Beef shank hasn’t traditionally been a popular cut in western cookery and one still only infrequently sees it 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.
Introducing the Beef Shank Cuts
In the first picture, you can see a ‘Shank Steak’ and, beside it, a section of shank about 8 inches long and weighing in at just over three pounds. Both pieces demonstrate some ‘marbling’, or fat interspersed with the meat, but, here, the smaller end of the shank section is shown, and if you can that see 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 Beef Shank (unless you fancy eating something like old shoe leather). Rather, Beef Shank, 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.
Preparing and Using Beef Shank in the Kitchen
Before braising (or stewing, or steaming, etc.), Beef Shank is 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 if you wish to later use it for soup, or in the preparation of 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 detritus. 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 western diners, this signifies a rather cheap and nasty cut of meat but, when further prepared, with long slow cooking, the protein becomes soft and almost unctuous, transforming the cut into something quite wonderful.
By the way, pay attention to the lovely marrow in the center of the bone. This adds terrific flavor to soups, stews, and other dishes, and is often scooped from the bone and eaten by diners when included in their individual portion. Beef Marrow rather fell out of fashion in the west but has become popular once again with the inevitable result that an appetizer of marrow bones in an upscale restaurant can set you back a pretty penny.
Many recipes will 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.
Here, 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.
Here are some of the Red-Braised Beef Shank slices served as a little appetizer using just a little bit of the braising medium reduced just slightly to provide a light glaze.