January 3, 2014

Awesome Cuts of Meat You're (Probably) NOT Eating: Beef Shanks!

Do you stick to the tried and true when it comes to animal proteins at the grocery store? Do you automatically reach for the boneless, skinless chicken breasts, the ground beef, the London broil, the boneless pork chops, or the turkey sausages? Do you steer clear of the more gnarly looking stuff? Are you afraid to pick up a package of something unfamiliar because you haven’t the faintest idea what to do with it? Well, that ends today!

When it comes to cuts of red meat, pork, and poultry, the modern American supermarket has become a warehouse for the ho-hum, the been-there-done-that, and the just plain ordinary. If you venture out to an ethnic market, however—especially an Asian supermarket, but also some Hispanic grocers—you’ll be treated to a veritable cornucopia of cuts you’ve likely never seen and maybe didn’t even know existed. We city folk can be excused for this. Not having grown up on farms, it’s easy for us to think meat magically appears in the world cleaned, cut, and shrink-wrapped for our shopping convenience. It’s also easy to forget that these yummy foods come from animals that aren’t just congolmerations of muscle meat, but were living, breathing beings who had organs, bones, skin, and feet. Aside from the moral imperative we should feel to engage in “nose-to-tail cooking” (that is, honoring these creatures who have been sacrificed for the sake of getting into our tummies by using every bit of them we can, and not just the pretty stuff), each of these lesser-appreciated bits comes with its own set of nutrients and deliciousness, provided we know how to cook them and make the most of them. And a recent trip to my neighborhood chain supermarket showed me that even some of these regular ol' stores carry the more interesting stuff, too. You just have to keep an eye out for it. (For why these forgotten cuts are so important for our health, you'll just have to read all the way to the end. If you're super-pressed for time, skip way down to the paragraph in red, but promise me you'll come back and read the rest some other time.)

Today’s post honors one of the less intimidating cuts, which is a great way for skittish newbies to dip their toes into the water and gently ease into this brave new culinary world.

Here’s proof that just because I rag on WF sometimes 
doesn’t mean I don’t shop there and find great stuff.

BEEF SHANKS!  Today we celebrate the beef shank, a cut that comes to us as a horizontal cut from the leg of the steer. Because of this, it’s got a roundish bone in the middle, surrounded by some pretty tough meat. Cooked improperly, the meat from a shank bone can be difficult to eat. Because it’s from the leg, the muscles there are pretty hard-working. (How often do you pass by a farm and see the cows laying down pampering themselves? Not often. They’re usually on their feet, grazing happily on green grass. With all that standing all day long, those leg muscles get quite the workout.) So the meat there can be pretty tough, not to mention it’s loaded with connective tissue, just like our own bones, muscles, and joints. Connective tissue is extremely good for us, but it can be a challenge for even the strongest human jaws and chompers to gnaw through. So how do we reap the nutritional benefits from this imposing cut while also actually being able to chew it?

Crockpot, crockpot, crockpot!!

If you don’t have a slow cooker, go buy one. Now. (I’ll wait.) If you’re not using a slow cooker on a regular basis, you’re missing out on one of modern technology’s gifts to the hurried, harried cook who wants to put real food on the table for themselves and their family. (Okay, maybe it’s more like 1950’s technology, so perhaps not so modern, but it’s not exactly a sub-zero fridge, or dipping things in liquid nitrogen, or whatever the molecular gastronomy folks are doing these days.) Long before the purveyor of the tabletop rotisserie uttered his famous tagline, the slow cooker was the original “set it and forget it” machine.

So what do we do with beef shanks and a slow cooker? The simple answer is: throw some stuff in the slow cooker, let ‘er go on low for a few hours, and then chow down with smiles on our faces. The poetic answer is: make magic. The moist heat of the slow cooker braises the shanks into falling-off-the-bone tender masterpieces and makes all the collagen, gelatin, and other “stuff” locked away leach out and become über easy to digest and assimilate.

The first thing to know is that slow cookers are extremely forgiving. There are certain things that don’t do so well in them, like leafy greens and broccoli. (They turn grayish and way too mushy for my liking.) But things that work excellently are root vegetables (potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, rutabaga), onions, and celery. Lucky for us, because onions, carrots, and celery also happen to make great accompaniments to beef shanks.

With that in mind, I offer you the following recipe. However, like other recipes I’ve posted before, this is more a guide than a hard-and-fast recipe. I’ll post the basics and then give you some ideas on how to modify things.

1½-2 pounds beef shanks (grass-fed is best, but regular ol’ supermarket variety is better than, say, tofu!)
1 can (14.5oz) diced or stewed tomatoes, including the juice
1 large onion, sliced (I prefer white or yellow over red for this, but you can use whatever kind you have on hand)
3 carrots, peeled & chopped into 1-1½ chunks
2-3 stalks celery, chopped into chunks  
¾ cup water
1 Tbsp salt (I like this kind)
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp smoked (or regular) paprika
3-4 garlic cloves, chopped coarsely
1-1½ Tbsp fresh rosemary (leaves either whole right off the stem or chopped coarsely)
Place 3/4 of the sliced onions, celery, and carrots at the bottom of the slow cooker along with some of the rosemary. Sprinkle the salt, pepper, and paprika on the beef (both sides…you know what Emeril says: “I hate one-sided tasting food!”). Place the beef on top of the vegetables (in one layer if your slow cooker is big enough; if not, it’s okay to overlap). Put the remaining veg & rosemary on top. Pour the canned tomatoes and juice over everything. If you have whole or stewed tomatoes, give ‘em a squeeze before they go in, just to break ‘em up and spread the tomato love around more evenly. Add the garlic and water, set the cooker to LOW, and let it go for about 5 hours.

When you return—which you will, because the aroma wafting out of your kitchen will make it almost impossible not to—you will be treated to wildly tender meat that is so soft you can eat it with a spoon. (Good thing, since you’ll need one to scoop up all the lovely juice this creates.) You will also be treated to: BONE MARROW! YES!! Eat the marrow! Beef shanks give us two epicurean delights in one! Connective tissue and rich, buttery marrow. To be honest, I couldn’t find a good index for the nutritional properties of bone marrow, but centuries of European gastronomy can’t be wrong. This stuff is a delicacy. It's buttery, smooth, and delicious. (There’s a reason why we have the phrase, “Suck the marrow out of life.”)

For those of you totally unfamiliar with beef shanks, this is what one looks like (raw). The roundish white thing at the left is the bone. The pink stuff inside the bone is the marrow. (It turns gray/brown when cooked.) And all the white stuff running through the meat that you think is fat marbling? Most of it is not fat, but rather, it’s connective tissue – stuff that is really good for us, but makes this cut hard to eat unless cooked low & slow. 

Here’s a bunch of ways to modify this recipe/guide:
  • Double it! If you're gonna make a dish like this that you just throw into the slow cooker, you might as well make a big batch and have it last a few days. Use 3-4 pounds of beef shanks and add another can of tomatoes.
  • Use veal or lamb shanks instead of beef. They’re just a little smaller, usually. (In fact, lamb shanks are typically used in the most classic recipe for meat shanks, osso bucco.)
  • No carrots? No celery? No problem! Maybe you have a cabbage that’s gonna die if you don’t do something with it soon. (I would only use green though, not purple. Napa and savoy varieties would also be fine.) Chop it up and put it at the bottom of the crockpot.
  • Use the root vegetables I mentioned above instead of (or in addition to) carrots & celery. If you use frozen, chopped rutabaga, you don’t even have to defrost it before you toss it in! Adding more veggies (and a little more liquid) can make this meal stretch a lot farther if you’re feeding a crowd. You could probably double the amount of carrots & celery and you'd still be golden.
  • Use other seasonings to change the flavor profile: ditch the paprika and try cumin, chili powder, and a tiny bit of cayenne (even better if you use canned tomatoes that include green chilies); or go Italian and use canned tomatoes with Italian herbs, and add extra oregano and basil.
  • And here’s a little trick my mommala taught me. (Yes, that’s mommala. I’m Jewish; that’s how I think of her when I’m talking cooking.) For stews, briskets, and other braising-type meats, she adds brewed coffee instead of water to make the sauce/gravy! Yes! It’s delicious, adds a little je-ne-sais-quoi, and the final product really tastes nothing like coffee, so if you have people in your party who don’t like coffee, they'll never suspect it’s in there. (Until they go home and start bouncing off the walls. HA! No, just kidding. You would only need 1-2 cups, depending on how big a batch you were making, and that’s for the entire recipe, which theoretically feeds several people. Or one person, for several meals.) If I were going to go the coffee route, I’d probably steer clear of the Italian or Mexican seasoning. (But do keep the tomatoes.) (Also: what are you doing hanging out with people who don't like coffee? Find better friends! [Just kidding. Not really.])
  • Toss in whatever else you want to get rid of: how about that last half glass worth of red wine from the bottle you opened a week ago? A splash of balsamic vinegar? It's all good!
My photography skills (or lack thereof, really) and my servingware don’t do this justice. 
It’s delicious, I assure you, and the perfect thing for a winter night’s supper.

For a recipe, this post getting awfully long. But before I go, let me share a little more of the culinary magic that is slow cooked beef shanks. When the cooking time is up, if you follow the same strategy I outlined in this post, you’ll be left with a little bit of good ol’ beef tallow! The treasured cooking fat of yesteryear. (What is the strategy? In a nutshell, use a slotted spoon to remove the meat & veg to a separate container. [Glass or porcelain, please. Do not set burning hot food into plastic. BPA-free or not, heat-safe or not, it just gives me the willies, know what I mean?] Pour the liquid into another container [again, glass please] and pop it in the fridge for a few hours. [If your fridge has enough room, you can just stick the whole slow cooker container in there and not bother with something separate.] When it cools and hardens, the fat will rise to the top and solidify to the point where you can scrape it off and store it in a container in the fridge or freezer [plastic is fine here, since the tallow is cold], and use it for cooking just about anything.)

But here’s the REAL bang for your buck with beef shanks: GELATIN! Gelatin, gelatin, gelatin! If you follow the steps above and allow the liquid to cool in the fridge, you’ll notice that it’s not so liquidy anymore. It’s jelled! (Gelled?) That, my friends, is the alchemy that happens from slow cooking a cut of meat loaded with collagen and connective tissue that is otherwise almost impossible to chew. Ask any woman with brittle fingernails who’s tried every remedy in the book: a tried-and-true way to strengthen nails and hair (besides the vitamin biotin) is gelatin. Gelatin comes from all those gnarly bits I mentioned at the beginning of this post: the skin, bones, hooves, joints, and other odds & ends we usually toss aside like so much rubbish. And following the homeopathic principle of “like curing like,” eating things that come from the bones, skin, joints, and other connective bits of animals is very good for the health of our bones, skin, joints, and connective bits. (So stop buying skinless chicken, wouldja?! Eat the skin! It’s got some fat in it, but it’s also protein—all those great amino acids we need for our own skin. Plus, hello, it’s delicious! Don’t you dare toss away the crispy skin of your next roast chicken, and especially not next year's Thanksgiving turkey. It’s practically the best part! You should be fighting relatives for it and giving Aunt Ida a bloody nose to get her share, too.)

Note: don't worry about the semi-solid, jelled state of your sauce. It'll re-liquify completely when reheated.

I’ll write a detailed post sometime about the health & nutritional benefits of gelatin, but in the meantime, here's a fantastic excerpt from an article by low-carb cookbook author Dana Carpender:

You know how, over the past century or so, we've skewed our fatty acid intake by eating less animal fat and more vegetable oils, so that we're getting way too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3s, too many unsaturates and not enough saturates? In exactly the same way, we have been skewing our balance of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Gelatin-rich foods, from bone broths to head cheese to foods like pig's feet and ox tails, were a large part of a traditional diet. Our ancestors relished every part of the animal, and just as they ate organ meats that most modern Americans now spurn, they also ate all the gelatin-rich bony and cartilaginous bits of the animal. In this modern era of muscle meat and little but muscle meat -- think boneless skinless chicken breast -- much of this gelatin has vanished from the diet, but our bodies' need for it has not.
The same can be said for what I referred to in the caption on the second photo above: connective tissue.I know that phrase is scary when used in conjunction with something I'm encouraging you to eat, but don't be intimidated. This is exactly the reason why we need to get back to eating these under-appreciated cuts of meat. In the same way that we've thrown off our fatty acid balance, we've thrown off our amino acid balance,
The funky clearish stuff that looks
like fat is, in fact, the awesomely
delectable connective stuff.
and this could well be contributing to a host of modern health woes. And a
side from the gelatin that makes up the sauce/gravy/liquid portion of the goldmines-in-a-crockpot that are beef shanks, you'll also get tons of collagen, tendons, and other connective bits. 
(This is the stuff that you think is fat, and therefore probably cut off of your meat, but I can assure you it's not fat. [If it was, it would melt out and solidify at the top with the tallow, but it doesn't.] You might also think of it as “gristle,” because normally you cannot chew it. But after a whirl in the ol’ slow cooker, this stuff becomes super soft and completely, joyously, delectably edible. (The texture is a little rubbery, but totally chewable and it is so good for us, yet so woefully absent from our modern diets.)

Shank bones: circes of calcium & other 
mineral goodness just waiting to give 
their all in your stockpot.
One more thing:  Beef shanks are like the Energizer bunny: they just keep going and going. Besides giving us an insanely delicious one-pot meal and bone marrow, beef shanks also provide us with the bones the marrow came in. Please don’t throw them away. Once you remove them from the meat (they’ll slip right out with absolutely nothing on ‘em because the meat is so incredibly soft), stick them in a zip-top bag and pop ‘em in the freezer, where you’ll add more bones here and there, until you have enough to make stock. Real stock, not the canned stuff that’s MSG, salt, and caramel color masquerading as stock. (More on this in the future, along with detailed info on just why gelatin is such a big deal. Sneak peek: They don’t call chicken soup [made with real stock, not bullion or canned crapola] “Jewish penicillin” for nothing.)

So now there’s nothing left for you to do but go to the market, pick up some beef, lamb, or veal shanks and some vegetables, and GET COOKING!  In future posts, I'll bring you more cooking tips to take advantage of other under-appreciated and underutilized cuts. (Even the scary stuff, like liver, heart, and gizzards! [YIKES!] I haven't tried my hand yet at tripe, but I'm willing to give it a shot! I've heard horror stories about kidneys, though.)

Do you have any favorite organ meat recipes? Share them in the comments. I need all the help I can get!

And be sure to check out the other posts in the "Awesome Cuts" Series:

And here's a great guide from the people at BroBBQ (hehheh) on various cuts of beef, what part of the steer they're from, and which cooking methods are best for them: 8 Primal Cuts of Beef.

P.S. I can understand not having celery on hand, but you should pretty much always have onions and carrots. They’re pretty hardy and last a while if stored properly. (Even when just tossed casually into my fridge’s produce drawer, they tend to last a long time.) Canned tomatoes are also key to have in the pantry at all times. They’re so versatile and make last-minute meals really easy. Stock up when they’re on sale (sometimes even 10 for $10 at my local supermarket…can’t beat that!). Keep a variety on hand and you’ll always be able to throw something decent together in a pinch. Think stewed, diced, whole, crushed, plus the different seasonings I mentioned earlier—Italian herbs, green chilies, spicy, etc. Chef Michael Symon’s new book includes a list of pantry must-haves for the home cook that will ensure even the novices can prepare real meals in minutes. Canned tomatoes and onions are on there!

P.P.S. As with all cuts of beef, the shanks are loaded with nutrients. No, I’m not kidding. Vegetables and fruits do NOT have a monopoly on vitamins and minerals. Scroll down in the link and check out the B12, B6, B3, selenium, iron, and zinc. And those numbers are for just 3oz of meat—less than you’d probably eat in a typical serving, so you’d likely get even more for a dinner-sized portion. This is way more delicious than any ol' vitamin pills!

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Your writing style and passion get your points across very well. Thanks for this great post/information. Leni Reed Nazare

    1. Thanks, Leni! My first love is writing (even before food/nutrition), so I really appreciate the compliment!

  2. Thanks for the article, recipe, and a link to another useful health information site. May be able to turf my zinc supplements if I add this recipe into my meal planning. J.

    1. If you want to get more zinc, try oysters. They're off the charts! (Canned is fine if you can't find/afford fresh. Still loaded with Zn.)

  3. ask your mamalah to teach you how to make chopped liver or kishkas! those are organ meat recipes. i'm going to make a lamb shank stew tomorrow - thanks for the inspiring post

  4. What a great discovery! We plan to serve the beef shank recipe you provided above to 8 adults and 8 growing kids next Saturday and have a few questions about this recipe. What's the best amount to serve per person (including bone)? We only have 1 crockpot and 2 le crusset Dutch ovens and plan to use them all. We plan to put the Dutch ovens in the ovens for slow cooking. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. Hi there... I'm sorry, but I don't have any good answers for you! Portion sizes probably depend on people's appetites, and also what else you're serving. (Side dishes, etc.) I really have no idea... On the other issue, I don't see any reason why the dutch ovens wouldn't work just fine. You might want to brown the meat in a skillet first, though. It's not absolutely necessary, but sometimes it does help lend more flavor. (Many slow-cooker recipes recommend browning roasts and things like that in a pan first. In the dutch oven, you can just do it directly in there, and be sure to deglaze the bottom of the vessel in order to get up all those yummy brown bits!)

  5. what a great discovery! we plan to serve this recipe to 8 adults and 8 growing kids (9-14 yrs) next Saturday. will a pound each (including bone) be sufficient? we have 1 crockpot (rather large) and 2 le crusset Dutch ovens. we plan to put the Dutch ovens in an oven low heat. will this work. Should we overlap meat inside the Slow cooker? will this work? thanks for your feedback!

  6. Childhood favorite on mine, I made it last night and have enough for 2 more nights. My mother would mash the potatoes and carrots together with a little broth and the marrow. Most delish!! And we would use ABC noodles with the broth as a soup to start our meal. So good for you and very filling. Would love to see your bone broth recipe.

  7. Thank you for the great info! After a recent trip to Jamaica, I made oxtail stew but thought it was so fatty I couldn't eat it, even though it was delicious. I repeated the recipe with beef shanks & loved it.
    Organ meats: whenever I roast a whole duck, I don't throw away the heart. I sauté it with fresh garlic, add a splash of white wine, let it rest, then put it in my mini food processor with a little grape seed oil, S&P, and Parmesan cheese to make a paste. I serve it with crackers.
    My local Asian market has fresh duck hearts by the pound. Any healthier ideas I can do with them? Thanks again! Putting beef shanks on my shopping list!

  8. Thank you so much.

  9. I couldn't agree more with your post. Shanks are my son's and my favorite meal. I have a simple yet super delicious recipe...Put shanks in slow cooker and pour 1 - 1 1/2 cups of salsa over the top. That's it. The juice/gravy is divine. And the meat sooooo tender!