This is a recipe that was given to me by Erik from Slagerij de Wit in de Wakkerstraat in Amsterdam. My brother is lucky enough to be living around the corner from this amazing butcher’s and put me on to them. Slagerij de Wit is one of the last butchers in Amsterdam still butchering themselves, using the whole animal to create a high-quality product. They are famous for their sausages and cured meats (their ossenworst is award-winning!) and even have their own, 100-year old smoker in the cellar of the shop! One of the great things about having a butcher around the corner like this is that you can go in and ask him for any cut you want and he’ll cut it for you. Plus, because they personally buy in the animals, they know everything about provenance, age and quality of the meat they sell. They are passionate about their products and gave us an impromptu tour of the shop, including the smoker, last time we were there.
When it comes to roast beef, he recommended a “wrong way around” method; achieve the cuisson you would like your meat to have first (blue, rare, medium etc.) by putting it in a very low oven for a long time and finish it off by browning the outside last. The big advantage of this method over the traditional way of browning first and then roasting in the oven is that you get meat that is correctly cooked throughout with a crispy brown crust.
The theory behind this is as follows: When it comes to achieving the perfect piece of roast beef it is all about the temperature of the core. What happens when you put beef in a high oven to roast, the temperature needs to penetrate the meat until it reaches the core and starts cooking this to create the cuisson.
This means that the outside of your cut is exposed to the higher temperature for a lot longer than the inside, in effect over-cooking it. This creates the triple layering of a typical roast beef: if you slice the average roast, you will see a brown crust, then a grey, overcooked layer to rare in the middle.
The greying of beef happens because the exposure to high temperatures boils the water in the meat and denaturates the proteins (just think how egg white goes from translucent to white when cooking; that is denaturating). And, as everybody should know, you do not overcook good quality beef on pain of death, so why would you overcook a good 50% of your Sunday roast if it can be avoided?
So, ideally, we want to eliminate the grey, overcooked layer and only enjoy a perfectly cooked roast; the crust and the rare bit in the middle. So, what a lot of higher-end restaurants do is vacuum pack their beef and cook it in a water bath at 54°C. This temperature is perfect to achieve the perfect rare steak, but low enough not to overcook any part of your meat. The trick is to leave it in for long enough for the temperature to reach the core, which can be measured by sticking a meat thermometer into the center of the meat. This way, the whole piece will achieve the same temperature without the outside getting too hot. Once the correct temperature has been achieved throughout, the last thing to do is to create a nice crispy brown crust by pan-frying your meat on all sides.
Now, because I am not a Michelin-starred chef, I don’t have a water-bath and sous-vide machine (I know, I really should have a word with the Urban Wildwoman) but Erik from Slagerij de Wit has the perfect tip for people like me: sit your piece of beef in an oven set as low as it will go (50°C is perfect) until the core reaches that perfect 50-54°C. Then you can take it out and because the heat has reached the center, it will retain its temperature for a while. This means you can whack up the oven, ready for your roast potatoes, vegetables, chips, whatever while the meat has a rest. Then, when everything else is done, you finish of the meat in a frying pan or skillet, brown it on all sides and serve to cries of admiration for achieving the best roast people have ever had!
So, to try this out, and because we don’t live around the corner from Slagerij de Wit we went to the Watnall Farm Shop to get some very nice beef. This was only going to be for the 2 of us, so we got a 1 rib-width piece of sirloin, bone in, weighing about 1.2 kg.
It had been dry-aged for 4 weeks, and you can see the side that had been exposed had turned very dark with age and started to dry out. It smelled amazing, good enough to eat raw. The smell of properly hung and aged beef is something special and makes your mouth water!
It then went into the oven at 50°C for 2 hours, after which the core temperature had reached 52° (see the thermometer punctures in the middle), perfect for the blue to rare piece of meat.
I increased the temperature of the oven, put the chips in, made a nice rocket, tomato and parmesan salad with pumpkin seeds and balsamico dressing and put my skillet on a high heat with some of the beef fat for frying. Fried the piece on all sides, put it on a board and sliced it. Nice big blob of mustard on the side, oh my…
The beef was so good, so succulent, so flavourful and tender that we almost finished of the whole 1.2 kg on the night. We had to force ourselves to stop eating or we would have exploded.
So, with this technique we will be able to achieve the perfect piece of beef everytime. The only thing that varies is the time it will take in the oven, but the principle applies to any size piece.