People ask me, “What does a cookbook editor do?”
And now I have a good answer that everyone can see.
It started before Christmas when my friends and CSA -splitters Chris and Lisa suggested that we buy a gorgeous 7-bone rib roast, split it, and dry-age it ourselves. Dry-aged beef is not that commonly found, because it’s time-consuming to produce, requires a lot of individual attention, and the USDA regulations make it even more challenging. When you can find it, the price is astronomical. So, sure, I’m game to take a $10.99/pound roast and turn it into a $45/pound roast
- using only a spare fridge, a calibrating thermometer, and some clean kitchen towels.
Aging beef seems easy enough, too, and kind of foolproof if you keep changing the cloth towels. You don’t even really have to pay attention. I once saw a beef slab in a meat-aging locker in Vegas that had developed mold on the fat cap. Right there in public. From a big name steakhouse. I assume it was aging to that state on purpose — surely a fermenting steak is a boast: “We know meat so well that you can trust us that this $100 mold-kissed steak is going to be the best thing you ever, ever ate, if you’re lucky enough at the blackjack tables to afford it.” It looked pretty good to me, anyway: I’m a fan of mold, yeast and fermentation — it’s the magical heatless cooking method.
Chris was using Alton Brown’s technique,
for dry-aging and then cooking the meat. In typically stylish Alton Brown fashion, there’s a luscious sage jus that is made after the roast is complete. But I used Merle Ellis
‘ method for aging, because I had read it often enough to feel familiar and comfortable with it.
I aged my beef just 5 days. (Merle’s method allows for up to 21 days of aging.) By then, my beef was dry on the outside, had clearly shrunk in volume, was sort of hard and unappetizing in places. The fat covering was waxy, not moist, and if I’d never seen the Vegas steak, I would have been a little worried. There was a little hitch at cooking time when I found that Merle’s technique didn’t include a recipe for cooking the beef, so I just went to Alton Browns recipe. Easy decision.
And here is where the editing part comes in. Brown’s recipes can be a little over the top. So I skipped the excruciatingly detail part that calls for a new, clean, azalea-size terra cotta pot for roasting the beef. A roasting pan and 3 layers of aluminum foil would be fine. And after rubbing the roast with oil then packing on some kosher salt and rubbing in pepper, you put it into a cold oven, turn the temp to 250 degrees, put the roast in. And here are the rest of the directions, verbatim, from the Food Network site.
“Finally, place a probe thermometer into the center of the roast and set for 118 degrees. Put the roast and the bake-ware dish onto the pizza stone, cover with the terra cotta pot, and return to the oven. Turn the oven down to 200 degrees F and roast until internal temperature is achieved. Remove the roast and turn oven up to 500 degrees F. Remove the terra cotta lid and recover with heavy-duty foil. Allow the roast to rest until an internal temperature of 130 degrees F. is reached. “
So here’s an excruciating detail that would have been helpful: how long do you cook the damn thing? Would it be too much to ask for a ballpark figure? Like, is it going to take 30minutes, 90 minutes or 5 hours? If it were a baked good or a casserole, you might guess based on experience. But if you have no experience of cooking 18-pound slabs of meat, and no experience with cooking at 200 degrees, you maybe at a loss. I know I was completely at sea, and I do this for a living. I put the roast in as the first guests were arriving at 5 p.m. Just guessing.
By 8 p.m. the guests were drunk but jolly, asking frequently about the entree, and really, really hungry. The meat thermometer, plunged into the center of the roast, read 74 degrees. My friend Lisanne, who is a shameless eater of steak at least once a week and knows cow flesh better than most people, called it: “Cut the ends off and give those to people who like it less rare. Let everyone else eat it rare.”
Of course, it was delicious, if raw. Iwent back to the site the next day to make sure I hadn’t just missed the directions. But it wasn’t just me — a lot of the comments on the site read like onefrom “Dorothy”: “Perfect, but took forever.” In her case, 6 hours. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask of an editor to put the cooking time in the recipe. That’s what editors do. You shouldn’t have to read through the comments to figure out how long to cook something.
The next day, we finished the remaining roast — another couple of hours in the oven, then a 500-degree blast to create a crunchy crust. We’ll definitely get it right next time. If there is a “next time” when you’re talking about a $90 piece of meat during a recession