The offal (truth) about beef heart? It’s damn tasty. —INGRAIN, Fall/Winter 2019
STORY / Jesse Valenciana
The revival and resurgence of the once almost lost art of butchery has brought back waning practices. Whole-animal or nose-to-tail butchery had all but disappeared in this country, relegated to the occasional rural butcher or guy with a feral hog–hunting obsession. But in the past ten years, whole-animal butchery has become THE hot urban trend, the meat equivalent of some heritage potato variety at a farmers’ market, in the hippest neighborhoods across the country.
IN(NARDS) WITH THE OUT CROWD
Before large-scale, industrial meat processing made offal* a shameful afterthought and way, way before whole-animal butchering was a must-have badge on the hipster scout sash, offal was actually a poor man’s delicacy. It included the parts of the animal that were abundant and cost-effective, offering families who lived off the land the luxury of eating something that was, well, meat-like enough. Trendy cuts like the hanger and Denver steak weren’t even an option, but liver surely was!
Despite what the previous snark may imply, whole-hog butchering isn’t just the cool thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do. Using as much of an animal as possible is a more conscious way to approach butchering. Many independent butchers sell locally sourced meat and have forged relationships with their purveyors so that knowledge is passed down to the consumer: what the animal was fed, how it lived, and virtually anything else you might want to know about your meat (though, you may still not want to hear some things). Most importantly, whole-animal butchering reduces the waste that plagues large commercial meat processors.
So now that the curtain has been pulled back on animal butchering, where do you go from here? Unlike your big-box supermarket’s meat department, nose-to-tail butchers have a wide variety of meats, both more popular cuts and off-the-wall trimmings from which to choose. Each cut has a unique flavor and texture, which may be off-putting for the less adventurous eater (memories of grandma’s metallic-tasting liver and onion dish; the soft, mushy texture of veal brains that still triggers flavor PTSD). But previously uncharted offal territory can also be palate awakening, and there is no better meat than beef heart to kick-start your offal journey.
The heart is not an organ but a lean muscle, thus sparing it from the intense flavors that can plague other meat innards. Beef heart can also be cooked in a variety of ways. You can grill, sear, sauté, braise, or grind it into meatballs or burgers. It’s that versatile. The meat itself? Surprisingly tender with a slight chewiness.
The key to breaking down beef heart is to clean it very well. This requires patience, as there is a healthy amount of fat, gristle, and silverskin on the heart. It is a fun adventure for those home cooks who appreciate the opportunity to work on their knife skills. (Or your butcher can do this for you.)
That hunk of meat (1 to 1½ pounds for a small heart), fat and all, needs to be carefully trimmed down, chamber by chamber. (Novice? Hit YouTube.) Next, cut off the fat pockets and gristle, including arteries, within each chamber. Once cleaned, a heart can serve roughly eight people. And, in keeping with the whole-hog approach, render all of that trimmed fat and gristle into beef tallow to use for cooking.
Another wonderful aspect of beef heart is that it’s relatively inexpensive; the downside is that it’s not readily available. If you have a South American or Central American market nearby, they can be great places to shop. Regardless, call your local butcher ahead to make sure they have heart in stock or ask them to order one for you.
One final offal plug: When Valentine’s Day rolls around this winter, why not consider making tartare for dinner? Because it doesn’t get more romantic than eating heart on a lover’s holiday, right? Okay, fine, maybe that’s not for everyone. But do yourself a favor: Next time you’re at the butcher shop, lost in the glow of the counter’s fluorescent lights and entranced by all that meaty goodness, ask for a heart.
*The word "offal" refers to the internal organs and entrails of a butchered animal. Its culinary history is a polarizing one. Offal is taboo in some cultures and revered in others, but we’re siding with the lovers on this one. It was an ingredient in medieval peasant dishes like umble pie (filled with deer innards, usually the liver, lungs, kidneys, and heart) and remains THE main ingredient in the foie gras (duck or goose liver) or pâté (often liver, but also other cuts of various animals) that your favorite Michelin-rated restaurant so proudly serves.