Food by VICE

Jay Rayner’s Quest for the Perfect Salt Beef Sandwich

This is the food of the Ashkenazi Jews—a dish engineered against Russian winters. I love a torn basil leaf as much as the next aspirational foodie but sometimes, only saturated animal fats will do.

by Jay Rayner
Dec 24 2015, 1:00pm

Illustration by Yuliya Tsoy.

Salt_Beef_Sandwich

Properly greedy people should give thanks for poverty—without it we wouldn't have so much of the good stuff to eat.

Down the centuries it's the rich who have been allowed to gorge on what was fresh. It's the poor who have had to find ways to make ingredients last. Without the need for food preservation we wouldn't have cured meats like bacon. Imagine a world without bacon. I mean it: just sit there and think about a world without slices of cured pig, fried to the colour of brass coins, the fat crunching and breaking on your tongue. Try thinking of a world without pickles or smoked fish or confited duck. Awful, isn't it?

More to the point, think of a world without the perfect salt beef sandwich. Frankly, that is not a world in which I would wish to live. Recently I've been brooding on all this. Back in 1998, I published Day of Atonement, a novel about two Jewish boys who build a world-beating deli and restaurant business empire on the back of a machine for making quick chicken soup. That book is about to be published in the US for the first time and while preparing for its publication, I have been plunged back into the world of chicken boiled down for stock, fried potato latkes, and of course, salt beef.

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This is the food of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, dishes engineered against Russian winters. It is stuff that speaks to the appetite of this godless Jew in the way namby-pamby Mediterranean food, filled with sunlight and colour, never can. Honestly, I love a torn basil leaf as much as the next aspirational foodie but sometimes, only saturated animal fats will do.

So bring on the salt beef (often known in the US as "corned beef," for the "corns" of salt used in the brining process). In the years since my novel was first published, hungry cooks on both sides of the Atlantic, spurred on by hipster Skandi chefs, have become increasingly interested in traditional food preservation methods.

This has resulted in a lot more places offering salt beef slapped between bread, certainly in London, though I wouldn't necessarily call the result a salt beef sandwich. The beef has been too dry, the bread too feeble, the fat too absent. I've ended up feeling the poor cow was slaughtered needlessly.

This is food that speaks to the appetite of this godless Jew in the way namby-pamby Mediterranean food, filled with sunlight and colour, never can.

So what makes the perfect salt beef sandwich? First, obviously, there's the meat. Salt beef, like pastrami, is made with brisket—a tough cut from the lower breast with lots of connective tissue which requires long slow cooking. In her magisterial 1997 book, The Book of Jewish Food, the great Claudia Roden prescribes a brining mix of crushed garlic and peppercorns, pickling spice, Demerara sugar, a fistful of salt, and some sodium nitrate, which is what keeps the beef pink. Rub the meat with this, put it in a pot, cover with water and, she says, leave in the fridge for no less than four days and no more than ten.

Writer and restaurateur Tim Hayward, recommends a similar brining mixture in his book Food DIY but says it must stay in for at least ten days. What's more, being thoroughly modern, he insists on putting the liquid in a resealable freezer bag, which is turned every day. Either way, both brined briskets require soaking in fresh water to remove excess salt, before the cut is simmered with onions and carrots. (If it's to become pastrami, the brisket is now smoked instead of being simmered).

Mark Ogus, who runs the marvellous Monty's Deli on Druid Street close by London's Tower Bridge, goes for an entirely different method. He dry cures his beef inside sealable bags for around ten days. "Not using water just produces a better flavour," he says. But there is one other key element. "We only use briskets with a thick layer of fat, which are chosen specially for us by our butcher."

The perfect slices of salt beef need a fine ribbon of fat the colour of your granny's best amber jewellery.

Here Ogus is bang on. The perfect slices of salt beef need a fine ribbon of fat the colour of your granny's best amber jewellery. At the very least, when the salt beef is being cut fresh in front of you for your sandwich (as it always must be), you should be asked, "Fat on or fat off?" At which point you answer, "Fat on" or we'll never be friends, you and I. Remember, the health advice has changed. Fat is no longer the enemy. That's sugar. The Swedish Government's health authorities say so—it must be true.

This leaves two issues. The first is the depth of your sandwich. New York food writer Ed Levine has said such sandwiches must be "too thick to eat, meaning they must be six inches high, minimum." Ogus goes for a more conservative two inches. Personally, I favour the middle ground: a four inch depth of salt beef, which is about as much as my gob can manage.

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Which brings us to the second point. A four inch-thickness of perfect, moist, salt beef, with its fat, cannot be held in place by flimsy bread. It needs something substantial, or your sandwich will fall apart and you'll be calling for a fork. This means robust rye bread made with 20 percent rye flour. Which leaves only the choice of condiments. Personally, I prefer a smear of nose-tickling English mustard—a little something to cut through all that richness.

But you know what: whether you go for English or something a little gentler, it's your call. Hell, it's your perfect salt beef sandwich, not mine.

Day of Atonement by Jay Rayner is available as a Kindle Special from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. It will be free to download on September 14 and 15 and will then cost £2.99.

Illustration by Yuliya Tsoy.

This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.