Sous Vide: Beef Cheeks, Braised

Arguably the strongest muscle on a steer/heifer, the cheeks get a lot of work as a result of the constant chewing habits of bovine cattle.

Ingredients

Basic Braised Beef Cheeks:
Beef cheeks, whole, approximately 1-2 lb/450-900 g raw weight.
Carrots, one each (unpeeled).
Celery, three outer stalks.
Onion, large, one each.
Tomato paste, 2 oz/60 g
Water/Sous jus, 2 cups/800 ml.
Ginger snaps, whole, approximately 3 oz/75 g.
S+P, to taste.
Green peas, (frozen), 3 oz/75 g.
Egg Noodles, dried. 3 oz.

Braised Cheeks, Sauerbraten style:
Red wine vinegar, 2 oz/60ml.
Red wine, 2 oz/30 ml.
Sugar, 2 T/28 g.
Cloves, whole, 10 each.
Bay leaves, 1 each.
Peppercorns, whole, 10 each.

Raisins, 1 oz/25 g.

Sauerkraut, 2 pinches.
Broccoli florets, 4 each.

Down Home Beef Cheeks
Hominy Grits, Molasses Yams, Greens with Bacon and Onions

Hominy grits, as per directions on packaging–approximately 1 cup (cooked).
Yams/Sweet potatoes, 1 each.
Bacon, 2 slices, approximately 3 oz/90 g.
Onion, one half each.
Greens: 5 oz/125 g. I used that familiar “power greens” blend that has “baby” kale, spinach and chard, but any greens are fine.
Butter, softened, approximately 4 oz/100 g.
Tomato, small (I used Campari), cut in half.
Parsley, a few sprigs.

Equipment requirements
Immersion circulator, portable or stationary.
Heat rated container, minimum of 2 gallons/8 liters.
Heat rated sous vide bags.
Flat bottomed skillet, approximately 12″/30 cm. and 3″/90 mm deep.
Metal tongs
wooden spoon.
Wire whisk.
Infrared or probe thermometer.

Serves 2-3
Level of difficulty 2.75

If you are wondering why you never see beef cheeks in the butcher’s case, consider that these two muscles comprise less than .5% of the weight of a fully dressed, boneless carcass–less than .01% of the live weight. There is so little cheek muscle it is usually lumped in with the rest of the animal’s head for the purposes of weight percentage calculations.

The Quest

Beef cheeks do not have a euphemistically colorful name like “sirloin,” or “short ribs. They are more commonly used in rural, ethnic recipes like tacos and “soul food.” However, they are not necessarily cheap. If you search for them in gourmet markets, the butcher may use the cut’s obscurity to exaggerate his pricing. I have seen beef cheeks as high as $10/lb.

On the other hand, in the sort of generic ethnic market, the same cut can be had for less than $2/lb. How different can cheeks from everyday cattle be from Wagyu/Kobe? I will probably never find out, because I just cannot justify accommodating the gigantic difference in price.

Braised Beef Cheeks, Pot Roast Style

Procedure:
Vacuum pack and sous vide process the beef cheeks unseasoned @
165 F/74 C X 48 hours

After processing, shock the packaged beef cheeks in ice/water until they achieve 70 F/21 C. Refrigerate overnight to 40 F/4 C

Dip the package in hot tap water to melt the gelatinized juices. Remove the beef cheek from the vacuum bag and dry well. Keep the juices aside for the sauce. Coat the meat with a few drops of vegetable oil (or spray release). Heat a flat bottomed skillet without oil to
250 F/121 C

Add beef cheek to pan. You should hear sizzling. If the heat is too low, the pan will hiss and steam. If the pan is too hot, you will hear a popping sound. Brown the cheek on both sides (see frame 1). Add the celery and carrots, and a few drops of oil. Brown the vegetables well. Add the onions–this will stop the caramelization of the other vegetables, so increase the heat as needed.

Continue to fry until the onions are also quite brown, as pictured. At this point the vegetables should be fully cooked  tender. Remove the meat and set aside. Mix the tomato paste with the juices from the bag and add to the pan. Continue to brown.

Add 2 cups of water and bring  to a steady boil. Remove from heat.
Put the meat and the vegetables/broth in a 1 gallon Ziploc freezer bag. Lower the bag into the sous vide bath, drape the open end over the edge of the container and trap it with the lid.
Process in the bath @
165 F/74 C X 2 hours.

Remove the bag from the bath. Pour the mixture through a colander into a pan. Remove the meat; press down on the vegetables to remove all the liquid. Discard the vegetables. Crumble the ginger snaps into the liquid and bring to simmer. Blend if desired, but this sauce does not need to be perfectly “smooth.”
Add the frozen peas to the sauce, keep warm @
140 F/60 C-170 F/77 C

Cook the noodles. Drain well, and toss with a little butter and S+P.

Arrange the noodles on the top half of the plate. Carefully slice the cheeks thick on the bias. Add a generous amount of sauce and garnish with the cherry tomatoes as pictured.

Sauerbraten Style

Procedure:
Follow the instructions in the recipe above to the point where the water is added to the sofrito.. In addition to the water, add the vinegar, wine, sugar, cloves, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Continue as described in the Pot Roast procedure.

Pour boiling water over the broccoli and let sit for 10 minutes. Drain the broccoli and toss with butter. Substitute the raisins for the peas (it’s okay to have some peas in there too!), and use the same presentation as used for the Pot Roast. Garnish with the heated sauerkraut and broccoli.

Down Home Beef Cheeks
Hominy Grits, Molasses Yams, Mess of Greens with Bacon and Onions.

Procedure:
Vacuum pack and sous vide process the beef cheeks unseasoned @
165F /74 C X 48 hours.

After processing, shock the packaged beef cheeks in ice/water until they achieve 70 F/21 C. Refrigerate overnight to 40 F/4 C. Dip the beef cheek package in hot tap water to melt the gelatinized juices. Remove the beef cheek from the vacuum bag and dry well. Keep the juices aside for the sauce.
Slice the cold cheeks thin, approximately 1/3″/1 cm. Spread the greens out on a sheet pan with a rim, sprinkle with salt, and pour boiling water over them to wilt. Set aside. Process the vacuum packed yams whole, in a sous vide bath @
183 F/84 C X 1 hour.

Remove from bag, allow to cool a bit, and remove the skin–it comes right off. Cut the yam in four pieces, and score as pictured.

Butter the yam and drizzle with a few drops of molasses (or Karo syrup). Keep the yams warm@140 F/60 C. Fry the bacon until it is almost crisp. Slice the onions medium thickness and add to the bacon. Continue to fry slowly until wilted and slightly brown. Drain the greens well, toss with the bacon and onions, keep warm @140 F/60 C. Do not cover or the greens will darken. Cook the grits as directed on the packaging, S+P a pinch, and add a pat of butter. Keep warm @
140 F/60 C

Melt 2 oz/60g butter in a skillet, to
165 F/74 C.

Add the slices of beef cheeks to heat, flipping once only to coat with the butter. This is an old-fashioned method. If you want to modernize it, use a microwave oven–be careful not to overheat. Season the half tomato with S+P. Dip the parsley sprigs in the melted butter.Arrange the ingredients on the plate as pictured:

Norm King

 

About

Beef cheeks make great pot roast, as any tough cut would. The high levels of collagen are converted into similarly high levels of gelatin, which contributes to a rich and deeply flavored sauce/gravy. Because of sous vide's unique ability to turn traditional marinading on its head, this dish can also be "Sauerbratenized" by adding just a few characteristic ingredients. This will be explained along with a sofrito based sauce procedure suitable for both dishes.

But there's more! We will present a version that evokes the spirit of the distinctly American nomenclature known as "soul food," complete with grits, yams, and braised greens!

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