In this series, expert Josh Ozersky offers a guide to buying, cooking and eating meat, in particular those unusual and obscure cuts that are rarely seen in restaurants.
The Cut: Cross-cut beef shank (#117 foreshank in the National Association of Meat Producers guide). If they called it “shin” instead of “shank” it would make more sense. Because that’s what it is.
The Sell: Beef shank is good, and I eat it a lot, and I like it. It is in the beef “friend zone” though, for sure. Beef shank is familiar to most people as osso buco, at least in its immature form (osso buco is generally a veal shank). And I eat it more than might be expected, given my access to big, high-end steaks and roasts. For one thing, shanks are cheap—for the obvious reason that no one likes them—and secondly, they are available at C-Town supermarket, where they practically qualify as a top-shelf selection. Rather than getting the whole shin, which is the size of a fire extinguisher, I tend to get cross-cut shin steaks. Calling these “steaks” is horribly misleading: They are tough and lean, and if you tried to grill them up you would be disappointed. But the meat has an immense amount of dense muscle tissue, not to mention all that gnarly connective tissue, which is basically instant gelatin.
The How-To: The traditional remedy for tough beef shins is simply to boil—or rather, braise—the hell out of them, disguising the resultant gray leather with broth and hot sauce and so on. This is way too much trouble and not that good anyway. Cut the meat off the shin instead, and grind it coarsely for chili. Beef shin is endowed by its creator with a single purpose, and that purpose is chili. All the things that make it bad as a straight-up eating meat—its tensile strength, its too-beefy flavor, its inaccessibility—serve to make it a secret weapon in things like chili and taco filling and meat sauce, where its textural issues are negated and its flavor enhanced. More importantly, all that tough gristle and collagen will melt, binding up the final dish in a dense, sticky, invisible nimbus of silky mouthfeel. Or you can make osso buco.
Josh Ozersky has written on his carnivorous exploits for Time, Esquire and New York magazines; he has authored several books, including The Hamburger: A History; and he is the founder of the Meatopia food festival.