A quarter of a cow is a huge amount of meat, as we discovered when we bought one from my farmer brother-in-law. As a result, we ended up eating a lot of beef for an awfully long time, which led us to research the various cuts and what we could do with them; after all, there are only so many plain steaks and roasting joints you can eat before the appeal of even the finest grass-fed Welsh beef starts to pale…
Visit our beef recipes section for cooking ideas
The different cuts of beef
As with pork, the most tender cuts come from the part of the cow that does the least work. So the fillet, which comes from under the backbone or spine, is almost fat-free and very, very tender.
The shin, on the other hand, does an awful lot of work moving the cow around, so it is much tougher. This means that while you can flash fry a fillet steak and serve it rare, the shin will need long, slow cooking over a matter of hours to make it tender enough to enjoy.
Beef can obviously be served pink in the middle, so something like a rib roast can be cooked very quickly indeed. Just make sure you leave enough time for it to rest covered in foil for half-an-hour to let the juices redistribute themselves before carving.
The resting period frees up the oven for you to make a batch of James Martin’s Yorkshire pudding recipe, which are well worth the investment of so many eggs.
The secret to successful carving is a really sharp knife. I’ve tried everything and have found that this knife sharpener from Ray Mears gives me all the sharpness I need for 10% of the effort of using a more complex system. I finish by stropping the edge of the carving knife on the back of an old leather belt; 20-30 strops gives a razor sharp edge.
Other than that just take your time and remember to cut across the grain of the meat if you can, which leads to slices comprising short fibres that break up easily in the mouth, making the meat taste super-tender.
Find out how to sharpen a knife
Pastrami is cured beef that has been smoked and cooked, making it the beef equivalent of bacon. Corned beef, on the other hand, is the original cured beef and is infinitely superior to the horrible stuff you can buy in a can.
The following recipe is based on the one in Curing and Smoking by James and Dick Strawbridge (highly recommended if you’re interested in learning more about either subject): Simply place a 1kg rolled brisket joint into a curing liquid comprising 4 litres of cold water, 400g of salt, 200g of sugar, two bay leaves and two peeled cloves of garlic. Boil the water and ingredients together to dissolve them and leave it to go completely cold before adding the beef.
Leave to cure in the fridge for seven days, turning daily. Then rinse and boil for 3-4 hours, before either serving it hot with cabbage and mashed potatoes or leaving it to cool before slicing thinly for sandwiches.
Steaks, and how to cook them
I like ribeye steak, although if your priority is tenderness rather than taste then the fillet is the one to go for. No matter which cut you choose, you want to take your steak out of the fridge an hour or so before you start cooking to bring it up to room temperature.
Then get your griddle pan smoking hot before placing the seasoned steak face down on it. Leave it alone for two minutes to let a crust develop. Turn it over and cook for another two minutes. Now add a large dollop of butter and continue turning and basting the steak every minute until it is done to your liking. The exact timing depends on the thickness of the steak, but 6-8 minutes in total will normally give a rare steak, while 8-10 minutes will give you a medium.
Remove from the heat and place on a warm plate and cover with tin foil. Leave to rest for 5-10 minutes and then serve, pouring over the juices that will have collected on the plate.
Fillet steak with Stilton and cranberries
Steaks with blue cheese sauce
Steak and beetroot sandwich
Beef, broad bean and spinach salad
Sirloin steak with a creamy brandy sauce
BBQ steak tagliata
Good minced beef will have about 10-20% fat in it, but hardly any gristle or cartilage. The really cheap stuff (the same goes for cheap burgers and meat balls) is made from the sort of bits of cow that would turn your stomach, so it’s worth paying extra for high-quality beef that you can serve with a clear conscience.
As well as the standard cottage pie and spaghetti bolognese recipes, why not try making your own beef burgers? Simple squeeze the minced beef into patties - we pack them inside a large cookie cutter to get the right shape and texture - and then season the outside (the burgers will be tough and rubbery if you add the salt and pepper to the mince before you make the burgers) before frying.
Kids love making their own burgers for tea and it will give you the chance to explain the difference between a good burger and the sort of thing they’ll ask you to buy them at the circus or funfair!
Minced beef recipes
Classic American burger
Chili con carne
The really cheap cuts
Feather blade steak, oxtail, and cheek are rarely eaten here in the UK but they’re all absolutely delicious if you take the time to cook them slowly for several hours.
We refuse to buy beef stock as it is so expensive, so we normally either cook them in water to which we’ve added carrots and onions, or we simply use some homemade beer. Either way we then thicken the sauce by either boiling it down if we’ve got the time, or adding gravy granules or cornflour if we haven’t.
Recipes for cheap cuts of beef
In a recipe 'braising' or 'stewing' steak/beef refers to cheaper cuts of meat, such as chuck, leg, skirt and flank, that are often sold ready-diced and can be cooked slowly.
Oxtail stew recipe
Braised beef with star anise
Braised beef with horseradish dumplings
Greek beef stifado
Beef, beer and chestnut pie
Brisket with mushrooms and tarragon
Pot au feu
Steak and kidney puddings
It’s hard, but not impossible, to rear cows intensively, so I wouldn’t worry too much about religiously buying free-range beef. The Red Tractor mark is your sign of quality and is worth seeking out. Alternatively, your local butcher will be a good source of information on where he/she gets their beef. If they can’t tell you exactly where it is from, then you need to change butchers.
Let There Be Meat by James Douglas and Scott Munro is a barbecue book that shows just how versatile beef can be, while The River Cottage Meat Book covers all the different meats but has a very good beef section.
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