Beef, Leftover Recycling, preserving, Sandwich, Science


Thanksgiving came and went without a hitch. I know this because my mother in law came to stay for two nights and my husband’s efforts to fix a whole bunch of little things around the house paid off in the form of a relatively pleasant visit.

I get a lot of questions about cooking technique in the weeks leading up to the holiday. This isn’t all that surprising – most people think about food more during the holidays, and cook more during the holidays. Food anxiety apparently plays a much greater role on television as well. We don’t have TV at home – a long story involving a severe, folie à deux-type addiction to late night reality television and a bitter argument with DirecTV seven years ago – but a couple of weeks back, while in Kansas City on business, I took the opportunity to check out the Food Network programming in the hotel room. Let’s just say that holiday cooking doesn’t make me anxious, but if I had been at all worried about achieving a crispy brown skin on a moist turkey, avoiding dry dressing, or producing the dreaded leaden pumpkin pie, I wouldn’t have felt any better after watching Food Network in the two weeks before Thanksgiving. I suspect that’s how they like it, too.

Anyway, as always, I received a lot of questions about brining this year. My answer, again as always, was the same. If you’re going to roast your turkey whole (and there are many, many reasons not to do so), you should consider a short brine. Honestly, though – who really likes turkey all that much, other than my husband? He’s still eating it, by the way, with gusto. We had the leftovers for dinner the other night – and I must admit that they were good, especially the chestnut and sausage stuffing, which tasted even better after the flavors had a few more days to meld – but I really don’t need to eat more than one turkey meal a year, brined or no. Now, the brined food I do like to eat … that’s salt beef, or corned beef.

Corning refers to “corn,” the archaic English term for a hard, coarse, granular substance, like those big grains of salt formerly used for preservation. While in times past one might have preserved meat by packing it in salt corns for a dry cure, today corned or salt beef generally is cured in a wet brine. As much as salt beef is a pretty lowbrow food, enjoyed between slabs of rustic caraway rye and accented with fiery English mustard, the best hot salt beef sandwich I’ve ever enjoyed comes from a distinctly posh venue. The Fifth Floor food hall at Harvey Nichols department store in London has a hot salt beef carving station where you can get a great fatty piece of salt brisket on rye. If you’re tired out from buying expensive clothes downstairs, go sit in the Fifth Floor Bar and order a salt beef sandwich. It comes with pickles, hot mustard, and beautiful plate presentation. Some people say Selfridge’s is best, but those people are nuts.

Salt beef

Use a kitchen scale when making the brine. From chemistry class (and all those metrics lessons in the 70s) you should recall that water weighs one gram per milliliter, so a liter of water weighs one kg. You want a 10% salt solution with adequate sugar, and it is essential that you not include too much curing salt. A note about that curing salt, by the way. Many of you may eschew nitrites, having read about their potential negative health consequences. Since we rarely brine meat these days for preservation, you can omit the curing salt from the brine if you like, without any ill effect. The salt beef will, however, cook to a grayish-brown if you cook it conventionally, since curing salt preserves color. (If you are interested in cooking the salt beef sous vide to preserve color, I do provide instructions.)

1.5 kg (3 lbs) brisket
2 liters (2000 ml) cold water
200g salt
75g sugar
10g curing salt (Prague Powder #1)
2 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic, peeled
several branches thyme
10g black peppercorn
10g pickling spice [combine whole allspice, cloves, mace, celery seed, juniper]

Bring 200g of the water, and the rest of the brine ingredients, to a simmer until dissolved. Combine with the rest of the water. Trim the brisket of extraneous gristle and place in a large, thick, sealable plastic bag (a gallon bag should do if you have a slightly smaller brisket than specified, but otherwise use a two gallon bag). I strongly recommend double bagging.


Add the brine and seal the bags. To be really safe against leaks or bursting, place the bag in a deep bowl (such as a steel prep bowl). Place in the refrigerator, in the coldest part. Every day for about a week, rotate the bag to ensure that all parts of the brisket are cured consistently. You can cure for up to two weeks but it does become progressively more salty. If you intend to cook sous vide (especially if not using curing salt), pull from the brine after five days and rinse well before proceeding.

After two weeks.

After a week to ten days (or up to two weeks), remove the brisket from the bag and rinse in cold water. Discard the brine.

1 onion, quartered
2 carrots, scraped and chopped
1 large celery stalk, chopped

Place the brisket in a large stockpot or Dutch oven with the onion, carrot, and celery. Add water to cover. Bring just to a simmer and keep at a bare simmer for about 4-5 hours, depending on the size of your brisket. When the brisket is ready, it will be fork-tender. During cooking, the brisket will become quite tough for a period of time. This is normal – keep simmering and do not at any time allow the water to boil. Remove the brisket from the cooking liquid. Slice across the grain.

To prepare sous vide, rinse well to be sure that none of the pickling spices adhere to the meat because spices will become unbearably strong otherwise. Bag the brisket and vacuum seal. Cook in the SVS or in an immersion circulator at 136F/58C for medium rare meat, or 140F/60C for medium, about 42-48 hours depending on meat thickness and composition.

Serve on sliced rye bread, with house-made pickles and hot English mustard. As pictured, the sandwich comes with potato chips made by slicing a russet on a mandoline directly into hot oil.

Salt beef on rye

Corned beef hash

What do you do with leftover corned beef? Hash, of course – the blandness of the potato is the perfect foil to the salty meat.

I specify 1/4″ dice because I like it small. Don’t knock yourself out. It’s hash, it’s a rustic dish; if you like larger dice or even a rough chop, suit yourself.

Corned beef hash.

Leftover salt beef, from above, diced about 1/4″
one russet potato, diced 1/4″
one small yellow onion, diced 1/4″
vegetable oil or clarified butter
thyme leaves
black pepper
optional: poached egg

Place a large sauté pan over medium high heat and, when hot, add a little oil. Add the potato to the pan and toss once to coat on all sides; then cook, undisturbed, until golden on one side. Flip the potatoes to turn and add the onion. Brown on the other side and add the corned beef and thyme leaves. Redistribute in the pan and continue to brown until golden. Season with salt if necessary (the beef is quite salty, so you should not need much salt). Season with black pepper and chives. Turn out onto a plate.

If you like, top with a poached or fried egg. Ketchup is not verboten.

Duck, Frenchy Things, preserving

A year and a day.

I started this blog a year ago and a day. Since then, I’ve answered dozens of questions and, in the process, improved my own cooking skills. So I want to thank everyone who reads these pages – I hope it’s been good for you, because it certainly has been good for me.

Last week, shopping in the H-Mart, I came across a beautiful display of duck leg quarters. I won’t lie to you. Breaking down duck isn’t exactly a huge pain in the ass, but the breasts are not as interesting to me as the dark meat. Breast meat, if cooked just a little too long, has a sort of liver-y quality; in my opinion, the leg meat is ground zero for that classic duck flavor. At the H-Mart, the quality of the duck varies. Sometimes the legs seem suspiciously lean – are these wild ducks, somehow? These leg quarters, however, were thickly coated with creamy white fat and smooth skin. Perfect for confit.

Confit is, above all, a preservation technique. In southwestern France – throughout Gascogne and elsewhere in the western Occitan provinces – waterfowl, like duck and goose, have for many years been salted and then cooked slowly at a relatively low temperature, immersed in their own rendering fat. The resulting product, if salty enough, could withstand storage without refrigeration for months. Today, confit is not necessary for preservation, and it tends to be somewhat less salty. It is no less rich, though, particularly when the meat is shredded and combined with some of the poaching fat to make rillettes.

In accordance with modern tastes, I don’t salt the duck legs that heavily. I like to use about two teaspoons of kosher salt for each meaty leg. Unfortunately, that’s not nearly enough salt for safe room temperature preservation. And after curing nearly eight pounds of duck legs and then slowly cooking in a 220F oven for many hours, I asked my husband to turn off the oven. Then I totally forgot about the duck and went to bed. In the morning, I went to the office. Around lunchtime, I remembered. When I got home, I threw it out. Not enough salt for safe room temperature preservation.

So we begin again. I went back to H Mart and bought eight more pounds of duck leg quarters. I salted them and layered them with thyme branches. I cured them overnight and cooked them slowly in a 220F oven. I took them out of the oven and didn’t forget.

Crispy duck confit, savoy cabbage, green peppercorn mustard sauce.

Let the duck cool in the fat for at least 45 minutes before removing it (to package it for storage, or to cook it for immediate service). It needs to cool off a little bit to firm up so it doesn’t collapse.

Savoy cabbage is aromatic, slightly pungent, and provides a great balance to the fatty richness of the duck. The green peppercorn mustard sauce brings a little acidity and the sweet, round taste of butter.

For the confit:

6 lbs duck legs (about 8 large legs)
1/4 c kosher salt
about 12 thyme branches

The day before cooking the legs, season the legs evenly with salt (about 2 tsp per leg), and layer in a nonreactive pan with thyme branches in contact with the meaty side of the duck legs. If you have a single layer, place the thyme on the bottom of the pan and lay the duck skin side-up. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 24 hours (as much as 48).

Preparing to cure.

Oven 220F/105C

Remove the duck from refrigeration and transfer to a dutch oven or cast iron pot with a lid, layering with the thyme. Place a layer of parchment between the top of the duck and the lid, especially if using cast iron (to prevent condensation from building up and rusting the pan.

Place in the oven and cook for about six hours. After 2 hours, turn heat down to 200F/95C. Remove from the oven; remove the lid and parchment. Rest the confit for 45-60 minutes before transferring to a container for storage, covered in fat, or proceeding to the next step.

Right out of the oven.

To crisp the duck leg confit, oven 250F/120C. Place a skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, place 2 tbsp duck fat in the pan. Add 4 duck leg quarters, skin side down, and baste with the fat. Do not crowd the pan (you may need to use two pans). When the skin is crisp and deep golden brown, flip the legs carefully (be careful – they may be prone to falling apart) and place the pan in the oven. Cook until heated through (about 15 minutes).

Meanwhile, prepare the savoy.

Butter-braised savoy cabbage

Do you hate cabbage? Try this cabbage dish. The most important thing is to avoid overcooking the savoy – like all cabbages, it becomes unpleasantly pungent and a little skunky if you let it go too long.

If you are nervous about so much butter, you can cut the amount in half. Use vegetable oil in the initial cooking.

One head savoy cabbage, cored, quartered, and shredded (1/8″)
One large leek, white and light green only, washed well cut into 2″ segments, and julienned
2 tbsp white wine (such as Riesling or Viognier)
4 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
salt and white pepper
chives, minced

Place a large skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp butter or oil. Add the leeks and reduce heat slightly. Sweat the leeks until quite tender. Increase the heat slightly and add the savoy. Toss continuously to coat with oil and leeks. When the savoy begins to wilt (about 2 minutes), add the wine and toss, cooking the wine down. Once the savoy is bright green and tender, and the wine has evaporated, remove from heat and toss with the remaining butter. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with minced chives.

Green peppercorn mustard sauce

Pan with duck fond from crisping the legs
1/3 c white wine
1 1/2 tbsp green peppercorn Dijon mustard (or Dijon mustard if unavailable)
Optional: 2 tbsp duck or white veal glace de viande
4 tbsp cold unsalted butter, divided

Remove the duck legs from the pan and drain on towels if necessary (otherwise, set aside on a plate). Pour off all but 1 tsp of duck fat. Return the pan to medium heat.

Deglaze the pan with wine, scraping up the fond. Reduce to just before au sec (a sticky glaze). Add the mustard and cook, stirring, for a minute to take the edge off the mustard. Add the glace de viande and reduce by 1/3. Remove from heat and mount with the cold butter to form a glossy sauce.

Serve the crispy confit leg with the savoy and sauce.

Crispy duck leg confit, savoy, green peppercorn mustard.