NAMP Guide Number: 117 (Foreshank)
Bone in/Boneless: You can get a roast boneless, but then you’d be missing out on that sweet, sweet marrow
Other names: Shin, Hock, Hough, Jarret Arriere, Chambarete
Best Cooking Method: Braise, stew, smoke if you're feeling adventurous
As this is the first in a series of meat cut highlights, I figured I would come out the gate strong by casting some light on what I feel is the most maligned and misunderstood of all cuts of beef: the shank. The lowest part of the animal, it seems that it occupies some of the lowest places on the menu. This weird looking bone-surrounded-by-meat has a well deserved reputation of being tough and dry when cooked improperly, but with a little love and understanding it can yield some of the most amazing dishes a home cook can produce.
There’s no mistaking a beef shank in a butcher’s case. In one piece, it’s about a foot long and almost perfectly cylindrical, however you’re much more likely to see it cross cut into several 1.5-2” thick pieces. There is a long bone filled with delicious creamy marrow running the length of the shank, the Tibia in the rear and the Radius in the front. Butchers prefer to use the rear shank rather than the front (or fore shank) as it’s a bit longer, and more uniform in shape.
To truly understand the best way to prepare beef shank, it helps to have a moderate amount of expertise in molecular biology. Shanks are a weight-bearing muscle. If you think about it, a cow is basically a thousand pound refrigerator supported by 4 dainty whiffle-ball bat sized shanks. To support all this weight shanks are packed with tough, durable collagen. The basic collagen molecules, tropocollagen, bond extraordinarily tightly to each other (it arranges the crosslinks in a quarter stagger formation, for anyone playing along at home). This tight bond allows the protein to support a massive amount of weight, but also shrinks when heat is applied, forcing moisture out of the muscle and leading to a dryness in the finished product.
So what’s the trick? To make something so downright unpalatable into lip-smacking tender hearty goodness you need to get the collagen protein converted into gelatin, the sticky, unctuous molecule that it breaks down into. That process, known as hydrolization, requires the presence of low, moist heat - meaning stews and braises. A beef shank, either whole or crosscut cooked for a number of hours with a rich cooking liquid is a thing of true beauty. All of the abundant collagen which was previously an impediment to tender meat is now converted into gooey collagen. The marrow in the center of the bone, packed with fat and flavor renders out and mixes with the cooking liquid to create deeply beefy, hearty broth.
This collagen to gelatin conversion is one of the most important contributing factors to the superiority of pasture raised beef. Animals that spend their entire lives walking around on open pasture develop much more collagen as they are working their legs constantly. The leaner muscles also contribute less fat to the cooking broth, which results in a more balanced flavor from the cooking liquid, gelatin, and bone marrow.
There aren’t a ton of recipes for beef shank; certainly far fewer than this noble cut deserves. Shank can always be taken off the bone and and stewed for Beef Bourguignon, or ground into a delicious base of Bolognese. But one of my all time favorite recipes makes use of the entire shank either cross cut or as one roast (a Tugboat as we’ve been calling it). Dario Cecchini the famous (and slightly) crazy Italian butcher prepares a beautifully simple Peposo. Just five ingredients, but cooked over such a long period of time the meat transforms into something almost spoon-tender.
Peppery Peposo Notturno
2 Beef shanks, or 3, or one big one, it doesn’t really matter
4 Tablespoons of black pepper
1 Tablespoon Kosher Salt
1 Bulb of garlic (just chop and end off and throw the whole thing in)
1 Bottle of Red Wine (Dario likes Chianti, but any robust, dry red will do great)
1 Rough Diced yellow onion (My addition, I just like onions)
Cook in a covered pot at as low a temp as possible for as long as you can stand the unbelievably mouth-watering smell. Dario does his at 225 for 12 hours. 8 Hours at as low as your oven goes will do the trick nicely.