Curing and smoking - a trip into the past

Several years ago, a good friend alerted me to an interesting way to prepare ox tongue. He pointed me to a reference in Laura Mason & Catherine Brown's The Taste of Britain to Suffolk cured tongue. A Suffolk cure involves 'pickling' the meat in a brine made from salt, black treacle and stout. Although the passage describes this as a way to cure, cook and press tongue, the authors state that there is a smoked version in an Elizabeth David book. Now that really did interest me! Unfortunately, this was before the days of extensive internet information, and Mrs David's recipes are never detailed or precise. Indeed, when I eventually did acquire a copy of the relevant book (Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen), what I found was less a recipe than a jigsaw of hints to inspire someone who already knows what they're doing.

Fast-forward fifteen or more years to the present: I am a much more experienced cook, practised at basic curing, and with a much expanded internet at my fingertips. Even so, I still have found no detailed recipe for the specific cured and smoked tongue dish I'm seeking. I am no longer daunted by this, though, and set about recreating a product that Mason and Brown suggest hasn't been seen in living memory. At least nobody can tell me I got it wrong, then. The tongue is dry-cured, first with sugar, then with salt, then pickled in a sweet, beer brine and finally smoked. After much research, I managed to piece together a process I was confident would work.

Day 1
The tongue is rubbed all over with dark sugar. 

Tongue is covered with thick skin, which I decided would not be easily penetrated by flavour. Accordingly, I chose the strongest-tasting sugar, Billingtons molasses sugar. On this first day, it's hard to get the sugar to cling to the meat, but I know it will draw moisture and become easier to rub in as time passes. Place the tongue in a plastic box in the fridge.

Day 2
The sugar is re-applied.

Morning and evening, I rubbed the now moist meat with molasses sugar. The exposed meat on the underside of the tongue had already started to darken.

Day 3
The tongue in rubbed with salt.

I wiped the tongue clean and placed it into a fresh tub.

Although it is possible to cure meat with just salt, it retains a more attractive colour and is less likely to spoil if potassium nitrite is added. The easiest way to introduce this is with Prague Powder, a standardised mix of rock salt and nitrite. I used 20g fine ground rock salt (not commercial table salt) and 2g Prague Powder #1. Having rubbed this mixture onto all the surfaces of the tongue, I returned it to the fridge.

Day 4
More rubbing.

As with the sugar, I massaged the salt mixture back into the tongue morning and night.

Day 5
Pickle the tongue.

With the help of various curing websites, I calculated the volume and salinity of brine I was going to need. However, my Suffolk cure requires beer and sugar. Many recipes call for black treacle, but I decided that my use of molasses sugar was enough to satisfy this element. For the liquid, I decided to use half stout and half water.
160ml water
160ml stout
28g rock salt
2.8g Prague Powder #1
20g molasses sugar
Mix the brine well and bring it to a boil to dissolve the sugar and salt. Measure the thickness of the tongue at its thickest part and note the measurement. Immerse the tongue in the brine, let it cool and put it all back in the fridge.

Day 6+
Patience is a virtue.

The tongue needs to sit in the brine/pickle for 24 hours for each inch (2.5cm) of its thickness. Mine was about 8cm, so I decided on 3.5 days, turning each day to ensure an even cure. At the end of this time, I still had no clear information about the order of things: do I smoke the tongue first then cook it, or vice versa? In the end, that thick skin was my deciding factor - cook first and smoke the exposed meat. I rinsed off the tongue and put it in a large pan with onion, celery, carrot and bay. Once this was boiling, I reduced the heat and let it simmer a good couple of hours, until the meat was tender. After a little cooling time, I could remove the skin fairly easily with the help of a sharp knife.

It's important that the meat is allowed to dry a little before smoking, so I left it in front of a fan for an hour. In order to help the smoke to "stick" to the meat, and to help create a pleasant sheen on the finished tongue, I oiled my hands and rubbed them all over the meat. Finally, I hung the meat in a cold-smoking cabinet I'd made (out of a large box, some bricks and an oven rack) and set a box of beechwood pellets to smoulder under it for 3-4 hours. Once meat is smoked, it can be eaten immediately, but a day or so in the fridge gives the smoke flavour time to really penetrate the meat and even out.

I decided to serve my Suffolk cured tongue it as a starter with salad and a glass of riesling. Feedback from my guests was that the sweet-and-smoke combination was delicious and surprisingly delicate. Next time, I might be tempted to cook and flay the tongue before pickling it, just to see how it fares with a bolder flavour. I'll certainly be doing it again, though.


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