Category Archives: Beef

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

On Cured Beef, Montreal, and the Gout

I have a certain old friend.  Technically we went to high school together, but I first got to know him in Lister Hall, then at the Kappa Alpha house on university row.  He studied philosophy, and after graduation he followed a girl to Montreal.  There he fell victim to many of the city’s seductions: strong beer, girls, and cocaine, yes, but above all these, smoked meat.

For a while he lived only a few blocks from Schwartz’s, that Mecca of Montreal smoked meat.  For a while he ate there every day: a sandwich, a pickle, and a cherry coke.

Montreal smoked meat is that city’s version of New York’s pastrami: beef brisket, cured with a concoction of spices reminiscent of corned beef, then rubbed with black pepper and coriander, hot-smoked, steamed, and finally cut to order.  At Schwartz’s and most other Jewish delicatessens the meat is stacked a few inches high on thin slices of rye bread slathered with prepared mustard.

There are many ailments with apocryphal causes.  Mononucleosis, “the kissing disease,” is commonly attributed to promiscuity.  When I heard that gout was often caused by excessive consumption of cured meat and red wine, I assumed that this, likewise, was a Victorian misconception.

My friend ate at Schwartz’s almost every day for the better part of three months.  One morning he woke with a violent start.  The weight of his bedsheet on his left big toe made him shriek in pain.  He was dumbfounded.  What was happening?  The only logical explanation he could conjure was that, in the wasted stupor of the previous evening, he had somehow broken his toe.  On this hypothesis he hobbled to the doctor.  Within thirty minutes he was diagnosed with gout.

His recovery was slow and cruel.  For one sober month he lived mostly on raspberry yogurt.  He had to go without Unibroue’s many Belgian-inspired ales.  No more crepuscular visits to La Banquise for poutine italienne.  No quail from Toqué or blanquette de veau from Hotel Nelson.

No Montreal smoked meat.

He never confided this in me, but I imagine that he went through the same convulsing withdrawl symptoms of a heroine addict.

What I admire most about this friend is that he is able to turn the most painful, squalid memories into great stories.  He now jokes about swapping gout stories with his octogenarian grandma.


Anyways.  That happened years ago, but it has been on my mind this week because we made Montreal-style smoked meat at work.  (“Montreal smoked meat” isn’t a protected designation, yet, but because I’m a gentile living maybe three thousands kilometers from la belle province, I add the word “style.”)

As mentioned above, Montreal smoked meat and pastrami are both usually made with beef brisket.  We were curious to try using other cuts.  We ended up curing an entire forequarter of beef, except for the neck, shank, and standing rib.  We cured, smoked, shaved, and served it all.

Foodies, generally, and I, specifically, often wax eloquent about the importance of fat in a piece of meat.  That being said, I much preferred the bottom blade, with its judicious fatty marbling, to the brisket, with its thick slab of external fat.  The blade was also a darker, richer burgundy colour than most of the other cuts.

The leaner, more tender cuts, like the cross-rib, benefited hugely from the curing and smoking.  Aficionados would no doubt argue that the deli meat made from this cut can not properly be called Montreal smoked meat or pastrami, but regardless, it really was good.

A slab of Montreal-style smoked meat

A late night snack

Notes on Dry-Curing Meat: Mold

When dry-curing, mold is inevitable, yet there’s little detailed information available to guide the beginner. I don’t know for sure why this is, but I have some theories:

  • mold is so variant and hard to describe,
  • mold-discussions might disgust customers, and
  • mold is a mystery of the charcutiers’ cult.

The general rule in charcuterie is that smooth, hard, white mold is “good.” I don’t think it affects the flavour of the meat in any way, but it discourages the growth of “bad” mold, that is, mold that is pathogenic or that somehow compromises the meat. Any type of fuzzy mold is said to be bad.

Luckily, undesirable mold can simply be cut away; it doesn’t taint the entire batch of meat. Some sources say that if fuzzy mold appears you can wipe it off, soak the meat in a brine solution, pat dry, and continue curing. I have now tried this twice, and the mold returned both times.

Pictured below is a piece of bresaola I cured this fall. Bresaola is a cured cut of beef hip, eye of round in this case, that is air-dried for several weeks until firm throughout. It is very common in northern Italy, especially Lombardia, though its roots are in Switzerland. This specimen has the ideal smooth, white mold, which is easy to identify. When drying meat, I come across countless other phenomena that I don’t know what to make of.

Sometimes when I make pancetta there is a pronounced, mucus-like fluid in the roll. When I squeeze the roll, it oozes out the end. The first time I saw this I waffled for hours on what to do. Was this simply liquid drawn from the meat? Was it pernicious mold? This sounds ridiculous, but ultimately I just started eating the meat. The fluid disappeared in the freezing/slicing/cooking process, and the pancetta was not only safe, but delicious.

A chunk of air-dried beef, or bresaola, from the cellar