My mother, Claudia, did not make beef tongue very often, maybe only once or twice a year as I was growing up. Still we did have it and really liked it. I think the reason we did not have it very often is that it requires a long prep time and very slow cooking. With five hungry kids to feed it was just too much trouble to make as anything but a special treat. That is the childhood memory I am chasing.
If mother had a recipe card for tongue I (and my sisters) did not copy that one. My memory is that she prepared it fairly simply. Salt, maybe, some pepper and bay leaf, but little else. She then served it hot and sliced without any sauces.
Beef tongue is not something you can throw in a pot and then just serve. You have to wash, trim, soak, first cook, peel, and then, usually, second cook the meat. If you cook it too fast and hot it will turn into inedible tough leather, good for shoes but little else.
Beef tongue is fairly hard to find in an American store. It is a little too clearly “what it is” for Americans who like their meat in anonymous chunks wrapped in plastic. You must ask the butcher and, if they have it, it will usually be frozen in the back. The other alternative is to go to an ethnic store where the customers are less squeamish about knowing what they are buying.
Note: If you are not making a dish where you dice up the tongue, it is generally a good idea to slice up and arrange the pieces of tongue before serving. If you plop a large steaming tongue in the middle of the table it may be a bit intimidating to some of your diners.
I found my tongue fresh at Marina Market. Yes, it was wrapped in plastic, but it looked exactly like what it was. They also had beef lips for sale in the same refrigerator bin. I refer to Marina Market as a pan-ethnic store, because while it caters mostly to Vietnamese and Hispanic (Mexican and points south) groups, it also has selections of Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Filipino, and even Western products.
Karl’s Beef Tongue
1 beef tongue, about 3 lbs
½ lb. leeks (or one medium onion)
4-5 cloves garlic crushed
2 tsp. whole black pepper corns
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs lemon thyme
1. Scrub and trim any lumps of fat or gristle (only found underneath where the tongue was attached to the cow). Soak the tongue for 2 to 12 hours in water with a table spoon of salt. Change the water at least one and add a second tablespoon of salt.
Note: Beef tongue is sold frozen, salted and fresh. Most of the recipes I looked at online called for scrubbing and soaking the tongue in changes of cool water for at least two hours. Although none of the sites gave a reason for this part of the process, I have thought of several ideas that might explain the reasoning. First, if your tongue is frozen or salted you will want to defrost or remove the excess salt. (If salted leave the salt out of the soaking water.) However, if you tongue is “fresh” it still may be slimy from cow saliva and have blood in the veins. If this is the case, you will want to scrub it well and the soak it is slightly salted water to remove the blood. If you buy your tongue from a Kosher or ḥalāl butcher they will have already done this as part of their dietary restrictions.
2. Prick the skin with a fork 20-30 times.
Note: You are not trying to pierce the meat, only the skin. The beef tongue is coated in a thick skin. The holes created by the fork will allow the flavors of your boiling liquid to work its way into the meat. Although I found no recipes that called for doing this, it only seems reasonable to me. If you do not do provide an avenue for the flavor to reach the meat it will all go into the skin that you will eventually discard.
3. Put the tongue and aromatics into a Dutch oven and cover with cool water.
4. Bring the Dutch oven to a boil on the stove. Skim and discard any foam that forms.
Tip: Most of the recipes I read called for cooking the tongue on the cook top or in a Crockpot. If I am going to cook something low and slow I prefer to use the oven. The heat comes from all sides and you have greater control of the heat.
5. Cover the pot and place it into a 300º F oven for three to four hours.
Tip: The tongue is done when a fork slides in easily.
6. When the tongue is almost done prepare a large bowl with ice water in the sink.
7. Remove the tongue from the pot and place it in the ice water.
Tip: You are not trying to completely cook the tongue. You are only trying to make the skin cool enough to handle easily. You want the meat to still be warm.
8. Using a sharp paring knife, quickly strip the skin from the tongue.
Tip: If you do this while the meat is still warm the skin pulls off easily. If you wait until the meat is completely cool, it will be like pealing a boiled egg where the membrane is sticking. You may eventually get the skin off, but the results will not be pretty.
9. You may slice and serve the tongue “as is” with mustard or make a sauce to pour over the slices.
Note: While the meat is still warm it is easiest to cut it into ¼ inch slices. If you want a thinner cut for sandwiches or pickled tongue, wrap it in plastic and chill it in the refrigerator for 12 hours. While remaining tender, the meat will become firmer and more easily sliced.
Note: The recipe given here is only the first step in many tongue recipes. Once you have a tender, well cook bit of tongue the possibilities are nearly endless: in lasagnas, pickled, in sandwiches, with sauces, in soups and tacos, anywhere you would use regular beef you can use cooked tongue. Only your imagination is the limit.