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24 October 2011

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.

Better salt beef should be more widely available.  It is a cheap cut of meat ooh how age of austerity, that doesn't take much hard work, ideal because I just don't have any time to cook and yet current offerings are pretty mediocre.

True, hope might be on the horizon, West One Deli for those that keep kosher (and assuming they get round to opening, there have been interminable delays) and Mishkin's from the irrepresable team behind Polpo et al for those that don't.  

So limited supply has left me trying to perfect my salt beef recipe for sometime and I think I've now done it.  Using the recipe below, I ended up with some of the most delicious salt beef I've ever had the privilege to taste.  It is a bit saltier than commercial salt beef but far from too salty - it gives a pleasant tang, helped no doubt by the aromatics.

I feel heretical saying it, but my efforts were no thanks to two of my heroes.  My first attempt was a salty disaster - the only time that the now veggie Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has let me down.  I then read Claudia Roden's seminal work on Jewish cookery, but was uninspired by her recipe, especially the rather amorphous 'pickling spices' she proposes. 

I moved on to Fergus Henderson at the suggestion of a commenter on the blog.  I blithely followed him, until I received another comment on the blog saying his brine was far too salty.  Pah, I thought, what does this naif though compared to Henderson.  

I then re-read Henderson and realised he was recommending the same concentration of cure for a chicken as for salt beef.  This seemed a bit wrong and perhaps Nick Loman was worth listening to.

So I pimped Henderson's recipe, or rather I wimped out and watered it down.  For 4 days I had a 15% cure and for 1 day I had a 7.5% cure.  I suppose you could make life easier by just going for a 13.5% cure or 540g of salt to 4l of water.  (These percentages refer to the quantity of salt to water in the cure, where water is 100%.)

I didn't use salt-petre and didn't think it was any the worse for it.  The reason for using salt-petre is to ensure the beef doesn't lose its pink colour as a result of the brining process.  I didn't find the colour a problem.  The inside was brown, a bit like the centre of smoked brisket - rather delicious actually.

So here's what I did.

Please note that in total this recipe takes 5 days to brine and is cooked on the 6th day - although most of that time a lump of meat is sitting in some salty water and does not require much work from you. Just don't try to make it a few hours before guests arrive.

You will need a large non-metallic container to cure the meat in.

3.5kg brisket - make sure your butcher leaves some of the fat on it.

4 day brine

  • 400g caster sugar
  • 600g sea salt
  • 12 juniper berries
  • 12 cloves
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4l water

5th day brine

  • 4l water

Cooking the beef

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

Bring all the ingredients for the brine to the boil.  Then allow to cool thoroughly.

Once cooled, pour the brine over the beef.  Make sure the beef is fully submerged, you may well need to weigh it down.

Leave it for 4 days.

On the 5th day, add a further 4l of water.

A note on curing & refrigeration: I don't refrigerate mine whilst it's curing because this is a preserving process afterall.  I leave it in a nice cool part of the house.  If you do refrigerate, bear in mind it will slow the curing process down, so for the same flavour you'll need to make it more concentrated or brine for longer.

On the 6th day - cooking day - remove the beef from the brine and rinse well under running water.

Put the beef in a pot with herbs and vegetables and cover with fresh water.  Cook it for about 3-3.5 hours.  You want it to be a rolling boil and by that I mean: the water's gently bubbling rather than furiously splashing for most of the cooking time.


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A long process of preparation, but I am sure it is worth the effort. I will try it myself very soon. I shouldn't have any porblems obtaining the ingredients. I love beef and this recipe seems to hide a lot of taste.

Do you know how long the salted beef is good for? I might try this if it's long enough.

Thanks for the interesting idea.

How long does the meat last for once it's cooked?  I'd say up to three days in the fridge.  Although given that brining it is a way of preserving method, I imagine it can last longer.  How much longer? I don't know.  We need an expert in such issues.

Sounds like hard work to me. I'd rather just slap some beef in between some bread and call it a day, personally.

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