Beef shanks haven’t traditionally been popular cuts in western cookery and one only infrequently sees them in supermarkets. The cut, sometimes called the ‘shin’ when taken from the front leg, is quite sinewy and shot through with tendons so it commonly ends up getting ground up for burger meat. This is a little unfortunate, really, as the meat can be very flavorful. If you get an opportunity to try it in Chinese restaurants, you will see why many Asians prize the meat for its collagen rich texture.
Here you can see some shin meat that I came across at my local marker recently. The display cases were only offering pre-cut ‘Shank-Steaks’ for sale but the butcher was quite happy to prepare me a longer section, which you can see in the above picture. Although foreshortened, the larger piece (which I shall henceforth simply call ‘the shank’), is about 8 inches long and weighs in at just over 3 pounds. I was very happy to be able to buy the two different types of cut as it will allow me to make a few different meals, and show you how this underused cut can be prepared…
Here you can see the thin end of the Shank piece. In the first picture, the steak and the large face of the shank cut both demonstrate what appears to be ‘marbling’ (ie: the fatty part that makes a steak taste great), but, on closer inspection, as is a bit clearer at the ‘thin end’, the cut contains a lot of tendon and sinew. In consequence, the meat can be quite tough and chewy unless we take special pains to prepare it properly…
To cut right to the heart of the matter, roasting, grilling, and even straight pan-frying are pretty much out when it comes to the shank (unless you fancy eating something like old shoe leather). Rather, shanks, and even shank-steaks, must be treated to long, slow cooking in moist heat, with braising being the best and most popular method of getting the best out of the sinewy flesh.
Before braising (or stewing, or steaming, etc.), beef shanks are sometimes blanched by parboiling. This technique is especially common in Chinese cookery, where it is employed to remove the taste of blood from the meat before introducing it into the cooking medium. It is also undertaken I order to help preserve the clarity of the braising liquid for later use as a sauce.
Here is a shank section that was blanched for about 6 minutes and the rinsed well under cold running water to remove any ‘bits’. Once cooked, the collagenous component of the meat is a little bit more obviously visible and appears as ‘gelatinous’ veins across the surface. For many, this marks a cut as rather cheap and nasty but, when further prepared, with long slow cooking, the protein becomes soft and almost unctuous, transforming the cut into something quite different.
Most recipes tend to call for shanks to be browned rather than blanched (both for whole sections as well as shanks). This has the advantage of enhancing the flavors through the Maillard Reaction but the dry heat methods used for producing the browning (whether It be quick frying or grilling, etc.) should be very brief and followed by a lower temperature wet cooking method.
Above, you can see an example of a very simple, western style braise using a shank steak. In this instance, the meat, once browned, was removed from the pan which was then deglazed with white wine. Onions were added and allowed to brown slightly, and then the meat was returned along with nearly 2 cups of stock. The pan was allowed to simmer for about 2 and a half hours until the meat was tender and the sauce reduced by over half…. I had this piece with baked potato and a glass of beer. Very good!
A long slow braise in a clear stock, or sauce, is common in Asian cookery, especially Chinese where Red Cooked (紅燒) slices are often served with a sauce made from the braising liquid on the side, or else as one of the items on a cold plate (frequently with chili sauce or other condiments). The above piece of meat was cooked in a modified ‘red-cooking’ sauce for nearly 4 hours and you can really see the tendons and other collagenous structures that give the cut its special character.
Beyond the few preparations mentioned, Beef Shanks lend themselves to a wide range of slow cooking recipes and I hope to illustrate some of these in upcoming posts. Let’s hope that this interesting cut doesn’t disappear from my supermarket shelves as suddenly as it appeared!