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Steaming vs. boiling smoked meat (split from Ontario)

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Just finished dinner not too long ago - the Goldin's brisket flat was definitely a little saltier than the point (aka deckle)... I wonder if it's because the fat does not absorb as much salt as the meat does...? Anyways, it was still delicious. I found the flat a little spicier, heat-wise, than the point. Of course, as it was a lot less fatty than the point, it was also a lot drier. That's not to say that it was a dry piece of brisket. On the contrary, it was as moist as such a lean piece of meat could be... After following Goldin's instructions regarding boiling his brisket in the vacuum seal bag for three hours, I can't help but wonder: is this a better technique than steaming the meat? I poured almost exactly a cup of liquid out of the vacuum seal bag after the three hour period, and I couldn't help but think that if I were to have steamed the brisket, that it would not have lost as much liquid. I will email Goldin to ask why he recommends this technique rather than steaming, but until then, does anybody have any opinions on this matter?

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  1. Steaming would sweat out a lot of fluid, maybe just as much as simmering, dropping it into the water.

    Sous vide would keep almost all of the moisture in the meat, but might take 7 or 8 hours at 160 F.

    2 Replies
    1. re: jayt90

      I don't think it's likely that I will be doing my own briskets sous vide (at least not until I splurge on an immersion circulator), but do you think that steaming the meat will cause as much moisture loss as simmering it for the same amount of time in its vacuum seal bag? I'm not sure when you say "simmering, dropping it into the water", you mean within a bag, or not...

      1. re: redearth

        I don't think there is a lot of difference, but this question needs an answer from embee, who really understands these subtleties.

    2. My own experience with briskets is that a raw brisket typically loses half its weight when cooked. When I make a pastrami, I dry cure the meat for around 3 weeks (depending on thickness and uniformity - sometimes less time; sometimes more) and then smoke it for about 3 hours.

      Then I rinse it many times and let it become very dry (a coating forms on the entire surface). From this point, I have variously baked it in a tightly foil covered pan, steamed it, and various combinations thereof, and have also cooked it sous vide.

      With my own meat, going sous vide (with a perfect vacuum seal) from start to finish does not throw off very much liquid inside the bag. A cup of liquid in the sealed bag is surprising.

      Baking (which also involves steaming, given the covered pan) seems to throw off even less. This isn't intuitive, but it's reasonable to assume that liquid is evaporating from the pan, since the seal isn't perfect.

      Boiling it in the bag IS sous vide cooking. I wouldn't actually boil it in the bag - I'd hold it at just under a simmer. This would be roughly the final temperature you want. However, your meat will be spending very little time in the enzymatic tenderizing range. You will be going rapidly to the temperature where collagen becomes gelatin. I believe (I'm not certain here) that this rapid temperature increase is what causes brisket to come out soft, but also dried out.

      I would never put the brisket directly into the water. You would then be making a braised pot roast, or even boiled beef, and diverting flavour from the meat into the liquid. This is a fine way to cook a corned beef, but it (at least, in my opinion) ruins your pastrami/smoked meat, where you want a strong flavour hit. You will get washed out meat and a (possibly nice) soup.

      Which brings us to steaming. I wish I could give you an authoritative answer, but I can't. Steaming rehydrates dry meat. That's why it's the best method to use when you are heating the meat to serve.

      I never tried to measure how much liquid the meat throws off when steamed from start to finish. The number of variables make this more of a science experiment than just fun cooking. There's the start and finish meat weight. But I don't know how you would differentiate among the original water, liquid exuded from the meat, losses through evaporation, and moisture absorbed by the meat from the steam.

      I checked Howard McGee's book, but he doesn't address this directly. He does, however, describe why steaming is the most efficient way to bring food to boiling temperature. Based on his description, steaming the raw meat would quickly heat the meat to 212 F, which would likely yield tender but dry meat.

      13 Replies
      1. re: embee

        Thanks for your thoughts, embee. I'm trying out my first smoked meat batch of the year tomorrow, and I'm still sitting on the fence as to whether to steam it or simmer it in the vacuum seal bags. Because of how low maintenance it is (not to mention almost zero clean up), I'm leaning towards the sous vide technique. I do have three points and six half-flats, so I can certainly try steaming later... I guess I just made my mind up. I'll let you know how the meat turns out!

        Incidentally, Goldin's response was: "Your question about steaming vs. boiling is an interesting one. Initially we used to just steam the meat, but then, when we considered the vacuum sealing, it made so much sense to boil it in the bag. It is more convenient, it smells less and requires less attention on the stove.

        My theory is that you lose as much water when you steam it as boiling, but the steam puts some water back in the brisket.

        In any case, we have decided to do an experiment this weekend and take one piece, divide it, boil one in the bag and steam the other. I will report my findings to you after careful analysis."

        One more thought, embee, regarding sous vide cooking: when you say that the brisket "will be spending very little time in the enzymatic tenderizing range", do you think that starting the bags of brisket in cool water and bringing it up to temperature slowly would make any difference?

        1. re: redearth

          Theoretically, this would be a good thing. You need to bring the meat slowly to a temperature of around 115 F and then hold it there for a few hours. Then you need to bring it slowly into the collagen melting range and hold it there. The slow, incremental increases are supposed to prevent the meat from drying out. I haven't tried this often enough to prove or disprove it.

          The important aspect that I can vouch for is that you need to HOLD it in the enzymatic range, which isn't easy to do when you are cooking in water on a stove. When I smoke a 6-7 pound BBQ style brisket, the meat temperature stays in this range for several hours. The brisket needs about 16 hours to cook through.

          1. re: embee

            I'm wondering if a counter top induction burner would provide enough low temperature water control for a large pot of water, maintaining the temp. at 115 F for 3 hours, then gradually rising it to 160 F.
            There are other low cost sous vide options, such as the controlled rice cooker modified by Frank Hsu, a chef in Kensington market
            http://freshmealssolutions.com/

            1. re: jayt90

              That would be a "no" as I currently use this setup. I see temperature variations of 3-8 degrees in either direction so if precise control is necessary, get an immersion circulator and an insulated (and covered) tank. I am.

              1. re: wattacetti

                I don't see that as an unusable variation in temperature.
                embee is suggesting the vac sealed bag of smoked meat needs 115 F for maybe 3 hours, to tenderize. Then it can be moved up to 160 F in 15 degree increments, to soften the collagen.
                There is a certain amount of watching and adjusting, but not excessive to me.
                And this bag of Goldin's smoked meat is just brisket, not salmon or mollusks..

                1. re: wattacetti

                  Am I correct that you are referring to Frank Hsu's controller? I was contemplating getting one of these, since my Smart Pot is quite small, but it seems to hold a constant temperature +/- 1 degree at most temperatures and close to that across the board.

                  You probably don't need a recirculator. Unless you are extremely close to the upper or lower limit of a critical temperature range, a +/- 3 degree variation wouldn't be terribly critical. However, +/- 8 degrees (i.e., a 16 degree range) is too much.

                  You would probably get a better enzymatic aging effect at a lower temperature. Some relevant enzymes have already started to lose activity at my suggested 115 F. However, this might, indeed, require a recirculator. I use 115 because this is the lowest temperature my Smart Pot can hold reliably with no attention.

                2. re: jayt90

                  I think you'd need to actually try the induction unit. I sprung for a countertop induction burner a while ago. I think it was branded Salton. I found it completely unsatisfactory and returned it, concluding that 110 v just wasn't enough power. However, I was looking for faster cooking and didn't think of testing for low temp control.

                  1. re: embee

                    I use a Viking VICC unit which does have adequate power at110V for cooking (e.g. rapidly heats Le Creuset pieces to around 500ºF at which point the unit's auto-shutoff kicks in).

                    The temperature fluctuations are harder to control at lower temperature settings. At higher temperature settings, what generally happen is a very rapid overshoot.

                    So SV on this system okay for meats cooked for relatively short duration (better when you stick around to monitor temperature), not so good for delicate (eggs, seafood) or long-duration applications.

                    1. re: wattacetti

                      So you have not tried Frank Hsu's sous vide controller for rice makers?

            2. re: embee

              In my experience, brisket comes out most tender when cooked sous vide for 48 hours at 131°F, it loses less than 20% liquid, is pink throughout, and searing in almost smoking hot rice bran oil (smoke point around 475°F) for 20-30 sec per surface gives it a nice tasty crust. After cooking for 66 hours brisket was not more tender than after 48 hours, but the pink color had faded a little bit. Increasing the temperature from 74°C to 131°F in 3 hours before cooking 48 hours at 131°F did not increase tenderness. I always marinate my meat before vacuum sealing, adding sufficient mustard to lower the pH below 4 to inhibit bacterial growth while eventually aging the meat for 24 hours at room temperature. It stays in the marinade for several days (marinade is said to penetrate 1cm/day, see Hervé This, Les Secrets De La Casserole / Révélations Gastronomiques). See details of my brisket recipe at http://sousvide.wikia.com/wiki/Marina...
              As longitudinal shrinking of the myofibrils starts at about 140°F, squeezing out liquid, meat cooked at higher temperatures loses much more liquid than with long-time-cooking at 131°F. See details in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, and valuable additional information in Douglas Baldwin’s Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking http://amath.colorado.edu/~baldwind/s... which is the pocket bible for sous vide cooks.

              1. re: PedroG

                Thanks PedroG.

                I would expect the method you describe to produce a delicious, tender rare brisket - one of the wonders of sous vide cooking. Indeed, I plan to try it.

                In the context of this topic, though, I don't think your method would produce the desired result. The recipe/process under discussion, Roumanian/Jewish/Montreal style "smoked meat", relies on the tender succulence from gelatinizing collagen, achieved at much higher temperatures. The brisket cooked to 131 would not resemble the expected dish.

                Have you ever tried this method with a fully cured brisket? By fully cured, I mean about 5 days in a strong brine solution with "pink salt" (I can't recall the % offhand) or 21 days in a dry cure with Prague powder for a 7 lb double brisket of "average" thickness. If you have, could you describe its appearance and sensory/eating qualities? I'm really curious what this would be like.

                1. re: embee

                  I did not try brining so far. Douglas Baldwin uses 4% salt, 3% sugar solution, see link above.

                2. re: PedroG

                  The website for my guide, "A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking", has moved to
                  http://www.douglasbaldwin.com/sous-vi...

              2. Further to the aborted Ontario thread:

                See more details in earlier posts here. Steaming is a fine cooking method, but cooking the meat sous vide is easier and requires less care.

                It's all about controlling the temperature. If it goes too high, the meat will shrink more and is more likely to dry out. If the temperature rises too quickly, you are also more likely to get dry meat - possibly tender dry meat and possibly tough dry meat.

                Steaming increases the surface temperature of the meat very quickly, and the steaming rate and the temperature of the steaming chamber (assuming the steamer is an ordinary pot and not a thermostatically controlled rig) are hard to control.

                If you can hold the meat at a constant temperature below the boiling point, inside the bag, you are most likely to get tender, juicy meat. Boiling in the bag is too aggressive and, if you want to be politically correct about it, wastes energy. It may come out just fine, but not quite boiling is likely to be better.

                You may have noticed that I have expressed everything in terms of probabilities. Nothing about cooking a brisket is certain.

                Again noting an earlier post, the meat will shrink least if you hold it at two different temperatures. A constant 190-200 will shrink more, but is most likely to give you tender, juicy meat (assuming decent fat content/distribution) with no actual work.

                I don't have a fancy recirculator - I use a Smart Pot. If you have a slow cooker that can hold a constant temperature above 185 and below 200, fill it with water and use this to cook the bagged meat.

                2 Replies
                1. re: embee

                  What I hear is: If I'm just using a stockpot for my Goldin's deckles, fill with water, bring it to a simmer (just below a full boil) and cook it in the bag for 3 hours. Is that right? that will minimize shrinkage and yield tender juicy meat?

                  In the past, i have boiled the bag for 3 hours at a full, rolling boil and the meat came out very good, but it would be even better at a gentle simmer?

                  1. re: acd123

                    My suggestion is to keep it just BELOW a simmer. The water should not be moving. This should lessen shrinkage a bit (it won't minimize it - that's more complicated) and increase the probability of tender, juicy meat.

                    Since we're talking probabilities and finessing, it comes down to how much you are willing to experiment and how badly you just want to scarf it down.