Salt beef is a perfect meat for taking to a feast because it can be be prepared in advance and travels well.
It is ideal for a stress-free Christmas – no sweating over a hot stove all day.
Tender and aromatic, it can be served hot or cold with vegetables or salads. Or, traditionally, as a sandwich with mustard and pickles.
It is called salt beef because it is preserved (pickled) in salt a week before cooking. The brine is washed off so the meat is not salty. The joint is pressed, refrigerated, packs down neatly and should ideally travel in a cool box.
An animal lost its life to feed us so the least I can do is make sure it was well-looked after while it was alive – so the meat had to be organic.
I bought tied and rolled organic brisket from Sheepdrove Organic Farm where the animals graze on herb-rich pastures, live in family herds and express their natural behaviour.
I bought two briskets totalling 4 kilos (9lbs) in weight, and cut one in half so it would fit in my pans. This fed ten people for three meals.
I have never preserved meat before and, I won’t lie, it was nerve-wracking: would the meat go mouldy and thus ruin Christmas festivities? In the end I trusted my sense of smell to assure me nothing was amiss.
Reader, I nailed it. My 91-year-old mum said it reminded her of salt beef from her childhood, and my sister praised its subtle flavours.
Salt beef is not exclusively Jewish but “it is the Jewish community that has kept up the tradition,” says cookery writer, Xanthe Clay.
There are two main stages to salt beef: preserving in brine, then simmering in fresh water and vegetables.
The challenges to preserving:
- Time: the raw meat is soaked for seven days in a salty solution
- Maths: working out the right salt/sugar solution for the weight of the meat
- Receptacles: they have to be non-metallic and deep enough to take the joint covered with water
- Ingenuity: You have to keep the joint under water. I used bottles of oil etc (see pic below) to weigh down the meat.
The salty water (in which the food is soaked) is called brine. Salt beef traditionally uses saltpetre, too, to preserves the meat’s red/pinkness (otherwise it would be grey) and also to kill the bacteria that causes botulism.
There are health issues with nitrates but as I hardly eat bacon and other cured meat, I figure a little bit of what you fancy does you good.
Once the meat is preserved for seven days, the salty brine is washed off the meat.
The meat is then simmered in fresh water, carrots and onions for several hours. This produces a flavoursome broth. Keep the broth to heat-up the meat (if you want to serve it hot), use it as a stock or serve as a soup – it has the most amazing taste.
After being drained, press the meat again (we used large plates with smaller bowls on top weighed down with heavy books to provide an air-tight press).
Wrap the meat well, and refrigerate. I used parchment lined-foil from Lakeland and secured it with gaffer tape.
My oracles were Evelyn Rose’s The Complete International Jewish Cookbook, that my mother gave me decades ago. Reliable and practical, it is much-used and loved.
My other main text was a recipe from Diana Henry, another favourite cookery writer.
I now hand you over to Diana Henry for her salt beef recipe.
Here is the ratio of salt/sugar to meat for the brine solution (in the preserving stage) to save you any brain-numbing calculations.
Dear reader, please also note a comment posted 3 March 2018 below with ensuing discussion: A 2.5 kg joint of brisket only needs about 6g of saltpetre, and not the unnecessarily high 55g quoted. If in doubt use about 6g of saltpetre to 2.5kg of beef.
Ratios for brine
For each kilo/lb of beef
110g (1¾oz) of sugar
140g (2 1/4 oz) of salt
22g (1/3 oz) of saltpetre (optional).
Diana Henry’s salt beef
For the brine
275g (9¾oz) soft light-brown sugar
350g (12oz) coarse sea salt
2 tsp black peppercorns
½ tbsp juniper berries
4 bay leaves
4 sprigs of thyme
55g (2oz) saltpetre (optional).
For the beef
2.5kg (5lb 8oz) piece of beef brisket
1 large carrot, roughly chopped
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 celery stick, roughly chopped
1 leek, cut into large chunks
1 bouquet garni
½ head of garlic
Put all the ingredients for the brine into a very large saucepan, pour in 2.5 litres (4½ pints) of water and gradually bring to the boil, stirring to help the sugar and salt dissolve. Once it comes to the boil, let it bubble away for two minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool completely.
Pierce the meat all over with a skewer. Put it in a large, sterilised plastic box or bucket (something non-reactive) and cover the meat with the brine; it must be totally immersed. The best thing I’ve found for weighing it down is two massive bottles of vodka. Put them in on top of the meat and it will stay below the level of the brine. Leave in a very cool place (a cellar or a room that is always freezing cold – most houses have one). Leave it for seven days.
Take the beef out of the brine and rinse it. Roll and tie the meat and put it in a pan with the vegetables, bouquet garni and garlic, adding enough cold water to cover. Bring the water to simmering point, then leave to poach gently – I mean gently – for two and a half to three hours. Cook until the meat is completely tender (check with a skewer).