Lately I’ve been lamenting the seeming proliferation of fake pit beef, which I believe is actually roast beef that’s been charred before serving. So I finally got around to trying pit beef at home to see just how hard it is. Conclusion: easier than pie, since we all know pie isn’t actually very easy.
On a 1-10 scale of difficulty, I’d give it a 3, only because you need to wait for the beef to marinate and be able to start coals – recipe can be found at the end of this post.
There doesn’t seem to be much out there in the way of background information. The resource that seems to keep popping up is this NYT article written back in 2000. This is totally unacceptable! First of all, it’s New York, secondly it’s almost a decade old, and lastly the whole premise is flawed. Pit beef as nothing to do with barbecue as far as I’m concerned, and thus should ne be referred to as “Baltimore’s answer to barbecue”. What an insult! It’s really a very straightforward grilled beef sandwich, chracterized by a highly charred crust. And no offense to the guy quoted in the article, but gas grilling just ain’t gonna cut it hoss.
I’ve driven by the place mentioned in the article countless times, but have never had a chance to stop by. I plan on going this afternoon, but from the signage I think it may have changed hands, since I see so mention of “”Big Fat Daddy’s”, and only signs that read “Little Texas” and “Cookout” (the latter in magic marker). In any case, though I have yet to actually taste it, the recipe included in the article just seems to be wrong. I’ve never had pit beef with oregano, ’nuff said. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the important factors are using top round, a good, thorough, thick charred crust, medium rare doneness, slightly bloody runoff, and a good kaiser roll as the vehicle. And really, it’s pretty easy.
Instead of ordering a whole top round from my meat guy, I figured it’d be a lot more useful to see what was available at Safeway, which was a cut they labeled as a “Top Round Roast”, which was about 4 pounds at $4.50 per. That’s pretty pricey, but it’s good for 8 decent-sized sandwiches:
I left it as is since it was pretty thoroughly trimmed, and a bit of attached fat is always welcome. I used a very simple rub of salt, black pepper and minced garlic. The garlic is probably non-traditional, but it pretty much disappears into the background in the final product. After rubbing the seasoning in to the meat well, wrap in plastic and let it sit for at least a couple hours, and up to a day:
Now, again, I don’t think pit beef has anything to do with barbecue as we know it here in the US, it’s really grilling since it’s cooked directly over coals. And for grilling, using real lump charcoal is essential – it burns much hotter and cleaner than briquettes, thought not for as long:
Form a deep a crust on the broad sides first – this also accomplishes most of the cooking. To replicate a pit somewhat, arrange the coals in two rows, as far apart as the meat is wide. Then place the meat int the middle and let it go for 15 minutes:
Then turn once to get the other side, and give it another 15 minutes:
Now as you can see, there are still uncharred surfaces, and this is the major flaw in cooking pit beef on a grill, as opposed to a proper pit:
So after you’ve cooked the second side, rotate the beef onto all uncharred sides until the entire surface is nice and crusty. At this point, my 4 pound cut (which was about 4 inches thick at its thickest point), had reached rareness in the center:
If you desire medium-rareness, give it another 5-7 minutes on the grill, with the top closed and vents wide open. Here’s a cross-section of mine:
As I mentioned above, it helps tremendously to have access to a meat slicer, but a very sharp carving knife will suffice. In either case, let the meat rest for about 10 minutes before slicing. Letting it rest for a bit longer may make it easier to slice if you’re doing it by hand:
Note the pool of clear red meat juice. Now for pit beef, I like my roll soaked with this fluid (which isn’t actually blood, rather water with in this case intact myoglobin. As more heat is applied, the myoglobin denatures into larger molecules and stays behind in the meat, leaving the “juice” clear. This will be on the final exam. Anyway, I like the stuff soaked into the roll, but you could go old-school and make a blood and butter sauce by collecting the juice and warming it through over very low heat with fresh butter:
Here’s the final product, and what a proper pit beef roll looks like:
And that’s it, authentic, real pit beef made the way it should be, umm except minus the pit. My pit beef recipe is exceedingly simple, the key is in using the right cut, forming a good crust, and slicing thin against the grain.
Homemade Pit Beef Recipe
1 Top Round Roast, 3-4 pounds
salt (not kosher, unless it’s fine-grain like Diamond), black pepper, garlic (optional)
1. Season the beef thoroughly, wrap with plastic, and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight
2. Over two rows of hot lump charcoal, grill the beef on one side for 15 minutes
3. Turn over and cook for another 15 minutes
4. Char any undercooked surfaces using tongs
NOTE: This pit beef recipe yields rare doneness for a 3-4 lb. piece of top round. Cook longer for a larger piece of beef or for more well done temperature. A whole top round weighing 15-20 lbs. should take about and hour and a half total on a flat-top grill for rare-medium rare. Use a probe thermometer to monitor doneness.
5. Allow the meat to rest for at least ten minutes before slicing
NOTE: When slicing, be sure to slice against the muscle grain
6. Serve on kaiser rolls for added “correctness”
7. If you must, add bbq sauce or horseradish/horseradish sauce – I will post my recipes for both later today
NOTE: I cannot condone the use of ketchup, mustard, or mayonnaise in conjunction with pit beef.