Equilibrium Brine, Sous-vide, and the World’s Best Roast Beef

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Beef bottom round bathed in a tallow/bone marrow mixture. Next step is the temp-controlled water bath.

I don’t take the phrase “world’s best” lightly.  I certainly don’t make the world’s best sausages, or the world’s best smoked brisket, or even the world’s best ham (although it’s close).  I do, however, make the world’s best roast beef.  At my previous job in New York, I spent untold hours obsessing over this one particular recipe.  My notebook has 41 pages of test recipes, and notes, as well as photocopied pages of cookbooks and even printed out Yelp reviews – market research as it were.  What I landed on on page 42 of that notebook is, in my estimation, the closest thing to roast beef nirvana I’ve personally attained in this life.  The relatively simple recipe scrawled on that page has the word “WOW” hastily added in the margin, in sharpie and underlined serval times.

To understand this recipe, there are a couple of core concepts we should explore first.  Nothing here is rocket science – although most of the inspiration did come from Modernist Cuisine, which even as I write this is doing its best to use it’s glacier-like weight to slowly sag-to-death my office bookcase. Basically, with a little know-how and the right equipment this is an easy enough DIY project.

Firstly, let’s start with the idea of what exactly a brine is.  Brining meat is a concept that dates back to time immemorial – meat is submerged in a salt water solution, in some cases as strong as 10% salt.  This solution soaks into the meat adding both water (for juiciness) and salt (for flavor).  Popular wisdom is that this process takes place via osmosis, which if you can’t remember from High School I won’t bother explaining – mostly because I can’t remember either.  Popular wisdom is, in this case, wrong.  As the always-astute Food Lab explains, what is actually happening is that chloride ions in the salt are denaturing the myosin proteins in the meat, loosening muscle fibers and allowing water to be better absorbed.

The idea with traditional brines is to create a super concentrated solution, submerge the meat, and retrieve it quickly before it over-absorbs the salt solution and comes out too salty.  That’s not quite exact enough for me, theres just too much room for error – you accidentally leave your meat in the brine 12 hours longer than you planned and suddenly the flavor is totally off. So I went looking for a better solution and found it in the form of the equilibrium brine. The idea here is to do the math to formulate a brine that will be exactly as salty as you’d like your final product to be, and leave it in long enough to achieve equilibrium – that is to say, so that the brine solution and the meat posses equal concentrations of salt.  Here’s how you do it:

Equilibrium Brine Procedure 
1. Weigh out the meat you’ll be brining, along with the amount of water needed to completely submerge it.  I like to brine in un-sealed cryo bags which reduce the need to fill an entire squared off container; this method usually requires an amount of water about 30-40% the weight of the meat.

2.  Once you have that total weight of the meat + water, determine your desired level of salt concentration.  Most likely you’d be looking for somewhere between 1%-2%, any less and it won’t have much effect, any more and it’ll be overly salty with a weird texture.  Multiply your total weight of meat plus water by the desired end concentration of salt, and add that weight in salt to the water, plus any spices you want to get in there.

3.  Let the meat hang out in the brine long enough to establish equilibrium.  For big roasts like I make in this recipe, I usually let it go for 5 days.  Smaller pieces don’t need as long, sometimes a little as a day for little steaks.  The beauty of this technique is it’s impossible to over-brine – just don’t let it stay in there for weeks, as the brine itself starts to get a little weird at that point.

Once you’ve got your meat fully brined, the fun really begins.  I prepare this recipe sous-vide.  French for “in a vacuum”, sous-vide entails cooking vacuum sealed meat in a temperature controlled water bath.  The idea is to eliminate the guesswork of throwing a piece of meat into a 350 degree oven and trying to pull it out at the desired temp; much like the equilibrium brine,  it takes away the possibility of over cooking.  You set your desired ending temp, drop in your product and pull it out when you’re ready.  There are tons of different devices out there, known as immersion circulators, that will produce this super accurate water bath.  I use a PolyScience, but there are cheaper options that work just as well, my favorite being the Nomiku.

Recipe for Bill’s  Sous-vide Deli Style Roast Beef:

Meat:  I use bottom round, it’s uniformly shaped and has a great beefy flavor.  It also fits on a slicer nicely.  Go for a good 4-5 pound piece, or get crazy with an entire 14 pounder.

Brine: 

Get the weight of your meat plus the weight of the water you’ll be brining in, and multiply that by 1.5%.  That’s the amount by weight of salt you want to add.  In addition to the salt I like to throw in:

1Tbl Fennel
1Tbl Whole black peppercorns
1Tbl Whole yellow mustard seed
1tsp Thyme
3 cloves garlic smashed
1/2 Yellow onion diced

1. Combine all the ingredients, stir well to make sure the salt is dissolved and brine meat for at least 5 days (less if you’re using a smaller cut)

In the Bag:

1qt rendered beef tallow
1/2 cup beef bone marrow
1/2 yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic smashed
1Tbl ground black pepper
1tsp Thyme

1. Melt the tallow and gently simmer the bone marrow in it until it’s mostly dissolved, turn off the heat and add the remaining ingredients.  Let the mixture cool down to just above room temp, stirring frequently – you want to keep it nice and liquid but not burning hot.  Add the mixture to the cryovac bag containing the brined cut of meat and seal (if you don’t have a vacuum sealer you can just add the bag to the water bath and use a binder clip to attach it to the side).

2.  Set the water bath to your desired temperature using your immersion circulator of choice, and place the meat inside once it’s up to temp. Sealed inside the bag with the tallow, bone marrow, and spices, it will essentially poach itself, sealing in all those amazingly flavorful fats and juices.  I usually do 138, as it’s nicely rare, but still done enough to slice thinly for sandwiches.

3.  Since I serve this cold out of the deli case, I immediately ice-bath it when it comes out of the water.  This cools the meat down quickly and safely and sets us up nicely for a hard, shallow sear.  If you’re thinking more of a Sunday roast type meal rather than sliced sandwich style, you can always sear it off hot out of the bag.

4.  Once the meat is fully cooled, remove it from the bag, scrap off any excess tallow,  and give it a quick, hard sear on the stove top if you have a big enough pan, or in a blazing hot oven if you don’t.  The meat is fully cooked this point, so all we’re trying to do is give the outside a gorgeous crunchy sear, anything lasting longer than 5-7 minutes is going to cook too far into your roast.

5.  Slice it up, smear on some Coleman’s mustard and enjoy what I consider to be the best roast beef you’ll ever taste.

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Nomiku doing it’s thing.

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0 Replies to “Equilibrium Brine, Sous-vide, and the World’s Best Roast Beef

  1. That’s a great question, any advice on how long to cook it for. I read the article twice looking for a hint. I’m guessing 24-36 hours, but any advice would be great since you spent so much time perfecting your results. Thanks!

  2. I was also wondering so I emailed the author and he responded so I thought I would share: I usually leave a 4-5 pound roast in the bath for 4 hours or so. I’m not looking to over tenderize it since I’m not in love with that texture, but in theory if you wanted it super tender you could go as long as overnight.

    The 4-5 days of brining was for a roast even bigger than that, something in the range of 8 or 9 pounds. What’s nice about the equilibrium brine is that you can’t really over-brine, so I would just leave it in there for as long as I could to ensure it was totally saturated. Not really scientific but it worked. I would bet a 4-5 pound roast would be totally brined in as little as 3 days, depending on how thick it is.

  3. I disagree. It does not taste like roast beef. It tastes like sous vide beef. The flavor is significantly different. Mass produced deli roast beef is prepared this way. For the deli beef, it’s been kept for a few days post browning. While not the same as accrue from oven roasting, flavors have had a chance to penetrate and it tastes a little bit like roast beef. Fresh from the oven, a browned sous does not have roast beef flavor. Another example is BBQ. I cook BBQ and with brisket the difference between a soused brisket and one that has done it’s time in the smoker is night and day. I’m not saying your recipe does not taste good. It just does not taste like roast beef. In fact it is not roast beef.

    1. I totally disagree. One of my uncles owned a German restaurant and the other a deli, both in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. They would have been proud to serve this roast beef. BTW, back in the day, delis made their roast beef in a radiant cooker using light bulbs as the source of heat, it was not roasted in the traditional sense.

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