How to Cook Perfect Beef

The French call the British “les Rosbifs” and various surveys confirm that this remains our all time favourite meal.  In fact despite, or perhaps because of, BSE, Foot and Mouth disease and repeated calls for us to cut down on our meat consumption, beef seems to be more popular than ever.  I say that the dreadful crises of Foot and Mouth and BSE might actually, perversely, have contributed to the rise in popularity of beef from my own observations during the two year ban of beef on the bone.   Roast rib of beef became the most fashionable dinner party dish you could serve at that time – essential to prove that you had a trusted relationship with a good butcher, where beef on the bone could still be obtained, by those “in the know”.

Whilst good beef is expensive, a Roast Beef dinner is such a British icon that everyone should know how to cook this classic for high days and holidays and certainly for serving to foreign visitors!

Here are my tips for this and the other most frequently enjoyed beef cuts in the UK – steak and minced meat.

Traditional Roast Fore Rib of Beef

Depending on how many ribs you have in your roast, you should be able to offer your guests a choice of how well done they would like their meat – from well done on the outside to rare in the middle.  But it is well worth investing on a meat thermometer to check this, as identical weights can be quite different in size as well as ovens quite variable in their efficiency.  So whilst I can give you guidelines for how long a joint might need in the oven, a thermometer is the safest way to ensure it is cooked as you wish.

  • Remove the joint from the fridge an hour before cooking. Check the weight.  Preheat the oven to 230˚C.
  • Lightly flour and season the fat covering the joint.  The bone at the base will act as a rack.  Place the joint in a roasting tin and cook at 230˚C for 15 minutes.
  • At the end of this time turn the oven down to 180˚C and baste the joint with the fat that has already rendered.
  • Put the meat back into the oven and time the cooking from this point – 15 minutes per pound for medium beef, 12 for medium-rare, 18 for well-done and 10 for rare.
  • Insert a probe thermometer into the joint (being careful not to touch the bone).  60˚C = rare, 70˚C = medium, 75˚C = well done.  If you don’t have a thermometer you could do a rough test by inserting a skewer and holding it against the back of your hand to see how warm it feels.  Rare will feel cool, well done very hot, so medium just warm.
  • Place a sheet of foil loosely over the joint and leave it to rest in a warm place whilst you turn up the heat, make the Yorkshire Puddings and finish browning the potatoes.  After 20 minutes resting the temperature of the joint will actually have gone up a few degrees, so don’t worry about it getting cold!

The trimmings:

Yorkshire Pudding

An absolutely essential accompaniment, I can’t believe though that anyone buys these ready-made!

  • Make the mixture in advance and keep it in the fridge (a cold batter will rise better when put into the fridge).
  • A light flour is important, this is one occasion when industrial roller-milled white flour is actually preferable to stone ground.  Take the trouble to sift into the mixing bowl.  100g will make 6 or 7 large individual puddings, more if they are small.
  • Add a pinch of salt and then break 2 small to medium eggs into the centre.
  • If you have full-cream milk it will need watering down for this recipe, or use semi-skinned. A total of 140 ml of liquid will be about right for 100 g of flour, if the milk is full-cream use about 100ml of milk and top it up with water.
  • Begin whisking the eggs into the flour and gradually add the milk as you bring flour form the outside of the bowl to the centre.  Keep whisking until all of the liquid is incorporated and the batter is quite smooth.
  • When the meat comes out of the oven to rest, turn the oven temperature up to 220˚C.  Put a little bit of beef fat into each container and put into the oven.
  • As soon as the oven reaches temperature, put the hot tin on top of the cooker and pour in batter to no more than two-thirds full.
  • Return the trays to the oven for 10-15 minutes for small puddings, 15-20 for larger individual ones.

Gravy

This is another task to complete whilst the meat is resting.

  • Roasting vegetables, especially onions or shallots, around the meat produces a lovely caramelisation that helps with browning the gravy.  Depending on the size of the onions, add these to the pan about 45 minutes before the meat is cooked.
  • Remove the meat to a warmed carving tray for resting, and the vegetables to keep warm or continue cooking, then pour off all the fat into a dish – some can go straight into the Yorkshire Pudding tins.
  • Sprinkle a level tablespoonful of plain flour over the surface of the roasting tin and place it directly on the hob.  Stir with a wooden spatula for a minute, and then add a glassful of red wine.  Stir this around the tin to lift off all the caramelised deposits and then mix with the flour to make a smooth paste.
  • Now gradually add homemade beef stock – stirring as you go.  Depending on how thin you like your gravy, you will need between a pint and a litre.
  • Strain the stock through a sieve into a jug for serving – that will get rid of any lumps or burnt debris!
  • For notes on making stock, which you absolutely must do with the leftover bones from this joint, see here.

Horseradish Sauce

I will excuse you making this if you promise to buy a very good one, as fresh horseradish root is not readily available unless you grow your own.   For those that do, this is how to use it:

  • Freshly grated horseradish will irritate your eyes beyond belief.  The best was to do this is to use a food processor so that the fumes are contained, but failing that peel and finely grate the root under water.
  • Grated horseradish can then be stored in a jar, covered with white wine vinegar to which a teaspoonful of salt has been added.
  • If going straight to making your horseradish sauce, all you need to do is mix the grated horseradish with soured cream.  I find crème fraîche a little too thick, although many people like this, so I sour ordinary double cream with a little white wine vinegar (from the jar if the horseradish has been preserved this way).  Add salt and pepper taste.

Beef Dripping

After the expense of the joint you might have to live on Dripping on Toast for the rest of the week but that would be no hardship!  It is amazing how many young people turn their nose up at the very idea yet they happily spread their toast with butter and might even have eaten the Italian speciality Lardo.  Beef dripping is wonderful spread on toast, sprinkled with salt and perhaps some chopped herbs – sage or thyme.  At least give it a go! Beef dripping sets very firm and so can easily be lifted from any meat juices.  The fat can then be kept in the fridge and used to cook beef in future recipes.  I know many people from the North would disagree – but I don’t think beef fat is very good for frying.  The best roast potatoes are made with goose fat and I deep fry in sunflower oil.

How to cook the perfect steak

Which cut?

The Ginger Pig Meat Book has a lovely section to enable you to find out which steak suits you best, categorised by such tongue-in-cheek descriptions as “Sirloin – the City Boy or Snob’s steak”.  Each is then followed by helpful information about where exactly on the animal each cut comes from and how each ranks on the tenderness v. flavour continuum.  In addition to the well known cuts – Fillet, Sirloin, Rib-eye and Rump, in order from the most to least tender (Rump requires a longer hanging period than the other cuts to make it tender) I draw your attention to some lesser known (and therefore far more reasonably priced) cuts that are suitable for cooking as a steak.

The first of these is usually called the Point Steak, or sometimes the Rump End.  It comes from the thin, pointed end of the rump, where it joins the sirloin.  Its triangular shape does not make for the easiest even cooking, but it has all the flavour of the rump with the tenderness of the sirloin.

Then there are a range of cuts that come from joints that you would not normally associate with steak, however, when cooked rare, they can be served and enjoyed in exactly the same way as the premium cuts.  Notes however, that once cooked beyond a quick sear they need long slow cooking to render them tender again.  The first of these is called the Feather Blade – it has a piece of fat running through the centre, from which the fibres of the meat feather out.  It comes from the shoulder blade.  Then there is the Goose Skirt or Bavette – it is by its French name that it is often served in restaurants.  It is a flat sheet of meat, from the inner flank at the bottom of the diaphragm.  Another cut that is popular in France but less known here is Onglet.  This is a large, fillet shaped piece from the centre of the animal, next to the diaphragm but at the other end to the Goose Skirt.  Because of its size it is often carefully cut into and opened out flat.  Best served thinly sliced.

With these lesser known steaks you usually buy the whole cut, whilst the prime steaks cuts should be cut to order.  The key thing here is to make sure they are cut thick enough.  This means about an inch and a half (4cm) thick.  If you skimp on this you will find it very difficult to cook the steak any other way than well-done as by the time you have a good crust on both sides it will be cooked through to the middle.

Cooking:

  • Take the meat out of the fridge an hour before cooking to let it come to room temperature. Dry the surface with kitchen paper.
  • Heat a barbeque, cast iron skillet or griddle until they are “white hot” (this phrase refers to the embers, but it is useful to remember when you are cooking indoors – you should not be able to hold your hand anywhere near the surface of the pan.  NB A proper barbeque will take longer than the hour you needed to get the steak to room temperature to reach “white hot” – a cast iron pan or griddle will take about half of this time on a steady medium heat.  Don’t just whack the heat up high immediately before you want to cook.
  • Don’t oil to the pan or the steak.  As long as it is placed over a hot enough heat, the surface will seal immediately and not stick.  The oil will only smoke.  I once cooked a steak on a griddle in a flat.  The skylight was wide open above the cooker to let the inevitable smoke out.  Within minutes, much to my chagrin, a fire engine arrived – thankfully I had not been the cause!
  • Season the steak with pepper, but not salt as this will draw the juices.
  • Put the steak down onto cooking surface and after 30 seconds turn it over.  If you had the heat high enough a crust should have formed on both sides.  This might be all that is needed for really rare steak (especially the internal cuts).  You can season the meat with salt now that the crust has formed.
  • If you want your steak cooked more than this, continue flipping the steak every 30 seconds each side.  This keeps the cooking even.
  • It is impossible to give exact timings because this depends on the thickness of your steak and the temperature at which it is being cooked.  But a rare steak will still feel very soft and fleshy, whilst by the time it is medium rare there will be some resistance when it is touched.  Remember that the steak will go on cooking a little when it is rested.
  • Turn the steak onto its edge to brown the fat.  It is best to prop it like this with tongs, at the edge of the barbeque or somewhere where the flesh will no longer be in contact with the heat.
  • The steak needs to rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.  If it was cooked for longer than this, let it rest for an equal length to the cooking time.  This resting is essential to let the muscles relax again after they have contracted with the heat.
  • Use good sharp steak knives.

How to Cook Minced Beef

From the luxury of steak to the everyday minced beef.  I have chosen this because it is the most popular way of buying beef, I bet most families make something with it every week!  This is good for the farmer and butcher too as it uses meat from parts that might not be ordered in their original form.  There are, of course, differences in the quality of minced beef, but I am assuming that we are looking at good quality pasture reared meat.  The biggest mistake that people make when cooking minced beef is to assume that it is quick to cook.  That, after all, is why so many choose it for a weekday meal.  I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people saying they are going to make a quick Spaghetti Bolognese when they get home from work.  They think the meat can be cooked in the same time as the spaghetti.  Wrong!  A good Ragù as the Bolognese meat sauce is called in Italy takes a good 3 hours to make properly, but don’t let that put you off.  It is definitely a sauce worth making in quantity and freezing in smaller amounts for future meals.  The same sauce is used in Lasagne, and could be used in a Cottage Pie, although I prefer to make this with leftover cold meat from a roast.  The principles can also be applied to Chilli con Carne (although with different flavourings), so master the slower cooking and numerous dishes will be greatly enhanced.

The reason minced beef responds best to slow cooking is that the cuts it contains are usually of the “stewing” type  – just minced up small.  Although the initial stage is to brown all of the separate strands, quickly and in a large frying pan, and the browned meat may indeed no longer be raw in side, this needs to be followed by long, slow cooking to make the dish meltingly tender and to allow all the flavours to mingle and marry together.

Here is my recipe for Ragù – in Italy it is usually made with more than one meat, often minced pork.  This gives a greater depth of flavour, but is not essential.  One further tip if you intend to serve this with pasta – choose a flat ribbon shape of egg pasta, Tagliatelle is the one that they would use in Bologna.  Spaghetti Bolognese came into being in the UK in the days when this was the only long pasta you could buy here, but the sauce falls of the round strands, instead of being wrapped in them as happens with Tagliatelle as you twist it around your fork.  The egg pasta also echoes the richness of the sauce.

Ragù (Bolognese Sauce) Best made a day in advance

1 lb minced beef

½ lb minced pork (or good sausage meat) (or make up with diced bacon/chicken livers)

1 large onion

1 stick of celery

1 carrot

2 mushrooms

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

1 wineglass of white wine

1 tin of tomatoes

¼ pint beef stock (or water)

bay leaf

salt and pepper

Begin by gently cooking the finely chopped onion, celery, carrot and mushroom in olive oil in the pan in which you intend to make the sauce. (A heavy based cast iron casserole is best).

Meanwhile, heat just enough olive oil in a frying pan to prevent the meat sticking. The meat has its own fat, which you will release as you cook.

Fry the meat in small batches, so there is enough room to keep stirring and breaking up any lumps and so that the heat in the pan doesn’t drop and cause the meat to steam rather than brown.  Season each batch with salt and pepper.  As each batch is browned drain off the excess fat and add the meat to the vegetables.  The finely chopped garlic can now also be added.

When all of the meat has been browned, pour on the wine and let it bubble away before adding the tomatoes and stock.  When the liquid begins to simmer, add a bay leaf, cover and cook, very gently, for 3 hours.  You can if you wish, transfer the pot to the oven for this stage of the cooking.  Check the liquid level every now and again and add more water or stock if it is drying out.

3 thoughts on “How to Cook Perfect Beef

  1. Suzanne
    Apart from the fact that you give excellent recipes and advice, may I just say that it is an absolute pleasure reading your prose. I may be an old grammar “Nazi” as my children would have it, but I cannot help it. So when I read your recipes I want to do things your way all the more so – simply because you write my way.
    Happy Christmas!

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