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Roast Beef (and Yorkshire Pudding)

Classic Meals

A meal necessarily consisting of slices of roast beef, gravy, roast potatoes and at least two other vegetables (commonly carrots, roast parsnips, peas or cut cabbage) with small Yorkshire Puddings. Offered with horseradish sauce and mustard.

Beef being roasted
Not in England, but New England - the The Salem Cross Inn, West Brookfield, Massachusetts, USA

The Roast Beef Of Old England
As of the time I'm writing (July 2017) it appears that the Traditional Roast Beef for which England was once famous is no longer offered by any eating house anywhere in England. I'm happy to be corrected.

Roasting is something which is done in front of an open fire. Baking, on the other hand, is something done in an enclosed space, an oven. Roasting requires very considerable skill and constant attention, but gives meat a crisp juiciness and flavour which is absolutely unrivalled. Baking of meats became the norm after England started using coal as a domestic fuel in the early 19th century. Coal contains smelly sulphur compounds, quite unlike the bitter-sweet fragrance of wood and people started using metal ovens next to the fire instead of putting the meat in front of it. So, with no exception I know of, what we get now is baked beef. It is reliable and fairly easy to do. It can be more then quite good, but, strictly and traditionally roast beef it is not.

First, a few historical whets...

The Roast Beef of England
Punch, c1880

It is clear that roast beef has been considered the English dish for a long time. Such is mentioned in Shakespeare, and Andrew Boorde, the physician, traveller, writer, spy and Carthusian monk, in his 'Compendyous Regyment or Dyetary of Health' of 1542 says; "Beef is a good meate for an Englysshe man, so be it the beest be yonge, & that it be not know-flesche; yf it be moderatly powdered [i.e. salted] that the groose blode by salt may be exhaustyd, it doth make an Englysshe man stronge".

The song "The Roast Beef of Old England" was written by Henry Fielding for his play The Grub-Street Opera, of 1731 and is still occasionally played at military dinners.

When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman's food,
It ennobled our brains and enriched our blood.
Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good
Oh! the Roast Beef of old England,
And old English Roast Beef!

It perhaps takes someone just outside of England to really appreciate what others have. Morgan O'Doherty, writing in the Scottish Blackwood's Magazine, and reported in the 'Dublin Evening Mail' - (Wednesday 07 July 1824); "Whatever country one is, one should choose the dishes of the country. Every really national dish is good -at least, I never yet met with one that did not gratify appetite. The Turkish pilaws are most excellent but the so-called French cookery of Pera is execrable. In a like manner roast beef with Yorkshire pudding is always a prime feast in England while John Bull's Fricandeux, Soufflés &c., are decidedly anathema. What a horror, again, is a Bifstick the Palais Royal!"

So, how do you do Roast Beef? As is going to be pretty usual from now on, we'll defer to the great Eliza Acton (1799-1859) whose vast 'Modern Cookery for Private Families' was a best-seller throughout the first half of the 19th Century, until it was somewhat eclipsed by Mrs Beeton. Lauded by D. Smith, Elizabeth David and pretty much everyone, Eliza Acton is always right. This is how she tells us to roast meat. Pay attention;

Original Receipt from 'Modern Cookery for Private Families' by Eliza Acton: (Acton 1845)

Roasting, which is quite the favourite mode of dressing meat in this country, and one in which the English are thought to excel, requires unremitting attention on the part of the cook rather than any great exertion of skill. Large kitchens are usually fitted with a smoke- jack, by means of which several spits if needful can be kept turning at the same time; but in in small establishments, a roaster which allows of some economy in point of fuel is more commonly used. That shown in the print is of very advantageous construction in this respect, as a joint may be cooked in it with a comparatively small fire, the heat being strongly reflected from the screen upon the meat: in consequence of this, it should never be placed very close to the grate, as the surface of the joint would then become dry and hard. A more convenient form of roaster, with a spit placed horizontally, and turned by means of a wheel and chain, of which the movement is regulated by a spring contained in a box at the top, is of the same economical order as the one above; but eaters of very delicate taste urge, as an objection to this apparatus, as well as to that shown above, that the meat cooked in either, derives from the tin by which it is closely surrounded, the flavour of baked meat. The bottle-jack, with a common roasting-screen containing shelves for warming plates and dishes, and other purposes, is not liable to the same objection. To roast well with it (or with a smoke-jack), make up a fire proportioned in width and height to the joint which is to be roasted, and which it should surpass in dimensions every way, by two or three inches. Place some moderate-sized lumps of coal on the top; let it be free from smoke and ashes in front; and so compactly arranged that it will neither require to be disturbed, nor supplied with fresh fuel, for some considerable time after the meat is laid down. Spit or suspend the joint, and place it very far from the fire at first; keep it constantly basted, and when it is two parts done, move it nearer to the fire that it may be properly browned; but guard carefully against its being burned. A few minutes before it is taken from the spit, sprinkle a little fine salt over it, baste it thoroughly with its own dripping, or with butter, and dredge it with flour: as soon as the froth is well risen, dish, and serve the meat. Or, to avoid the necessity of the frothing which is often greatly objected to on account of the raw taste retained by the flour, dredge the roast liberally soon after it is first laid to the fire; the flour will then form a savoury incrustation upon it, and assist to prevent the escape of its juices. When meat or poultry is wrapped in buttered paper it must not be floured until this is removed, which should be fifteen or twenty minutes before either is served. Baron Liebeg, whom we have already so often quoted, says, that roasting should be conducted on the same principle as boiling; and that sufficient heat should be applied to the surface of the meat at once, to contract the pores and prevent the escape of its juices; and that the remainder of the process should be slow. When a joint is first laid to the fire, therefore, it should be placed for twenty minutes or half an hour sufficiently near to effect this, without any part, and the fat especially, being allowed to acquire more than the slightest colour, and then drawn back and finished by the directions at the end of this section. The speedy application of very hot basting-fat to every part of the meat, would probably be attended with the same result as subjecting it to the full action of the fire. It is certain that roasts which are constantly and carefully basted are always very superior to those which are neglected in this respect.

Remember always to draw back the dripping-pan when the fire has to be stirred, or when fresh coals are thrown on, that the cinders and ashes may not fall into it. When meat is very lean, a slice of butter, or a small quantity of clarified dripping, should be melted in the pan to baste it with at most; though the use of the latter should be scrupulously avoided for poultry, or any delicate meats, as the flavour it imparts is to many persons peculiarly objectionable. Let the spit be kept bright and dean, and wipe it before the meat is put on; balance the joint well upon it, that it may turn steadily, and if needful secure it with screw-skewers. A cradle spit, which b so constructed that it contains the meat in a sort of framework, instead of passing through it, may be often very advantageously used instead of an ordinary one, as the perforation of the meat by this last must always occasion some escape of the juices; and it is, moreover, particularly to be objected to in roasting joints or poultry which have been boned and filled with forcemeat. The cradle spit is much better suited to these, as well as to a sucking pig, sturgeon, salmon, and other large fish; but it is not very commonly to be found in our kitchens, many of which exhibit a singular scantiness of the conveniences which assist the labours of the cook. For heavy and substantial joints, a quarter of an hour is generally allowed for every pound of meat; and with a sound fire and frequent basting, will be found sufficient when the process is conducted in the usual manner; but by the 'slow method' we shall designate it, almost double the time will be required. Fork, veal, and lamb, should always be well roasted; but many eaters prefer mutton and beef rather under-dressed, though some persons have a strong objection to the sight even of any meat that is not thoroughly cooked. Joints which are thin in proportion to their weight, require less of the fire than thick and solid ones. Ribs of beef, for example, will be sooner ready to serve than an equal weight of the rump, round, or sirloin; and the neck or shoulder of mutton, or spare rib of pork, than the leg. When to preserve the succulence of the meat is more an object than to economise fuel, beef and mutton should be laid at twice the usual distance from the fire, after the surface has been thoroughly heated, as directed by Liebig, and allowed to remain so until they are perfectly heated through; the roasting, so managed, will of course be slow; and from three hours and a half to four hours will be necessary to cook by this method a leg of mutton of ordinary size, for which two hours would amply suffice in a common way; but the flesh will be remarkably tender, and the flow of gravy from it most abundant. It should not be drawn near the fire until within the last half or three quarters of an hour, and should then be placed only so close as to brown it properly. No kind of roast indeed should at any time be allowed to take colour too quickly; it should be heated gradually, and kept at least at a moderate distance from the fire until it is nearly done, or the outside will be dry and hard, if not burned while the inside will be only half cooked.

Beef being roasted
The Salem Cross Inn, again

And here's the opinion from Isabella Beeton's 'Book of Household Management' (1861) and her 'Dictionary of Every-day Cookery' (1865)

Original Receipt in 'The Book of Household Management' edited by Isabella Beeton, 1861 (See Mrs.B)

551. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ROASTING MEAT AND BAKING IT, may be generally described as consisting in the fact, that, in baking it, the fumes caused by the operation are not carried off in the same way as occurs in roasting. Much, however, of this disadvantage is obviated by the improved construction of modern ovens, and of especially those in connection with the Leamington kitchener, of which we give an engraving here, and a full description of which will be seen at paragraph No. 65, with the prices at which they can be purchased of Messrs. R. and J. Slack, of the Strand. With meat baked in the generality of ovens, however, which do not possess ventilators on the principle of this kitchener, there is undoubtedly a peculiar taste, which does not at all equal the flavour developed by roasting meat. The chemistry of baking may be said to be the same as that described in roasting.

ROASTING. 577. OF THE VARIOUS METHODS OF PREPARING MEAT, ROASTING is that which most effectually preserves its nutritive qualities. Meat is roasted by being exposed to the direct influence of the fire. This is done by placing the meat before an open grate, and keeping it in motion to prevent the scorching on any particular part. When meat is properly roasted, the outer layer of its albumen is coagulated, and thus presents a barrier to the exit of the juice. In roasting meat,the heat must be strongest at first, and it should then be much reduced. To have a good juicy roast, therefore, the fire must be red and vigorous at the very commencement of the operation. In the most careful roasting, some of the juice is squeezed out of the meat: this evaporates on the surface of the meat, and gives it a dark brown colour, a rich lustre, and a strong aromatic taste. Besides these effects on the albumen and the expelled juice, roasting converts the cellular tissue of the meat into gelatine, and melts the fat out of the fat-cells.

578. IF A SPIT is used to support the meat before the fire, it should be kept quite bright. Sand and water ought to be used to scour it with, for brickdust and oil may give a disagreeable taste to the meat. When well scoured, it must be wiped quite dry with a clean cloth; and, in spitting the meat, the prime parts should be left untouched, so as to avoid any great escape of its juices.

579. KITCHENS IN LARGE ESTABLISHMENTS are usually fitted with what are termed "smoke-jacks." By means of these, several spits, if required, may be turned at the same time. This not being, of course, necessary in smaller establishments, a roasting apparatus, more economical in its consumption of coal, is more frequently in use.

580. THE BOTTLE-JACK, of which we here give an illustration, with the wheel and hook, and showing the precise manner of using it, is now commonly used in many kitchens. This consists of a spring inclosed in a brass cylinder, and requires winding up before it is used, and sometimes, also, during the operation of roasting. The joint is fixed to an iron hook, which is suspended by a chain connected with a wheel, and which, in its turn, is connected with the bottle- jack. Beneath it stands the dripping-pan, which we have also engraved, together with the basting-ladle, the use of which latter should not be spared; as there can be no good roast without good basting. "Spare the rod, and spoil the child," might easily be paraphrased into "Spare the basting, and spoil the meat." If the joint is small and light, and so turns unsteadily, this may be remedied by fixing to the wheel one of the kitchen weights. Sometimes this jack is fixed inside a screen; but there is this objection to this apparatus, - that the meat cooked in it resembles the flavour of baked meat. This is derived from its being so completely surrounded with the tin, that no sufficient current of air gets to it. It will be found preferable to make use of a common meat-screen, such as is shown in the woodcut. This contains shelves for warming plates and dishes; and with this, the reflection not being so powerful, and more air being admitted to the joint, the roast may be very excellently cooked.

Mrs Beeton's roasting implements
1. is a bottle-jack, and 10. is the jack in a roasting screen

581. IN STIRRING THE FIRE, or putting fresh coals on it, the dripping-pan should always be drawn back, so that there may be no danger of the coal, cinders,or ashes falling down into it.

582. UNDER EACH PARTICULAR RECIPE there is stated the time required for roasting each joint; but, as a general rule, it may be here given, that for every pound of meat, in ordinary-sized joints, a quarter of an hour may be allotted.

583. WHITE MEATS, AND THE MEAT OF YOUNG ANIMALS, require to be very well roasted, both to be pleasant to the palate and easy of digestion. Thus veal, pork,and lamb, should be thoroughly done to the centre.

584. MUTTON AND BEEF, on the other hand, do not, generally speaking, require to be so thoroughly done, and they should be dressed to the point, that, in carving them, the gravy should just run, but not too freely. Of course in this, as in most other dishes, the tastes of individuals vary; and there are many who cannot partake, with satisfaction, of any joint unless it is what others would call overdressed.

Now that you know how to roast, trusting that you have your Improved Spring Jack to hand, we can move on to actual receipts.

- Beef, a little salt.
Mode. - -The fore-rib is considered the primest roasting piece, but the middle-rib is considered the most economical. Let the meat be well hung (should the weather permit), and cut off the thin ends of the bones, which should be salted for a few days, and then boiled. Put the meat down to a nice clear fire, put some clean dripping into the pan, dredge the joint with a little flour, and keep continually basting the whole time. Sprinkle some fine salt over it (this must never be done until the joint is dished, as it draws the juices from the meat); pour the dripping from the pan, put in a little boiling: water slightly salted, and strain the gravy over the meat. Garnish with tufts of scraped horseradish, and send horseradish sauce to table with it (see No. 447). A Yorkshire pudding (see Puddings) sometimes accompanies this dish, and, if lightly made and well cooked, will be found a very agreeable addition.
Time. - 10 lbs. of beef, 2-1/2 hours; 14 to 16 lbs., from 3-1/2 to 4 hours.
Average cost, 8-1/2d. per lb.
Sufficient. - A joint of 10 lbs. sufficient for 8 or 9 persons.
Seasonable at any time.

MEMORANDA IN ROASTING. - The management of the fire is a point of primary importance in roasting. A radiant fire throughout the operation is absolutely necessary to insure a good result. When the article to be dressed is thin and delicate, the fire may be small; but when the joint is large, the fire must fill the grate. Meat must never be put down before a hollow or exhausted fire, which may soon want recruiting; on the other hand, if the heat of the fire becomes too fierce, the meat must be removed to a considerable distance till it is somewhat abated. Some cooks always fail in their roasts, though they succeed in nearly everything else. A French writer on the culinary art says that anybody can learn how to cook, but one must be born a roaster. According to Liebig, beef or mutton cannot be said to be sufficiently roasted until it has acquired, throughout the whole mass, a temperature of 158°; but poultry may be well cooked when the inner parts hare attained a temperature of from 130° to 140°. This depends on the greater amount of blood which beef and mutton contain, the colouring matter of blood not being coagulable under 158°.

ROAST RIBS OF BEEF, Boned and Rolled (a very Convenient Joint for a Small Family).
658. INGREDIENTS. - 1 or 2 ribs of beef.
Mode. - Choose a fine rib of beef, and have it cut according to the weight you require, either wide or narrow. Bone and roll the meat round, secure it with wooden skewers, and, if necessary, bind it round with a piece of tape. Spit the beef firmly, or, if a bottle-jack is used, put the joint on the hook, and place it near a nice clear fire. Let it remain so till the outside of the meat is set, when draw it to a distance, and keep continually basting until the meat is done, which can be ascertained by the steam from it drawing towards the fire. As this joint is solid, rather more than 1/4 hour must be allowed for each lb. Remove the skewers, put in a plated or silver one, and send the joint to table with gravy in the dish, and garnish with tufts of horseradish. Horseradish sauce, No. 447, is a great improvement to roast beef.
Time. - For 10 lbs. of the rolled ribs, 3 hours (as the joint is very solid, we have allowed an extra1/2 hour); for 6 lbs., 1-1/2 hour.
Average cost, 8-1/2d. per lb.
Sufficient. - A joint of 10 lbs. for 6 or 8 persons.
Seasonable all the year.

Note. - When the weight exceeds 10 lbs., we would not advise the above method of boning and rolling; only in the case of 1 or 2 ribs, when the joint cannot stand upright in the dish, and would look awkward. The bones should be put in with a few vegetables and herbs, and made into stock.

. - Beef, a little salt.
Mode. - As a joint cannot be well roasted without a good fire, see that it is well made up about ¾ hour before it is required, so that when the joint is put down, it is clear and bright. Choose a nice sirloin, the weight of which should not exceed 16 lbs., as the outside would be too much done, whilst the inside would not be done enough. Spit it or hook it on to the jack firmly, dredge it slightly with flour, and place it near the fire at first, as directed in the preceding recipe. Then draw it to a distance, and keep continually basting until the meat is done. Sprinkle a small quantity of salt over it, empty the dripping-pan of all the dripping, pour in some boiling water slightly salted, stir it about, and strain over the meat. Garnish with tufts of horseradish, and send horseradish sauce and Yorkshire pudding to table with it. For carving, see p. 317.
Time. - A sirloin of 10 lbs., 2-1/2 hours; 14 to 16 lbs., about 4 or 4-1/2 hours.
Average cost, 8-1/2d. per lb.
Sufficient. - A joint of 10 lbs. for 8 or 9 persons.
Seasonable at any time.

The rump, round, and other pieces of beef are roasted in the same manner, allowing for solid joints; 1/4 hour to every lb. Note. - -The above is the usual method of roasting meat; but to have it in perfection and the juices kept in, the meat should at first be laid close to the fire, and when the outside is set and firm, drawn away to a good distance, and then left to roast very slowly; where economy is studied, this plan would not answer, as the meat requires to be at the fire double the time of the ordinary way of cooking; consequently, double the quantity of fuel would be consumed.

Yorkshire puddings were, of course, originally a dish by themselves and only seem to be noted as an accompaniment to roast beef from the beginning of the 19th Century, for instance...

Original Receipt from 'The cook and housewife's manual', by Margaret Dods, 1826

ROAST BEEF is garnished with plenty of horseradish finely scraped and laid round the dish in light heaps and served with Yorkshire pudding or potato pudding.* The inside or English side as it is commonly called in the northern division of the island is by some esteemed the most delicate. To this the carver must attend and also to the equitable distribution of the fat.
*Dr Redgill who relished a joke after the serious business of dinner was despatched, holding it as a maxim that a moderate laugh aided digestion, was wont to say that Yorkshire pudding was the true Squire of Sir Loin and horse-radish his brisk fiery Page, without which attendants he looked despoiled of his dignity and bearing.

What is odd is how the roast beef dinner-on-a-plate of sliced meat, portioned-out veg and Yorkshires came to been seen as English when the traditional English Service is very much not to have a set meal, but to allow each diner to choose, individually, what items they want from the selection placed before them. The idea of a ready-plated-up meal, the 'meat and two veg', is very definitely from the Russian style of service. This Service à la russe is said to have been introduced to France in the early 19th Century by the Russian Ambassador Alexander Kurakin. As many French restaurateurs and cooks moved to England - including the hugely influential Louis Eustache Ude, Alexis Soyer and Marie-Antoine Carême - the new plated service came to supplant the Old English way, which, like a lot of other things, is a pity.

Sunday Roast
Image: Robbie Jim

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