Potted Beef: 19th-Century Food Preservation
Something not sweet for a change!
Today’s recipe comes from an 1876 book by Mary F. Henderson titled Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving: A Treatise Containing Practical Instructions in Cooking; In the Combination and Serving of Dishes; and the Fashionable Modes of Entertaining at Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.
Left to my own devices I usually choose something sweet so for this post I essentially picked a random book, navigated to a random page in the book, closed my eyes, and pointed to a spot on the page. It was Potted Beef and I almost cried.
It could have been worse; it could have been the Potted Tongue just above.
But, in the spirit of being a good sport, I went along with it. Actually, I got really into it and for days I could think of nothing else because it is so unlike anything I have ever made or anything I would choose to eat (I mean, I do like Spam and deviled ham, but that’s a story for another day).
The book has a small section on potting, which is pretty standard, I guess since potting was still one of the main ways in which people preserved food prior to refrigeration or other types of chemical or physical preservation methods existed. Most cultures have some type of potted meat in their culinary repertoire even to this day. Think paté, potted shrimp, creamed salmon paste in tubes, etc.
Today, of course, it is a matter of taste and want rather than necessity but the roots of these foods are very utilitarian in nature.
In the 19th century, and before, potting was also a way to use leftover foods. Waste not, want not.
Henderson opens the potting section with the following passage:
“In England, potting is an every-day affair for the cook. If there be ham, game, tongue, beef, or fish on the table one day, you are quite sure to see it potted on the next day at lunch or breakfast. It is a very good way of managing left-over food, instead of invariably making it into hashes, stews, etc.”
Henderson and her audience were American and while the popularity of potted meats was not as it was in England, it was certainly not an unknown thing.
The recipe in the book is as follows:
This is well-cooked beef chopped and pounded with a little butter, pepper, salt, and mace. Manage as for potted ham.”
The instructions for Potted Ham, and thus for Potted Beef, after pounding it are:
“Put into a dish, and place in the oven half an hour; afterward pack it in potting-pots or little stone jars, which cover [sic] with a layer of clarified butter (lukewarm), and tie bladders or paste paper over them. This is convenient for sandwiches. The butter may be used again for basting meats or for making meat-pies.”
In a take-no-chances sort of way, there are several levels of preservation going on in this recipe.
First, the meat is already cooked well before it gets pounded and mixed in with the spices. Second, the paste is placed in the oven for half an hour. What this does is pasteurize the meat, which only takes 12 minutes at 140°F once the center of the paste gets hot. And that is for raw meat, which makes this step a bit of overkill. But again, take no chances. Leaving the paste in the oven for thirty minutes allows for it to come up to temperature and stay there for the required period of time.
Third, the heated and potted paste gets covered with a layer of fat, which acts as a barrier between the environment and the meat. Once solidified, nothing gets through. And then the whole thing is covered with a physical barrier (bladder or paper) to prevent things like dust and probably critters from coming into contact with the butter, which is not wasted but rather used again. They used everything here, even the leftovers of the leftovers!
I think it is safe to say, pun intended, that this potted beef lasted quite some time, which Henderson does claim even though she does not specify any length of time.
She does warn that:
“They [the potted meats] are not good unless thoroughly pounded, reduced to the smoothest possible paste, and free from any unbroken fibers.”
Converting this recipe for a modern kitchen really was not that difficult and I would wager that modern recipes for potted meats are probably not that different.
First, I did not use leftovers because I had none. I cooked the beef specifically for this recipe. Second, I do not have a mortar and pestle big enough for this task so I used my very modern food processor. This saves time and energy. Third, I do not have bladders (they meant actual, literal, animal bladders) and although I am keeping the pots in the refrigerator because I have nowhere else to put them, I would cover them with cling film or something along those lines.
I also used a pressure cooker to cook the beef just to speed up the process, but this is not necessary and just boiling will do. Or actually using leftovers is fine too, obviously. I decided that it was easier to place the pounded beef in the potting pots before going in the oven, that way the pots got a good heating too.
None of those things affect the product or taste.
Here is the recipe as I made it:
2 pounds beef, cut into large cubes (I used London broil because it was the cheapest I could find)
salt and pepper to taste
For the paste:
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp ground mace
3 tbsp clarified butter
about 2 cups clarified butter
Place the beef in a pot, cover with water and cook until tender (about 35 minutes in a pressure cooker and 2 hours in a regular pot)
Heat the oven to 210°F
Transfer the beef, drained, to a food processor or very large mortar. Add the paste ingredients and process until smooth. You may add more butter or even some cooking water to make it as smooth as you like.
Spoon the paste into potting pots or canning jars, pressing down to eliminate as much air as possible and leaving about 1/2″ of space at the top. Place on a baking sheet and put them in the hot oven for 30 minutes.
Remove the baking sheet and pots from the oven. Pour the clarified butter over the meat until the butter reaches the top of the pots.
Allow to cool completely at room temperature. Cover with cling film or canning jar lids and store in the refrigerator or a cool dry place.
The whole process takes a bit of time but it is not difficult.
Now, on a personal note. I live in New York City and do not have central AC. My window units do their best but the kitchen is warm. Although the butter did solidify some, there was no way it would ever be solid, which is why I am storing the potted beef in the refrigerator.
Even in the time it took me to take these photos the butter became soft enough to spread. It was not even that long!
If you have central AC or a cellar, then you are better off than I am!
But back to the beef!
I was skeptical, I am not a fan of paté, for instance, but this is good. It is really good!
Mine is not a smooth paste, it is a bit crumbly, but when mixed with the butter, plus the butter that sips in during the covering, it is a great spread.
This recipe as I made it does produce quite a bit of spread, you can halve it easily and still have enough of it.
It is still surprising to me how such a simple-looking recipe can tell us so much about not just food and cooking but science, culture (this is a book for hostesses, after all), and daily life in the past. Even if you take their descriptive nature with a grain salt. There is much more than what I have said here that we can glean from this recipe, let alone from the book at large.
One of the main things I learned from the process of making this recipe and its outcome was that my taste, or lack of, for potted beef has been largely influenced by whatever abominations go by that name these days.
But this type of potted beef, made from real beef, with all real ingredients that you can customize is on a different level.
Maybe next time I come across potted beef in historical cookbooks I will not wrinkle my nose.
A very quick note of Mary Foote Henderson.
She was born in NY in 1841, some sources say in Seneca Falls and others say in Saratoga. She married a senator and moved first to Washington DC and then to Missouri. Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving is a reflection of how the elite of Missouri entertained, something she did quite often. She eventually became an advocate for temperance and vegetarianism, and in the 20th century was an ardent prohibitionist and, no surprise, was also opposed to high heels and short skirts. She was also well traveled and had been to Europe and studied there.
Henderson, Mary F. Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1876.
Reminiscences About Abraham Lincoln: Newspapers Clippings, Accounts, and Memories of those Whose Lives Included an Encounter with the 16th President of the United States. Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection. https://archive.org/details/reminiscencesabohehilinc/page/n17
Smith, Andrew F. Food and Drink in American History: A “Full Course” Encyclopedia, vol 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO. 2013.