If cooking a prime cut of beef in a cocoon of salt sounds a tad crazy to you, hang on. You'll be amazed at the result. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton shares her recipe.
I've been packing foods in salt crusts for years now, and I never tire of the pleasure of the process, nor the savoriness. My first foray with a salt crust gave all of us at the table the thrill of an archaeological dig when we cracked it open and unearthed perfectly cooked, and seasoned, little new potatoes. I have since cooked birds, beasts, and beets this way, and have had memorable successes with pork roast, chicken, sea bass, and celery root.
As salt crusts go, this one is the most primitive; it's just salt dampened with water. You simply brown the meat, bury it in the moist salt, and bake. The salt forms an airtight shell, sealing in the juices and letting the pure and clean flavor of this prime cut of beef remain unobscured.
There are many delicious variations you can explore with crusts. You can bind the salt with other liquids such as egg whites, red wine, white wine, or even brewed tea, and you can add other seasonings - including ashes from the fireplace!
Cooking beef at a very low temperature - whether in a salt crust or not - allows it to be solidly pink throughout, free of the concentric rings of well-done, medium, and rare-center temperatures that commonly result from high-heat roasting. "Low and Slow" yields a wall-to-wall medium rare, which is a pretty cool feat of beauty and technical prowess to have under your belt.
The accompanying crouton salsa brings to the dish some of the elements you might find in a very good roast beef sandwich - bread, tomatoes, dressing - but in a more elegant, lunch-with-a-linen-napkin kind of way.
For the Beef
24 ounces trimmed and cleaned beef tenderloin
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons finely and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds coarse kosher salt (Diamond Crystal or Morton brands)
Approximately 1½ cups cold water
For the Salsa
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces excellent quality ciabatta or peasant-style white bread, torn into free-form, smallish croutons
14 ounces ripe tomatoes, diced with their seeds and juices, or assorted cherry and grape tomatoes, split in half
1 bunch scallions, sliced thinly in rings, from the white all the way up through as much of the green stalk as is edible
4 small cloves fresh and sticky garlic, thinly sliced
1 packed tablespoon plus 1 packed teaspoon rinsed, filleted, and then minced salt-packed anchovies
1 large lemon, juice and zest
1 - 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ cup flat-leaf Italian parsley leaves
Related: 11 Tasty Tomato Recipes
1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Heat a heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium heat for five whole minutes, and open the kitchen windows or turn on the hood vent; there will be smoke when you brown the meat.
2. Rub the fillet with 1 tablespoon of oil, then sprinkle and coat evenly with black pepper.
3. Brown the meat thoroughly on every side and also the cut ends so that you form a nice crust around the fillet, both sealing in juices and creating a barrier for the upcoming salt crust. (This took me between seven and eight minutes to brown correctly.)
4. Remove the meat from the pan and let it cool on a wire rack over a sheet pan.
5. Mix the water slowly with the salt until it forms a texture resembling wet sand. Spread a thin but solid and even layer of salt on the bottom of a quarter sheet pan or other small baking tray and set the meat on it. Pack the remaining moist salt tidily around the meat, forming a solid casing, like a shell. Where there are cracks, redistribute the salt and fix them. If you need more salt or more water, or less water and more salt, mix up whatever mortar you need to get the beef encased.
6. Place the beef in the oven and let it cook for 45 minutes. If it reassures you, remove the roast from the oven twice and take its temperature with an instant-read thermometer inserted into the very center of the meat. Remove from the oven when it reaches 125 degrees internally. Otherwise, 45 minutes is a pretty sure bet.
7. Crack the salt crust, dust the granules of clinging salt off with a clean, dry dish towel, and set to rest on a tray.
8. In a small, deep-sided sauté pan, heat the cup of olive oil on medium-high. (Olive oil is rarely recommended for frying, but in this case the flavor is integral and preferred.) The oil will make rather beautiful - and entertaining - streaking patterns in the pan while it is heating, which will move faster as the oil gets hotter. Drop a piece of the torn bread into the oil. When it sizzles, the oil is ready. Fry the croutons until golden brown, remove with a slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels. Set aside the oil to cool.
9. Mix together the tomatoes, scallions, garlic, anchovies, lemon juice and zest, and red wine vinegar and toss well. Add the croutons and dress with ⅓ cup of the now-cool olive oil. Rough up the parsley leaves briefly in your hands to release the grassy aroma and add to the salsa. Sparingly season with salt and pepper to taste, keeping in mind that the fillet will bring its own seasoning to the plate.
10. Slice the beef (admire its wall-to-wall pinkness!) and arrange it on plates with the salsa. Drizzle with some of the remaining fry oil to finish, if desired, and serve.
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