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the middle stays raw
may 1, 2008
Mary and I decided to cook a beef roast at 170 degrees.
This low-roast method supposedly reproduces the legendary Sunday beef roast our grandmothers cooked. Incredibly juicy, fork-tender, with a texture like filet mignon and a rich, heady, beefy flavor.
I scream for the perfect beef roast. Dark mahogany on the outside, pink on the inside, each slice, as it falls in slow motion away from the roast, lying on its back, hot and moist in a pool of its own red juices.
Who wouldn't want to fork that?
That perfection is difficult to achieve in a home kitchen.
Traditionally, most cookbooks suggest starting the oven at 450 degrees, sliding the roast inside, then immediately reducing the temperature to 350 degrees. The theory is that by starting at a higher temperature you sear the beef, sealing in the juices, the lower temperature allowing the bulk of the beef to slowly reach medium rare.
In practice, you often wind up with a roast that, when you slice into it, has a wide ring of overcooked beef surrounding a raw, or nearly raw, core.
Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor, came up with a method where you start, as I remember it, at 550 degrees, put in the roast, close the oven door, suggest to Pierre that perhaps he's had enough to drink, then turn off the oven. The gradually diminishing heat inside the oven is supposedly the perfect environment to produce a roast that is completely cooked-through, but still medium rare.
Except the roast rarely turns out that way (the middle stays raw.)
The 170 degree method operates on the idea that the lower the temperature you use to cook a beef roast, the more tender it will be. Why? Because beef contains connective tissues. Connective tissues are harder to chew than the actual meat between the tissues. The more connective tissues a roast has, the tougher the beef will be. Enzymes in the beef help dissolve the connective tissues as a roast cooks, thereby making the roast more tender, but enzymes' tenderizing effect only works up to 122 degrees. Above 122 degrees, whatever is left of the connective tissues is going to stay in the meat. So you keep your roast under 122 degrees for as long as possible, to give the enzymes enough time to completely dissolve the enzymes. That's really what slow-roasting is all about.
Slow roasting also allows the roast to cook under a more gentle heat, so that in theory you don't have the extremes of an over-cooked outer layer surrounding a raw inner core.
Slow-roasting beef is the way most delicatessen meat is cooked (that's why the pound of sliced roast beef you buy in a supermarket, waiting your turn, holding a paper number, is uniformly red.)
We've lost so much practical information about cooking, the past few generations.
I remember, when I was growing up, most mothers had a list of what vegetables go with what meats. If you're serving chicken, serve it with these vegetables. Don't serve it with these vegetables (the combination will cause indigestion.) Those lists, which probably go back to Colonial days, based on centuries of trial and error, are lost. Can you imagine how useful they were? (Indigestion is now epidemic in Western society.)
For social and political reasons, during the sixties there was a disconnect in the time-honored practice of passing down the art of cooking from mother to daughter. Baby boomer daughters didn't have the time for cooking lessons, they were too busy saving the world or buying pot, so the "Greatest Generation" mothers had to roast their chickens by themselves. As a consequence, when baby boomers became mothers, they had few food tips to pass on to their Generation X daughters. And as for Generation X mothers, they had virtually nothing to pass on to their own daughters. How many people today know how to bone a chicken, or repair an emulsified sauce that has broken, or create the perfect pie crust?
(If you look at pre-World War Two cook books, they rarely gave you instructions on how to cook a meal. All they did was list ingredients. It was assumed any cook would know, from the ingredients list, how to prepare the recipe (if you saw butter and flour listed together, you would know instinctively you need to prepare a béchamel at that point.) The modern cook book, where a recipe is no longer just a naming of ingredients, but instead a numbered list of instructions (do this, then do that), didn't come about until Julia Child pioneered that step-by-step method, out of necessity.)
None of this is anyone's fault. It just unfortunately happened that way. (And I refer to mothers and daughters rather than fathers and sons in the disconnect of the tradition of passing on food knowledge from generation to generation because that knowledge, on a household level, was almost always female-to-female, historically.)
I remember as a kid visiting my grandmother, and spending most of the day standing next to her at the stove, watching her slowly sauté onion slices in butter. The smell was incredibly rich. It was like watching a mystery unfold. Why was she sautéing those onions? After an hour, she filled a large, battered pot with tap water, had me help her carry it by its two handles over to the stove, then dumped in pound after pound of chicken necks and backs, some cut-up vegetables (celery, carrots, parsnips). That bubbled the whole long afternoon on a back burner, after which she strained everything, so all she had left in the pot was an incredibly rich yellow stock. She carefully dropped a whole raw chicken in that stock. As evening approached, she turned off the heat, lifted out the cooked chicken. Using her hands (she had Parkinson's by then), she pulled from the chicken long, moist strips of breast meat while they were still steaming (her fingers had had decades of exposure to kitchen heat), dropping the moist white strips into a tall mason jar, to which she added the buttery slices of onion, filling the jar with the deep yellow stock (the mason jar was for my mother, who had a head cold.) Kids are curious, so she let me taste a spoonful of the broth. Incredible. Like tasting a bright, better world.
Nobody back then thought of themselves as a gourmet. If you mentioned Carême's mother sauces to them, or even Escoffier's improvement on the mother sauces, they would have no idea what you were talking about. The three sauces that generation did know were ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard. And how to combine them.
It discourages me reading recipes in magazines like Gourmet and Bon Appetit, where they give a recipe for french fries, but then come up with a different dipping sauce for the fries, other than plain old bottled ketchup. Sauces with adobe, or soy, or ginger and garlic. Come on. Nothing's better with fries than ketchup. Everyone knows that. We don't need any more research on the issue. Spend that spare time curing cancer.
Here are some of the great, old-fashioned things you can do with the three American "mother sauces".
Humble sauces, but they're all as good today as they were one hundred years ago.
So Mary and I decided to cook a beef roast at 170 degrees.
We drive into Dallas about once a month, so Mary can get a blood stick at her cardiologist's office, to monitor her coumadin level. We use each occasion to stock up on food goodies we can't yet buy locally (like imported Greek green olives stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, preserved in olive oil rather than brine, so each olive has an ineffably mellow flavor.)
On our most recent trip, we stopped at Whole Foods, bought a boneless shoulder roast (the cut recommended in most of the 170 degree recipes.)
About a week later, we pulled the roast out of the freezer, allowed it to defrost over several days. Preheated the oven to 200 degrees. Put a skillet on a burner, no oil, and seared the roast on all sides. (The thing about cooking at 170 degrees is that the outside of the roast never gets brown, so you have to pre-brown it.)
It was unusual to be searing a beef roast at seven o'clock in the morning, both of us still sipping coffee, but hey, anything for science.
Once the roast was browned on all sides, we popped it in the oven, reduced the heat to 170 degrees.
According to the recipes we read, you should cook the roast for two and a half hours per pound.
Which we did.
Later that evening, we pulled out the roast.
With great anticipation, we cut a slice off one end.
According to the recipes, the meat should be uniformly pink inside, with an incredibly tender texture, and a strong beefy flavor.
In fact, the roast was clearly over-cooked, the meat quite dry.
We ate a few slices for dinner (we had nothing else to eat), but threw the rest of the roast out.
I failed. The day my mother would have taught me the method for cooking a perfect Sunday beef roast, I was off somewhere else, listening to Between the Buttons.
My short story "Damp" will be in the next issue of Grasslimb (coming out in August).