Pickled tongue evokes images of glistening, tapered slabs of gray meat resting in vinegar -- but it's nothing of the sort. Pickling in this regard refers to wet-curing, an original form of preservation, and it produces a tender cut of meat that makes a killer sandwich and looks nothing like a tongue in its whole form. Botulism is a concern with any pickled food. With tongue, sodium nitrite -- sold as Prague powder #1 or curing salt, is the best choice for preventing it. Pork and beef tongue use the same pickling technique.
Whole muscles like tongue don't require much prep work aside from cleaning. Even if you purchased "cleaned" tongue, a quick blanching kills any surface bacteria that may have be present. Blanch the tongue in boiling water for 5 minutes: then scrub it under running water using a nylon brush. Dry the tongue with paper towels and let it cool to room temperature.
Brining is when you incorporate the first round of spices and flavors into the tongue; use a heavy hand, since the tongue can take it. Make the base: Add 3 quarts of water and 1 1/2 teaspoons of sodium nitrite to a saucepan for every 4 to 5 pounds of tongue. Finish the base with 3 1/2 cups of kosher or sea salt and 1 cup of sugar. Add vinegar, about 1 cup per quart of water, if desired.
Finally, add the spices. A standard spice mix for a thick muscle like tongue usually contains a couple of bay leaves, a teaspoon or so of black peppercorns, chili flakes to taste and several crushed garlic cloves, but add more if you like. Ginger, juniper berries and star anise work, too. Simmer the brine for about 30 seconds and let it cool.
The mechanics of preserving -- drawing moisture out of bacterial cells with osmosis to render them inactive -- takes time: Seven days for every 4 to 5 pounds of tongue. The most important aspect of preserving is an oxygen-free environment; the tongue has to stay submerged in the brine.
Place the tongue in a large ceramic crock or heavy-duty food container and pour the brine over it. Set a plate or heavy bowl on the tongue to keep it submerged. Cover the container and set it in the refrigerator, keeping it there one week per 5 pounds. After brining, place the tongue in a clean container and cover it with a few inches of cold water. Soak the tongue overnight in the refrigerator.
After brining for a week, the tongue is brined, but not ready to eat -- not that you could chew it, anyway. The tongue is still tough as leather, and only one thing -- collagen-dissolving moist heat -- will soften it. You can treat the tongue like any other tough cut of meat at this point.
Simmer the tongue until it's tender -- about1 to 1 /2 hours per pound -- in water or stock. Add a few cups of aromatics -- chopped carrots, celery and onions -- and spices to taste. After simmering, peel the bumpy outer sheath of skin off the tongue.
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