Your supermarket's beef showcase is mostly filled with familiar standbys, from steaks and roasts to versatile-but-bland ground beef. Food enthusiasts looking to expand beyond those traditional favorites have plenty of options to choose from, especially among the "variety meats" or offal. But these can be challenging to work with. Consider beef tongue, for example. Its unequivocal identity and lack of familiar structure can be disconcerting, and you probably won't be able to swap tongue recipes with your neighbors. If you can get past the "ick" factor, though, it's an interesting and flavorful cut.
The Tough Get Going
With beef and other meats, one reliable rule of thumb is that the most-used muscles become the densest and toughest over the animal's life. Given that cattle spend almost their entire lives eating or chewing their cud, you'd be correct in assuming that the tongue is very tough indeed. Furthermore, it's anchored at the base with thick strands of gristle and surrounded by a tough skin. Before you can do anything interesting with it, you need to cook the tongue until it's tender and then remove those impediments.
Cooking the Tongue
Some cooks like to treat the tongue before cooking to remove any off-flavors or residual blood, first soaking it for 20 to 30 minutes in cold water an then boiling it for just a moment or two in fresh water. These steps are optional. To prepare the tongue, immerse it in cold, lightly salted water and add your choice of spices, herbs or aromatic ingredients such as onions, garlic or bay leaves. One technique suggests simmering the tongue in its water for 4 to 8 hours, until completely tender, before peeling and trimming it. Another standard method suggests simmering the for just 1 1/2 to 2 hours, then peeling the skin and using a sharp knife to cut away the gristle from its stump end. The peeled tongue must then be cooked until it's fork-tender.
A Few Serving Options
Once it's cooked to tenderness, tongue has a uniquely silky texture due to its short muscle fibers. It's an ideal sandwich meat, rich and beefy but with no stringy strands to stick in your teeth. Slow-braised in gravy or tomato sauce, sliced tongue makes a flavorful accompaniment to potatoes or pasta; or it can be diced or thinly sliced for a late addition to hot pho or other soups. Seasoned with cumin, garlic and chilies, tongue makes a tasty and authentic taco meat. Tongue's delicate texture also lends itself to salads, where -- like chicken breast -- it provides lean, savory protein to complement the vegetables.
Tongue can also be salted or smoked, creating a flavorful alternative to the fresh-cooked cut. Salted tongue is simply corned beef and can be treated the same way, simmered until tender and then -- after peeling and trimming -- sliced and served hot with cabbage and potatoes, or cooled for later use as a sandwich meat. Smoked tongue is often sold cooked, ready to eat as a sandwich meat right from the package or as an entree after heating. A wartime edition of “The American Woman's Cookbook,” filled with recipes from the waste-nothing Depression years, suggests serving it smothered with mushrooms, in a tomato-based "Spanish" sauce.