When our blog boss proposed this recipe, I thought “Ahh, what is ‘braised’?”
Google to the rescue and not only have I learnt that braising is just a fancy word for a technique I’d already been using, but I ended up down a history research rabbit hole. As one does…
Basically to braise a piece of meat, you fry it in a pan to brown the outsides, then fill the pan with stock and cook in the oven for a long period. It’s essentially somewhere between a roast and a stew.
And it’s one of the oldest methods for cooking meat that food historians have discovered. Of course, at first, people burnt meat over an open fire which killed bacteria, made it tasty and easier to chew. Early humans didn’t know about bacteria, which were first sighted under a microscope by Anton Van Leeuwenhoek in the 1670s, but they did discover that burning meat made you less likely to get sick when you ate it. The downside was that the meat was still fairly tough. They then discovered that slow cooking in liquid softened the meat.
In the earliest days of human agriculture, domestic animals weren’t always kept specifically for eating. Oxen were kept to plough fields, sheep for wool, cows and goats for milk and chickens for eggs. Humans, of course, have always eaten meat – it’s just the source that differs. And meat, back then, was sourced from old animals. Animals that had suffered an accident and died, or that had outlived their usefulness. An old farmer’s saying on these lines is “You can shear a sheep every year, but you can only eat it once”. Meat from old animals tends to be tougher than meat from young animals, so humans had to cook it in a way that softened it, so they could chew it. It wasn’t until much later that the rich landowners could keep animals just for eating; and their poor tenant farmers still operated on this original method. And worse, the aristocrats often owned the animals too, so the tenant farmers were only given the leftovers that the big house didn’t want. It’s the origins of the Baa Baa Black Sheep rhyme – one for the master, one for the dame (Queen Victoria), and one for the little guy who lived down the lane (the tenant farmer who did all the work). And people complain about taxes now! Of course, now people are all relatively richer than then, and our society breeds animals specifically for eating. This means that we eat them as young animals (before the age of three, depending on the animal), and they are tender enough to cope with all different styles of cooking. Ironically, it is expensive to buy an older animal now, as they have to be grown and sustained by the farmer for longer. Especially as the farmer has mechanical equipment to help him, and doesn’t need to use his cattle to plough fields, so the cattle live a life of luxury in a paddock, simply growing nice and big and healthy.
I mentioned at the top that this recipe combines two ancient cooking methods. The other is beer. Beer is one of the oldest recipes known to food historians, with records back to 6,000BC. A 3,900 year-old Sumerian poem is the oldest known beer recipe; and chemical tests on ancient pottery jars dates the production of beer to even earlier times. Some historians even argue that the invention of beer and bread, via the use of yeast, is responsible for humanity’s ability to create technology and society.
The combination of beef braised in beer is a trifecta of pleasing aromas, improved taste and is easy to chew.
Beer Braised Beef
- 1.4kg of beef (Any cut is fine, and a cheap cut works well here as the process softens all the sinew, so don’t splash out on the top shelf. Go cheap).
- Cayenne pepper (optional if you like a bit of heat)
- Olive oil
- 4 Onions
Rub the beef with salt, pepper and ground cayenne pepper. Splash olive oil in the base of your roasting dish and place it on the stove over a high heat. Sear the beef on each side, then remove from the roasting dish. Add chopped onions, garlic, thyme and rosemary to the dish, and cook for a minute or two. Pour the beer into the dish. Place the beef back in, put the lid on and place in the oven for four hours at a low heat (150oC) until the meat is very soft. It should fall apart when you stab it with a fork. It will not require cutting with a knife.
With the braised juice, you can simply spoon the onion mixture over the top. Or you can use it to make gravy. I also served it with a potato salad, peas and a couple of slices of bread that I pan fried.