I like to braise a big piece of meat at the weekends. The smell of braising meat makes the kitchen a welcoming place to hang out, and it generates the sort of leftovers that can be very easily turned into quick after-work meals.
I love Jenny Rosenstrach’s Pork Shoulder Ragu, but this weekend I decided to do beef for a change. I asked the butcher for brisket, but they suggested it was probably too fatty for braising and proposed blade instead. And that was a great suggestion. (I bought my blade roast from the superb HG Walter in Barons Court – just the sort of place that will give you helpful advice about a good cut for braising.)
The blade roast – although I wasn’t sure when I bought it – is a cut from the shoulder. You will sometimes see beef braising meat as ‘chuck and blade’ – chuck being the other part of the shoulder. The really distinctive thing about the blade, also called the feather blade, is a central vein of connective tissue, from which radiates veins of fat, looking like a feather running through the centre of the meat. You can cut either side of this tough central vein to create flatiron steaks, or cut across for feather blade steaks. I didn’t take a picture of the meat before I started cooking, but you can see photos of what the blade steaks look like here.
Or you can do as I did, and as advised by the many, many website recipes I visited on the way home, and pot roast it until that central vein dissolves into unctuous jelly.
(I particularly liked the look of Molly Steven’s recipe for beef braised in Zinfandel).
The braising liquid could have been wine, or just stock, but I chose a dark ale – a Bath Ale stout – along with beef stock. I could also have added tomatoes to the sauce to create a more pasta-like ragu in the end, but wanted to keep the flavours cleaner, and didn’t think that the bitter of the stout plus the acid of the tomatoes would work well together.
For the stock, I used a puck of concentrated beef stock from the freezer, that I’d made when I bought beef bones last, and added to it the concentrated chicken stock that was leftover in the fridge.
Lastly, I made a couple of short videos of some the key steps – it’s a bit of an experiment.
Braised blade of beef
- 1 blade roast of beef (or other beef shoulder joint), about 1.8kg
- 2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
- 1 leek, washed, halved lengthwise and chopped into thick slices
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped into chunks
- (a stick of celery, chopped, if you have it)
- 500ml dark ale or stout
- 500ml beef stock
- about 1 tsp each of thyme, rosemary and sage
- 2 bay leaves
Tie up the beef – putting three strings around it to keep it neat and together, make it easier to turn while browning, and help it to fit into the pot. Then sprinkle with coarse salt to get a good bit of seasoning.
Heat a casserole dish big enough to take the beef – I used my 7 litre oval Le Creuset – and add a few teaspoons of olive oil. I didn’t add much more, as the beef already had a cap of fat on the top of the meat. Place the beef (fat side down) into the hot pot and let it sit and brown in the pot while you prepare the veg. You want to leave it for at least three or four minutes on a high heat for each side, to make sure you get a good brown crust. That will create lots of flavour in the final dish.
Meanwhile prepare the vegetables, and gather the herbs, pausing to check the meat every now and then. These are all stock vegetables, there to flavour the braising liquid and to provide a trivet to keep the beef off the bottom of the pot. Once the cooking is done, most of the flavour will have come out and into the liquid, so the veg can be discarded. So don’t spend too long getting the pieces neat and pretty.
Once everything is browned nicely, the beef comes out onto a plate, and the veg go into the pot and start to soften.
As the water comes out of the veg, it will, along with some judicious scraping, start to dissolve the sticky meaty juices on the bottom of the pot that are crucial to the flavour. After stirring veg around a little, put the lid on the pot for a few minutes to encourage more of the juices from the vegetables and to make sure that all of the sticky meat lifts from the base of the pot. (Giving the vegetables time to soften and cook a little in the fat has another benefit – it produces different flavours than you create by submerging the veg directly into the liquid. It allows sugars and other compounds to be generated in the high-heat possible by cooking in a little fat. As soon as we add the liquid, the maximum temperature will drop right down to 100C or thereabouts.)
Once you’ve developed lots of good flavours on the beef and the vegetables, it’s time to add the liquid and the rest of the flavours. First, add the stout or ale to the vegetables, stir to get up any last sticky parts, and then simmer until it’s reduced by about a third. This boils off a bit of the alcohol, and concentrates the flavours a bit.
Add the beef back to the pot, along with any juices from the plate, and finally add in the herbs and the stock, and a good bit of seasoning (if your stock wasn’t seasoned, you’ll probably need at least a couple of teaspoons of salt – taste to check).
Cover the pot with greaseproof paper (which helps to seal the pot and also makes it easier to clean up the lid afterwards!) and put into a 140C oven for 4 hours. After 30 minutes to an hour, check on the dish, and if it’s bubbling very rapidly, turn it down another 10 degrees. When done, the meat should pull apart with a fork.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool for an hour or so in the liquid. This allows the meat to rest and reabsorb some of the juices. Remove the meat into a dish to be carved. Strain the liquid to remove the vegetables and herbs, and skim off the fat (I like to use a fat-separating jug for this. Reheat the liquid and taste for seasoning. Serve thick slices of the braised meat with the strained braising liquid.
Bonus leftovers tip: Reheat chunks of the cold meat with a couple of spoonfuls of the braising liquid (which will form a jelly in the fridge) and a splash of tomato sauce for an almost-instant beef ragu sauce for pasta.