Since getting the Sous Vide Supreme, I've been wanting to do something that really showcases the beauty of cooking sous vide, something that simply isn't possible using conventional cooking techniques. My opportunity came when some wagyu beef shanks showed up on sale at my local butcher.
Those who are familiar with barbecuing have probably heard the phrase "low and slow". It refers to cooking meat over a low heat for a long time. This causes the collagen in the tough connective tissues to break down into tender gelatin making tough cuts of meat exceptionally tender. With sous vide you can take the concept of low and slow to a whole other level because you are able to maintain the heat at the exact temperature you want it for hours or even days.
Beef shanks are one of those cuts with a ton of tough connective tissues and the normal process of braising the meat over a low temperature for a long time will result in well done piece of meat that's very tender. Since I was going to sous vide it, I decided to do it at a temperature where the meat would still be pink, but leave it in long enough that the collagen would break down into gelatin.
After rubbing the meat with a mixture of salt, sugar, garlic, cumin, fenugreek, celery seed, coriander seed, cloves, and turmeric, I bagged and sealed it using the ChamberVac. It went into a 60 degree C water bath for 24 hours. After checking it the next day, I could still feel bits of tough tendon, so I let it go for another day.
As expected, the beef came out an almost inedible shade of grey; somewhere between spoiled mushrooms and graphite. But after opening the bag and slicing off a piece, the inside revealed pink meat cooked to a perfect medium. If this were a steak, a quick sear in a hot pan would have cured the surface color problem, but my intention was to turn this shank into Japanese curry
The beef was moist, dense and tender. The curry flavor of the dry rub and salt permeated the meat and the combined effect of the texture and spice reminded me of a good pastrami. The biggest veins of connective tissue running through the meat could have used another day in the SVS to break down the collagen further, but it had come a long way from the inedible lump of gristle that it had started out as.
Instead of adding the beef to the curry early on as I'd planned, I decided to take advantage of the pinkness of the meat and prepare a separate sauce that I could toss the chopped beef shank into at the very end. Sauteed onions and garlic, a cube of caramelized onion, the liquid from the bag, and my Japanese curry roux went into a pan for the fastest curry I've ever made (if you don't count the two days the meat was sous viding)
The result was simply divine. The hunks of shank cooked to a perfect medium had a different tenderness than a long braise could impart. Each piece of savory meat was seasoned to the core and enveloped in a contrasting onion sweetened roux. This may just become how I make all my Japanese curry!