A Cow’s Skeletal Anatomy, Briefly…

The skull is connected to the neck, which connects to the backbone.  At the front of the back bone are the shoulder bones that connect to the front legs.  Farther down the backbone are the ribs.  A cow has thirteen ribs.  Backbones with ribs connected to them are called thoracic vertebrae.  Between the rib cage and the hip is a section of backbone that has no ribs.  These backbones are called lumbar vertebrae.  Then there is the hip bone, which connects to the hind legs.

When a cow is killed, it is hung by its hind legs and eviscerated.  Heart, lungs, liver, stomachs, intestines, bladder, kidneys, and lesser organs are all removed.

The carcass, which now consists only of meat, fat, and bones, is then cut in two symmetrical halves along the backbone.  This exposes the brain and spinal cord and makes inspection and further processing easier.  The two halves are called sides.

After some aging in a cooler, each side is split between the twelfth and thirteenth rib (which is the last rib…) into the forequarter and hindquarter.

 

Steaks from the Loin

The loin starts at the thirteenth rib, and follows the backbone to the hipbone.  It is broken into two parts: the short loin and the sirloin.  The sirloin is next to the hip.  It makes familiar steaks, but they aren’t as tasty or expensive as those from the shortloin.  The shortloin is made of two major and highly valuable muscles that run along the spine.

As mentioned earlier, the vertebrae between the rib cage and the hip bone do not have ribs, but they do have short bones poking out their sides, parallel to the longer rib bones farther up the spine.  They connect the backbones to muscles and tendons, and are called finger bones (transverse processes in medical lingo).  On a standing cow these bones project horizontally out from the vertebrae.  The finger bones separate the two major, highly prized muscles in question.  Above the finger bones sits the strip loin, and below them is the tenderloin.

 

The Strip Loin
longissimus dorsi

The strip loin has several known aliases.  Generally, if the name of a steak contains any of the following words, it is from the strip loin: New York, Kansas, strip, or shell.  The most common examples:

  • strip loin steak
  • New York steak
  • New York strip steak
  • Kansas City strip
  • shell steak

They’re all the same.  The major muscle of the strip loin steak, the longissimus dorsi, has an unmistakable, uniform oval shape.  Usually there is a little fatty tail coming off the oval, where the loin is transitioning into the side of the cow.  There’s also a nice fat cap.

 

Beef Tenderloin
psoas major

On the lower side of the finger bones runs the beef tenderloin.  It’s roughly circular in cross-section.  As it stretches towards the head of the cow it tapers.  I call this part the tip.  At the hind part the tenderloin gets wide and bulbous.  I call this part the butt.  In Britain the tenderloin is called the fillet.  In Australia and New Zealand the eye fillet.  In France and Germany the filet.

There is an extremely confusing set of words used to describe the different parts of the this cut.  There are no less than three conflicting definitions for filet mignon (literally “little piece of filet”) in Larousse Gastronomique:

  1. “The filet mignon is a small, choice cut of meat from the end [tip] of the fillet.” (p. 483)  This is the definition familiar to most gastronomes, and the one I was taught in culinary school.
  2. The filet mignon is a “piece of a small section of beef, positioned within the thoracic cage, along the first dorsal vertebrae.” (p. 482)  This is really, really confusing.  If you go back to our discussion of anatomical vernacular, you’ll see that this puts the tenderloin somewhere near where the neck meets the shoulders.
  3. Filet mignon is another word for tournedos, which is “a small round slice, about 1″ thick, taken from the heart of a fillet of beef and sautéed or grilled.” (p. 1227)

While the first definition is what I was taught in culinary school, the hugely disparate usage makes the word filet mignon completely useless.  In restaurants in Edmonton, if you are served a filet mignon , you can be served a steak cut from any section of the tenderloin.

There is one more word associated with tenderloin.  In restaurants in Edmonton, if you order a chateaubriand, you will usually get a section of tenderloin intended to serve two.  From Larousse: “Chateaubriand [is] a slice of very tender fillet steak about 1 1/4 in thick.  It is broiled or fried and often served with a sauce (traditionally béarnaise).”  Absolutely no mention of it being served for two, nor which section of the tenderloin the steak is to come from.

As you can gather from the name, the tenderloin is an exceedingly tender cut of meat.  However, it isn’t highly coveted by true beefeaters because it contains very little fat, is therefore not very flavourful, and offers little of the variety and interest of the porterhouse or rib steaks, as we will see shortly.

 

T-Bones and Porterhouse Steaks
longissimus dorsi, psoas major, and sometimes the gluteus medius

If the entire short loin is kept whole and then cut into steaks, you get slabs of meat that have a portion of striploin and a portion of tenderloin, separated by the finger bone.  Depending on where exactly the steak is cut, this can be either a t-bone steak, or a porterhouse steak.

People have thought of all kinds of ways to define the difference between these two steaks.  It’s actually pretty funny.  Most agree that the t-bones are cut from the forward end of the short loin, while the porterhouses are from the back.  Since the tenderloin tapers towards the front of the cow, t-bones therefore generally have smaller pieces of this muscle than the porterhouse.  This, however, is not the defining characteristic of the steaks as butchers see it.

For a steak to be labelled a Porterhouse in Canada, it must have the tenderloin (psoas major), the striploin (longissimus dorsi), and another muscle called the gluteus medius (see diagram below).  This is the difference between a porterhouse and a t-bone, as practice by professional meat-cutters in Canada.

In The Flavour Bible, Michael Lomonaco, the chef of Porter House New York, says that a porterhouse steak is a “double cut” T-bone steak.

A super high-def image of a Porterhouse steak

 

We now leave the loin.  Actually we will leave the hindquarter all together.  From the loin, we are travelling up the backbone, towards the head of the cow.  Ribs six through twelve define a section called the rib primal.  If it still has all the bones in it, it’s called a standing rib.  If the bones have been removed, it’s called the ribeye.  This primal yields the most coveted of steaks, the rib steak.

Rib Steak
longissimus dorsi, longissimus costarum, spinalis dorsi

The rib section changes quite a bit over the distance between the sixth and twelfth rib.  At the front, at the sixth rib, the rib primal is adjacent to the chuck primal.  As such the rib primal is starting to break into the numerous, tough, interconnected muscles, with largish pockets of fat between, that we find in the chuck.  The front two ribs of the rib primal are therefore not as desirable, which is why the five last ribs (ribs eight through twelve) are called the prime rib.

There several muscles in a rib steak.  The largest is the longissimus dorsi, which farther back on the animal forms the striploin.  Around this central muscle are a few others.  Following the contour of the rib bone, and covered by a healthy amount of fat, is the longissimus costarum.  At the top of the steak is a muscle called the spinalis dorsi, which is the most tender and flavourful part of the steak.

It just so happens that the very last ribs of the rib section, ribs eleven and twelve, have very little spinalis dorsi, so while they come at a premium price, they are not as enjoyable as the very central ribs.

For the record, then, the best steaks come from ribs eight, nine, and ten.  Of course, when ordering in a restaurant you can’t usually make this specification.  And the information certainly isn’t labelled on meats at the market.  But the next time you buy a few rib steaks, compare them and try to discern where on the animal they came from.

A super high-def image of a rib steak

Rib steaks on the grill

Beef Cutting: Breaking Beef Forequarter into Primals

This is a forequarter of nouveau beef from Nature’s Green Acres.  A side of beef is split into a forequarter and a hindquarter by cutting between the twelfth and thirteenth rib, which is the last rib.

A forequarter of nouveau beef from Nature's Green Acres

 

Cutting beef is more complicated than cutting pork, and I find I sometimes lose my way and forget where I am and what piece of meat I’m looking at.  To give you some idea of what we intend to accomplish in this post, here is a picture of the forequarter afterwards, broken into its subprimals.

All the primals and subprimals on a forequarter of beef

 

The first cut I make is between the fifth and sixth ribs.  At the top right of the picture below, above the backbone, is the standing rib subprimal.  This is the most expensive part of the forequarter, and the origin of rib steaks and prime rib roasts.  We should be mindful of this as we cut so that we’re careful not to damage the meat there.  Use a knife to cut between the ribs, then a handsaw to break through the sternum, at the bottom, and the backbone, at the top.  Finish the cut through the loin with a knife.

Separating the forequarter into a chuck-brisket half and a rib-plate half.

The forequarter, divided between the fifth and sixth rib.

 

Separating the Chuck from the Brisket

We’ll start with the forward piece of meat we just separated.  The top part of this slab is the chuck, or square-cut chuck.  The lower part, at the sternum, is the brisket, with the attached foreshank.  I divide these two by making a horizontal cut a few inches below the neck.

Separating the chuck from the brisket and shank

The chuck, brisket, and the rib-plate

 

Dividing the Chuck into Neck, Blade, Arm, and Cross Rib

Here is the whole chuck, or square-cut chuck, that we just separated:

The chuck, or square chuck

The forward section of the chuck contains the neck and part of the forearm of the cow.  I separate this portion by making a vertical cut at the very base of the neck, as shown below.

Dividing the chuck at the neck

Next I make two horizontal cuts to separate the neck from the arm (top left and bottom left), and the blade from the cross rib (top right and bottom right):

Separating the blade from the cross rib

 

Separating the Shank from the Brisket

This is the only part of breaking the forequarter that uses a natural seam instead of a handsaw.

The shank, attached to the brisket

Lift the shank from the brisket to expose the seam, then follow it with a boning knife until the shank is removed.

Following the seam between the shank and brisket

The brisket and removed shank:

The shank and brisket, separated

 

Separating the Standing Rib

We now move to the hind part of the forequarter.  A horizontal cut is made about six inches below the backbone to separate the standing rib from the cross rib.

The short rib and plate, still attached.

 

Separating the Short Rib from the Plate

Finally another horizontal cut separates the short rib from the plate.

Separating the short rib from the short plate

 

To recap, the entire beef forequarter, broken into subprimals:

All the primals and subprimals on a forequarter of beef

Beef Liver Dumplings

Liver!For me, the most shocking part of buying a side of beef was how much liver we got.

A lot.  I like liver more than most, and I thought it was too much.

If you have to get through a lot of liver, there’s no better way than to just sear it in a pan and tuck in.  When the distinct, glandular texture of liver wearies the palate, there are liver dumplings.

This was a staple when I was in Austria.  Lunch always consisted of soup, meat, and dessert, and the soup often contained some manner of offal.  Most notable were the soft, bready liver dumplings the size of a toddler’s fist, floating in beef broth.

The biggest problem with liver dumplings is their grey colour.  Since the dumplings are simmered, they don’t develop any appetizing golden-brown shades.  This can be alleviated somewhat by quickly and aggressively searing the liver before using it in the following recipe.

 

Beef Liver Dumplings

Ingredients

  • 10 oz beef liver (actually calf’s liver would be preferable…)
  • 4 oz unsalted butter
  • 2 oz onions, finely chopped
  • 10 oz worth of day-old rolls, cubed
  • 3 oz whole milk
  • 4 oz bread crumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • salt to taste
  • pepper to taste
  • parsley to taste

Procedure

  1. Soak the rolls in the milk.
  2. Sear the beef liver over high heat so that it develops a brown crust, but the interior is still rare.
  3. Let the pan cool slightly.  Add the butter.  Once the butter is foaming, sauté the onions.
  4. Combine the soak rolls and the beef liver.  Grind the mixture through a 1/4″ plate.
  5. Combine the ground mixture, the onions, and all remaining ingredients.
  6. Shape into round dumplings about 2 1/2″ across.
  7. Poach until the centre is cooked, about 25 minutes.
Serve in flavourful beef stock, garnished with chives:

Liver dumpling in beef broth

Air-Dried Beef

Air-dried beef goes by many different names in many different places.  The most famous, I think is bresaola, from northern Italy.  In adjacent Switzerland air-dried beef is pressed into a unique block shape and called Bündnerfleisch, after the Swiss canton of Graubünden.  Nearby in eastern France it is often lightly smoked, and called brési.  In all of these alpine regions it is a common accompaniment for fondue.

Eye of round is one of the best cuts to use for air-dried beef.  It is a single muscle, with very little internal fat, easily trimmed to a convenient size.  First remove any silverskin and fat.

Beef eye of round, with silverskin and fat

The cleaned eye of round:

Beef eye of round, cleaned of all silverskin and fat

The clean muscle is then rubbed with salt, pepper, herbs, and spices…

Rubbing the round down with herbs, salt, and pepper

…and left in a covered container to cure for maybe two weeks.  After curing the meat is rinsed and patted dry.

The meat can be strung up in the cellar as is, or it can be stuffed into a casing to help moderate moisture loss.  I have used beef bungs and cheesecloth.

Two rounds, one wrapped in cheesecloth, the other in a beef bung

Ideally a bit of mold will grow on the surface.  “Friendly mold” like this takes up the prime real estate and prevents pathogens from moving into the neighbourhood.

Air-dried beef from the cellar with lots of good mold

Traditionally the meat was dried so thoroughly that it was inedible unless sliced paper thin.  Nowadays, since we’re curing and drying for flavour and mouthfeel more than true preservation, air-dried beef doesn’t need to be taken that far.  It will loose about one third of its weight in the cellar.  In the picture below you can see the vibrant red colour of the finished meat.  Note there is very little marbling.

A bright red slice of air-dried beef

Below you can see the air-dried beef on a charcuterie plate.  Clockwise from top right is the dried beef, elk jerky, grilled bread, pickles, pickled peppers, fresh pork sausage, and dried pork sausage.

A charcuterie plate with air-dried beef in the top right.

Braised Beef Heart

The raw beef heartThis was my first time cooking beef heart.  My logic was this:  “Heart, while offal, is a muscle, not a gland.  A hard working muscle, at that.  I guess I’ll braise it.”

In hindsight, probably not the best way to cook beef heart.  The final dish was okay: it was tender, but a bit dry.  This makes sense, as heart has no intramuscular fat, and I trimmed away what little fat there was on the outside.

The heart’s texture really surprised me.  Raw heart has no visible grain, almost as if it were a very firm, nebulous liver.  A few people had told me that heart is not a very “organy” meat.  Michael Ruhlman goes so far as to say that braised heart is similar to brisket, but I didn’t find this to be the case, not even remotely, brisket being extremely fatty and coarsely-grained.

Next time I’ll definitely try a quick, dry-heat cook to mid-rare.

Anyways: a quick description of the procedure.  I cleaned the heart thoroughly, removing all connective tissue and valves and whatnot, and cut the meat into large cubes.  I seared the meat aggressively in a pan, after which I cooked onions and garlic.  Finally I deglazed the pan with beer.  I usually use some form of “brown beer” to braise beef, either English brown ale or Belgian pale.  This time I tried a doppelbock.  The chocolate malt flavour worked well.  The pot simmered gently for two or three hours, until the heart was fork tender.  I added some herbs for the last fifteen minutes.

Served with bread and butter dumplings and some wilted beet greens:

 

Braised beef heart, beet greens, and dumplings