Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Beef Brisket

This is an inexpensive cut of beef that needs long, slow cooking to tenderize. It is usually brined and cooked in chicken stock to make corned beef, or braised with vegetables and served as a pot roast. Somewhat counter-intuitively,  braising (cooking in liquid) can result in dry meat, especially if the temperature gets too high (at temperatures above 60-65℃, juices are lost from the muscle fibres). Although the braised meat can end up dry and stringy, this is compensated for by serving the meat in the flavoursome, gelatinous cooking liquor.

Another approach is to counteract this drying by cooking the meat at a lower temperature. Douglas Baldwin, in A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking suggests brining for 2-3 hours then cooking at 80℃ for 24-36 hours. He mentions that the French Laundry cooks their brisket at 64℃ for 48 hours. I decided to try the French Laundry method.  McGee notes that collagen doesn't dissolve into gelatin until 70-80℃, so the higher temperature suggested by Baldwin might be better: something to try next time.

My local butcher only had rolled brisket, so I bought a 1.3kg piece and undid his rolling. I cut it into two pieces and placed them in a 5% brine, where they stayed for 48 hours. After brining, I dried them off and browned the outside with a blow torch before cooling and vacuum packing. Then it was time for the water bath.

I took out one piece after 48 hours and used it to make a big batch of hash, following a recipe from Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking. There's not much to it really: cook some sliced onions in butter, add tinned plum tomatoes and cook off some of the liquid, then stir through some cooked mashed potatoes and the shredded salt beef; you only need to cook it until the meat and potatoes are warmed through, but I like to leave it until it forms a golden crust on one side, then turn it over and cook until the other side is nicely crusted too.

The hash was great, but the meat was not as tender as I expected. The same cannot be said of the 60-hour batch - it was melt-in-the-mouth tender. Both batches had plenty of natural gelatin, so this would also be a good way to cook brisket for corned beef: just shred the cooked beef, and set in a terrine with the gelatinous liquid that collects in the vacuum bag during cooking.

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