Back to basics with beef
Ireland can boast some of the best beef in the world with our gentle climate and subsequent grass-fed production system. Here, we take a closer look at this key ingredient, which is at the heart of Irish farming
Good beef is hard to beat. Everybody has their preferences when it comes to cuts and cooking methods but, if you are a meat eater, most will agree that beef dishes are a treat, whether it be a fillet steak, a housekeeper’s roast or a family-friendly stew. And here in Ireland we are lucky enough to have access to some of the best beef in the world, farmed predominantly on a grass-fed system which not only offers great quality eating but is also proven to provide health benefits. Grass-fed beef has higher levels of vitamin E and beta-carotene compared to grain-fed beef and it also has a higher ratio of omega 3 fatty acids and CLAs, which have been linked to health benefits such as lower cholesterol and reduced cancer risks.
One of the most well respected authorities on the subject of Irish beef is Pat Whelan, a fifth generation craft butcher who is also the coauthor (with Katy McGuinness) of The Irish Beef Book – a must-have addition to any meat lover’s recipe book collection. Talking to FOOD&WINE Magazine about his favourite subject, he is passionate about respecting the animal and ensuring that the consumer develops a relationship with their local butcher. “There is no such thing as a cheap cut. There is nothing cheap about any animal – they have paid the ultimate price so there is an onus on us to utilise every piece of the meat. We should look at it in a respectful way and celebrate and rediscover how to treat different elements of the carcass. In an ideal world, I think there would be a democratisation of cuts and they would all cost the same. For example, people don’t consider oxtail, however, an oxtail lasagne cooked really slow is full of unctuous meat – it’s a taste sensation.
So what should the consumer be looking out for when buying beef? “I look for nice creamy colour in the fat which is a good indicator that the animal has been finished well – fat is a natural barrier that protects the muscle from bacteria. The meat should be solid to the touch and ruby red, not bright pink or dark red. It’s a visual thing for me. I love meat on the bone – untreated and as close to the carcass form as possible. My favourite cut at the moment though is beef cheek – I love that rich, gelatinous meat that, when cooked slowly, is almost like stewed meat but has so much more texture. The best investment you can make when cooking beef is to buy a digital thermometer: buying a joint of beef for a Sunday roast is a considerable purchase and a digital thermometer can ensure the outcome is sensational.”
As Pat Whelan outlines, every cut of beef can be appreciated if produced, butchered and then cooked properly. Some of our most flavoursome cuts of beef – such as shin, cheek and tail – are ignored in favour of traditionally expensive cuts, such as fillet and sirloin, and are commonly used for mince. But while these cuts do make excellent mince, they also offer a fantastic taste experience if cooked slowly, allowing the bones and fat to keep them moist and taking advantage of the broth from these hard-working cuts, which offer real depth of flavour. Here we take a look at some common cuts you will find in your butchers:
- Neck/chuck/shoulder Usually used for stewing, slow cooking, braising, or pot roasting, this cut is also popular for use as ground beef as it offers a richness of flavour and a good balance of meat and fat.
- Rib of beef One of the best roasting joints of all, this cut offers lots of fat marbled through the flesh, which ensures the meat stays tender during cooking. The steaks cut from the forerib are referred to as rib-eye steaks.
- Striploin The striploin – cut from the strip loin part of the sirloin – is a piece of a muscle that does little work and is therefore particularly tender. It is also a large muscle so you can roast it in one piece or cut into steaks.
- Fillet One of the more expensive cuts of meat, the fillet is tender and lean, prime for grilling or frying. It is taken from the smaller end of the tenderloin of the beef carcass. In French, this cut can also be called filet de boeuf – filet mignon on menus in France generally refers to pork rather than beef.
- Sirloin The sirloin is a prime cut of beef from the back of the animal. It is sold as roasting joints, either on or off the bone, and as sirloin steaks. It is ideal for roasting and barbecuing.
- Topside and silverside Both taken from the hindquarter, topside is lean and very tender and is great thinly sliced and stir fried. Silverside is slightly tougher than topside and is often used to make corned beef. Topside and silverside are often sold rolled with a sheet of fat around them to stop the meat from drying out.
- Flank/bavette Often marinated or braised, it can also be thinly cut and shallow fried. It is less tender than fillet but much less expensive and often overlooked by those in search of a piece of steak to grill.
- Brisket Taken from the belly and rolled into a joint, this is ideal for slow roasting, or pot roasting to achieve real melt-in-the-mouth results.
- Diced shin Shin comes from the foreleg and is usually bought in medallions with the bone in or out. Perfect for stews, ensure a long, slow cooking time.
- Housekeeper ’s cut/top rib A traditional Irish favourite, this is cut from the shoulder of beef and is perfect for roasting or braising and offers excellent flavour.
Gate to plate
Erik Robson from Ely sources most of his beef from his father’s farm in the Burren, County Clare. Here, he offers some of his own tips and tricks when it comes to choosing beef.
“Since 1999, we have bought all our organic beef from my dad’s organic farm in the Burren, County Clare. They hand-rear an Aberdeen Angus crossherd and we select 30-month heifers, which we hang and butcher ourselves. We hang the beef in the Italian style of rib, short sirloin and fillet all in the one piece, dry ageing for a full 28 days. All our prime cuts of organic beef go to Ely Wine Bar and the three Ely restaurants use organic beef burgers. Given the demands of the three Ely venues, the farm can’t produce enough organic beef so we also source conventional beef from Trim in County Meath and use the very same criteria as for our organic beef.
“The farm is in the Burren, a unique geographic area of some a hundred square miles in north County Clare. A landscape left behind by the last ice-age and farmed for some 6,000 years, it is traditionally an area that produces weanlings, ie. young beef cattle, sold in the autumn to farmers in the more luxurious parts of Ireland, ie. Tipp, Cork, Meath, etc. However, we have been finishing our animals here for over 20 years. Calving in the spring, the cows and calves graze good pasture and, weather permitting, the herb rich ‘bog’. Come autumn, the calves are weaned and housed while the cows are put up on the rocky mountains where, due to our geographical location, the summer warmth of the north Atlantic drift has been stored within its rock, allowing a continuous growth during the winter months. To the best of our knowledge, this method of farming is unique to the Burren. The end result is prime organic Irish beef with true provenance.”
Did you know?
- Beef is the third most widely consumed meat in the world, accounting for about 25 per cent of meat production worldwide, after pork and poultry.
- In absolute numbers, the United States, Brazil, and the People’s Republic of China are the world’s three largest consumers of beef.
- McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of Irish beef by volume every year, purchasing 40,000 tonnes of beef, which is then exported to other European markets.
Erik’s Top Tips
Erik Robson from Ely offers his top tips when buying beef
- I always look for marbling, even in my fillet, and it’s a huge indication of the flavour potential of the cut.
- I hate to see the fat trimmed off as it’s another massive contributor to flavour: remember, you don’t have to eat it and feel free to trim it off after cooking but do cook with it on.
- A really handy tool when cooking steaks is a pair of tongs, great for reaching in and turning the meat and avoiding burns.
- Beef is so much more than just steaks – slow cooking off-cuts, casseroles and stews, soups and sandwiches are all part of what beef has to offer and I particularly love oxtail.
- Don’t be afraid to cook the meat a little rarer than you are used to. The return in flavour and texture for a little less cooking is definitely worth it.
- Ask for beef that has been hung for a good period of time and you won’t get the red juices that can put some people off. Letting it sit for a few minutes after cooking also helps