Homemade Salt Beef
For a while now Salt Beef seems to have become a really cool delicacy. I mean it always has been, to me anyway, an amazing meat for a sandwich. Growing up in the states as a kid, and also in recent years with my frequent visits to Lauren’s homeland of New York City I have been piled with this moist, salty and very tender treat. Either in it’s true form that I’ve always known it called, Corned Beef, or in its smoked alter ego of Pastrami, I have loved the stuff all my life.
There are several big names spreading positive vibes about Salt Beef all over the internet these days, however sadly for different reasons. On one hand there are hundreds of tweets and blog posts about the hugely successful Mishkins ‘A kind-of Jewish deli with cocktails‘ but on the other there are just as many, and a huge Facebook campaign, about the sad news of attempts to close Gaby’s Deli. Salt beef is becoming a stable diet once more for diner’s in London. For me, my local supply of lunchtime salt beef always came from Amigo’s Cafe on Eagle St, where it is made daily and if you get in just before 11am – you can get the first slice of the day (they usually sell out about 2pm). Notice that I said "came from Amigo’s" past tense; well that’s because I now make my own and here’s how you can too.
Making a Brine
First off I needed to make myself a brine solution. A brine is a liquid, typically consisting of salt, water, sugar, and other seasonings to help preserve and add flavour to meat. You have probably seen it labelled on various tins of tuna and similar items in your local supermarket. I looked around online for a few recipes and found there are several variations out there. I came up with one with what I could do with the ingredients I had in (it was getting late and I didn’t fancy a trip out so I think the following did the job just right). If anything I’d of done differently would have been to make the effort to source some saltpetre, but I didn’t so I used a mixture of rock sea & table salt.
Ingredients for the Brine
- 4 ltr Cold Water
- 600g Salt
- 300g Light Muscovado Brown Sugar
- 1 tbsp Cracked Black Peppercorns
- 2 tsp ground mixed spice
- 4 Bay Leaves
- A Few Sprigs of Lemon Thyme
- 2 tsp Liquid Smoke
- 1 Head of Garlic
- 2 Chopped Celery
Making the brine, my first one ever, was much easier than I thought. I just added in the water, salt, sugar, bay leaves, thyme, pepper, celery and mixed spice into the largest pot I had. It happened to be a Wok, but anything of enough volume should do. Then I just turned the heat on full and brought it all to the boil. Once boiling, I then took it off the heat and allowed it to cool down naturally.
To check the saltiness of the brine I gently released a whole egg (in the shell and unbroken!) into the liquid. It floated, so that meant the brine was salty enough, if it had sunk however I would have just added more salt until the egg did float.
Preparing the Meat
- 2½ kg Brisket
- 2 Beef Cheeks
While the brine was cooling I got to work on the meat and trimmed off as much fat as I could from the brisket and beef cheeks. I picked up these cuts of meat from my trusty butchers on Theobalds Rd. If you’re not that comfortable trimming your own meat I am sure your butcher would do it for you, just let them know what you plan to do with it. Theobalds have been great to me over the last 6 months by providing me with excellent underblade feather beef that I have been using for my Billy Franks jerky, which I am please to say is now live and selling well. So in the words of Billy Ray Valentine: “Beef jerky time…. You want some beef jerky? There’s plenty, you know!” – HEY! It’s my blog I’ll sell promote if I want but now back to the Salt Beef.
Curing the Meat
The meat was now ready to be placed into a large container (with a lid) for the curing processes. I didn’t have anything big enough to fit both the brisket and cheeks into, so I used two separate containers. In these containers I then placed the meat along with a bulb of garlic that I had cut in half. The brine was sieved and then gently poured over the meat until it was fully covered.
The last thing to do was place something on top of the meat, so that when the lid was on, it forced the meat downward and was completely submerged in the brine. I used an upside down plate and a smaller container for this. Once the lid was on securely, I placed labels on with the days date to remind me how long it is to be cured for and popped them in the fridge. All that would need doing now would be to take it out once a day, turn the meat and put back in the fridge. This process should last for 1-2 weeks – depending on your preference.
I decided after the first day that I only needed one container for all the cuts of meat. I figured if I had to take both containers out every day, take out the meat, turn it over and place them back into the containers it would be easier to just have one single container – and probably a lot less mess knowing me. So I popped down to Nisbets on Shaftesbury avenue and grabbed myself a new container.
After 10 days I felt the meat was cured and ready to cook. I removed the brisket and cheeks from the container of brine and the washed them thoroughly in cold water.
Cooking the Brisket
After washing the meat clean all I had to do next was cook it. Both cuts of meat would need to be cooked slowly for a long time on a low heat. To cook the brisket I needed a large pan, again I used the wok and placed the meat inside. I filled it up with cold water and brought it to the boil on a high heat. Once the water was boiling I reduced the heat down to a steady simmer and placed a lid on to cover. The cooking would take about three hours so I needed to occasionally check its levels and top up with water making sure the meat was always fully submerged.
After three hours I drained the pan and left the brisket on a plate to cool down.
Making the Salt Beef Sandwich
I had already baked a loaf of sun dried tomato bread (I’ll post that soon) so all I had to do was make a salad and get my condiments ready. I prepared a light salad of thinly sliced fennel, radish, lettuce, spring onion and put it in a bowl. Next I cut the bread and went to work on slicing the brisket. I layered the slices on the bread and added pickle, mustard, the salad and some piccalilli to make myself one of the most rewarding sandwiches I have ever had. It was delicious to say the least and well worth the time and effort.
Cooking the Beef Cheeks
For the cheeks I thought I would try something a little different. Instead of cooking them in a plain bath of water I decided to try to give the cheeks a smoky flavour. For this, I really wish I had a smoker so that I could turn the salt beef into pastrami(which is definitely something I will have to do in the not too distant future). For now though, I opted for a spice rub and slow roast in the oven.
Ingredients for the Rub
- Coriander Seeds
- Cumin Seed
- Cracked Black Pepper
- Smoked Paprika
- Liquid Smoke
- Brown Sugar
I cleaned the cheeks earlier along with the brisket and then dried them with some kitchen towel. I got together the ingredients for the rub and then mixed all the dry spices in a pestle and mortar. I poured a little liquid smoke over each cheek and then rubbed in the dry mix.
I then put them in a low heat oven, around 150 for about 3 hours. I took them out 3 or 4 times to turn them and baste them. Once they were cooked I left them to one side to cool down.
So there you have it, my first attempt making salt beef and most definitely not my last. I used the cheeks again, slow cooking them in a homemade barbeque sauce. This really helped melt away the kind of gelatinous structure that seemed to marble through the cuts. I might not be salting cheeks again soon but the brisket was magnificent! I had a good few sandwiches and then decided to freeze about half of it for a rainy day.