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10 December 2009

Crowd saucing salt beef

UPDATE: At long last I've got a recipe I'm happy with. Please use the new recipe, rather than the method below.

What with hailing from the shtetl (a century or so ago), perhaps my love of salt beef can be attributed to genes, or Proust.  Maybe it's just that it's very tasty when done well.  Whatever, it is one of my favourite comfort foods.  The simple thought of it makes me happy. 

It is easiest, and therefore, best cooked in large hunks, it therefore rewards the greedy or generous.  It has to be cooked for a long period, so no item of clothing or furniture lacks the telling whiff of bay, pepper and meat. 

When you finally get to eat it, your taste buds have spent the last three hours limbering up as the smell of the dish permeates the house.  As the lid is lifted off the pot you're hit with an intense waft of meaty steam.  Then out comes a glistening hunk of fatty meat.  And then the real anticipation begins.  Not just of taste, but of the cut.  Has it cooked for the right amount of time?  Are you about to get a stringy mass of meat, or lithe slices? 

And what of the taste?  Umami and a hint of salt are all you need to worry about. 

It should be self evident why I decided I really needed to turn my hand to brining and cooking the dish for myself. 

Which brings me neatly on to my first experiment and my recipe below.  Let's start at the end.  I was deeply disappointed with what I made.  It was overly salty and pretty darn tough.

The best I can say is that before carving or tasting it, I had immense satisfaction lifting it out of the pot and knowing I pickled the bugger.  It's just what came next that deflated my smugness.

Before we progress, a word about the beef.  Mine was from the blade end.  It was quite fatty and I didn't trim it.  I wonder if this is the source of error.  I'd thought that by leaving it on it would make it even more moist.  I wonder if in fact it made the meat tougher by contracting rather than relaxing the meat.  Is this bollocks?  Is it possible to have too much fat when boiling meat?

I should add for the assumption-jumpers reading this that of course I removed the fat before eating it.

So, I post this recipe here as a starting point.  It is an aide memoire for me.  I'm going to make this again and want to remember what I did first time round.  More importantly, I'm posting it here because I'd like to get your thoughts on where I went wrong.

The recipe I used was largely based on Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's in the excellent Meat.  Unfortunately, many of my cookbooks are still in storage and I was unable to dig out Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited, I'm certain there must be a recipe in there.  I triangulated HFW's recipe with others I found on the internet and by scouring recipes in as many books as I could get my hands on.  The tweaks are minor - I didn't use juniper berries, he recommends them and the like.

So, in this instance more than any other I'd be delighted to get your thoughts on where I went wrong and how to ensure the salt beef of my dreams.

For the salting/brining

  • 3kg brisket
  • 5L water
  • 500g demerera sugar
  • 1.5kg salt
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 5 cloves
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 30g saltpetre

You will also need a large non-metallic container to hold the beef whilst it's brining.

Cooking the beef

  • 2 bay leaves
  • Bunch of thyme
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 celery stick, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic

To salt the beef

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Day 1: 3kg of brisket

Put all the ingredients for the brine in a pan and bring to the boil.  The salt and sugar will dissolve.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely.  And remember that means completely.  Unless you want to get on first name terms with your local A&E team, you don't want your beef cooked in tepid water for the thick end of a week.  So let it cool down.

Once the brine is cool (got it, cool) put the beef into your container and cover with the brine.  You may need to weigh down the meat to stop it floating in the brine.  I used a couple of small Le Creuset dishes as you can see in my Bailey-esque photos.

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Day 1: The meat just after it has gone in the brine

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Day 1: The meat in brine

My 3kg of meat spent 5 days in the brine. 

As per HFW's instructions I left the brining meat in a cool room.  However, I have to admit that three days in I got cold feet and, as this was due to feed a large proportion of my nearest and dearest, I did put it in the fridge.  I knew this would slow the brining process - perhaps that was why it was so tough?  But then again, would it have been even saltier if I'd let it brine at room temperature?

Throughout the brining I checked on it regularly and over the days the beef clearly changed colour and throughout it smelt very good - spicy and of cloves.

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Day 5: The meat shortly before it comes out of the brine (the weird circular indent is the mark left by something that was weighing it down)

I removed it from the brine five days after putting it in.  I had expected the meat to be quite soft, instead it was much firmer than I expected.  In my notes I wrote that it was very firm.  I did get slightly concerned at this point.  I've cooked pre-brined salt beef numerous times and that had attuned my expectations, I don't remember it being quite so stiff.  Again, my unscientific mind wondered whether the copious fat had played a part, perhaps too much of it resulted in the whole brisket toughening up in the salty brine?

The meat was also browner than I had expected. I wonder if I didn't use enough saltpetre. 

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Day 5: The meat out of the brine

Nonetheless I was hopeful as I rinsed it under the tap - it was very slippery so hold tight - and then soaked it in fresh cold water for 24 hours.  I think over that period I changed the water three times.  The meat shouldn't float in this water - it's no longer chilling in the Dead Sea.

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Day 5: The meat in clean, fresh water

Now comes the cooking.  Put the beef in a pot with herbs and vegetables and cover with fresh water.  As I always do, I cooked it on a low heat on the hob for approximately 3 hours.  You want it to be a rolling boil and by that I mean: the water's gently bubbling rather than furiously splashing.

And that's it.  The cooking bit I've done before and never had a problem.  This was a disaster and I'd love to know the reasons.  Did I simply not cook it long enough?  Was the brine mix wrong? Was there too much fat? Was it a mistake wimping out and putting it in the fridge?

I want to crack this, so am hoping to give it another go shortly.  Any further thoughts before then are gratefully received.


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I have also tried Hugh F W's brine but had more success with Fergus Henderson's recipe from "Nose to Tail Eating". The latter has 150g salt per litre, as opposed to the 300g per litre you quote above. Certainly the brisket that came out of HFW's brine was much too salty for my palate, but I wonder if that also affected the texture?

Jane Grigson's basic brine recipe calls for only 120g salt/litre,
and modern US writers call for even less (Rhulman 50g/litre and McGee 30-50g/litre). This makes me wonder if HFW's recipe is simply in error.

No thoughts on salt beef, but just for once a pre-emptive greeting rather than a belated one. Happy Chanukkah.

@Ray, thanks for that, that's interesting. Is that the 1st Fergus book you're referring to? I've only got the 2nd one, but that looks like a good excuse to buy the book. I assume the Ruhlman you quote from is Charcuterie? Didn't dawn on me to look in there - although that's hidden in storage somewhere. I'll refer to McGee as well next time. It seems that HFW is a clear outlier in terms of quantity of salt. I'll try again at a lower percentage. Thanks for the tips.

@Trig, many thanks and to you and your family too.

You'll find Fergus's brine recipe in the first book and in the "Basic, but vital" section at the back of his second book - but don't worry, there are plenty of other excuses to invest in volume one. I don't have Ruhlman's Charcuterie book, but he includes a chapter on brine in "Ratio". Re-reading that, I'm tempted to try chicken brined with lemon and herbs...

Oh, I've been experimenting with salt beef too and served it at the stall. The first time the brine had less salt, and was much better. The second time had more and was less to my taste. I think somewhere around the 50 mark is best. There was no fat on mine either. Still experimenting, might try that Ruhlman recipe next time.

@Ray and @Niamh thanks for that. I'll definitely give it another go
with less salt. And it is a fine excuse to get hold of Henderson's
first book. Niamh, you definitely need some fat on there for both
flavour whilst cooking and moisture - absolutely integral to salt

I have made salt beef according the recipe in HFW's Meat book, and it turned out very well, and I did store it in the fridge! However, it was a smaller weight of brisket - not sure if this had an effect?

@Sharmila, given the other comments on HFW I reckon the key is that you stored it in the fridge.  That would have slowed down the brining process and therefore reduced the impact of the salt.  I suppose if I was being really thorough I should do a control experiment repeating my 1st effort, then doing one with HFW in the fridge, then one of the other recipes such as Fergus Henderson's.  Then again, that might get expensive.

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