Before refrigeration, pickling prolonged the storage life of meats, vegetables and fruits. Like smoking and drying, pickling relied on the natural preservative qualities of fruit acids, salt and spices. German sauerbraten evokes the efforts of generations of homemakers to feed their families wholesome, tasty food. This classic spiced beef roast begins with a prolonged marinade in vinegar, cloves and other aromatic spices. Clove-scented pickled beef cousins bring complex, aromatic flavors to varied cuisines worldwide.
Reasons for Vinegar
Although today dishes like sauerbraten can be made with tender cuts of beef, original recipes made provisions for tenderizing tough roasts. Vinegar's antibacterial qualities, combined with its acid content, made it ideal for marinating large cuts of meat for up to several days. Acids soften meat proteins and connective tissues, and recent science supports cooks' awareness of vinegar as a preventive for foodborne illnesses.
Benefits of Cloves
Much of clove's distinctive taste and aroma comes from the volatile chemical, eugenol. It is the high eugenol content that accounts for cloves' preservative and medicinal benefits. Cinnamon, allspice, basil, red wine and vanilla all contain slightly less eugenol, as do the oak barrels in which red wines are aged. Combining cloves with red wine or red wine-based vinegar magnifies preservative capacities while also producing delicious depths of flavor.
Spicing the Roast
For sauerbraten, the most generally well-known version of clove- and vinegar-spiced beef, meat is marinated along with a bouquet garni of bay leaf, allspice, peppercorns, cloves and thyme for up to three days. A pickling spice mixture is sometimes used as a shortcut or in addition, adding mustard, juniper berries, mace, ginger and cinnamon stick to the marinade. The practical German name, meaning sour meat, understates the complexity of flavors incorporated into the meat. Braised with onions and carrots or roasted uncovered, sauerbraten is then finished with a sweet-tart gravy, based on reserved marinade and often thickened and enhanced with gingersnap crumbs.
Related Spiced Beef Roasts
Czechoslovakian marinated beef, svickova, most closely resembles sauerbraten in seasoning and preparation. Marinated in a vinegar-salt brine, svickova is most often seasoned with pickling spices, including cloves, and served with a sour cream gravy based on reserved marinade. Although corned beef, pastrami and New England-style pickled beef are all based on a salt-, rather than vinegar-based marinating brine, the spice mixtures they use are based on medieval aromatics, including juniper, bay and plenty of cloves.
Asian Spiced-Beef Relatives
Although not conventional roasts, two Asian dishes combine beef, a fruit acid and cloves for pungent pleasure. Cloves accompany ginger, cinnamon stick, peppercorns and star anise in Vietnamese pho beef soup, where a sweet-sour balance is maintained by using lime juice and sugar in addition to the spices. Chinese red-cooked beef can be either stovetop- or oven-braised. The aromatic flavors of star anise, ginger and cinnamon are joined by cloves and dried orange or tangerine peel. A rice wine, sherry or rice wine vinegar provides a tart accent.