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The Scrivener: How To Powder Beef

Diligent researcher Brian Barratt discovers what the great diarist Samuel Pepys meant when he mentioned powdered beef.

On 22 February 2012 we were able to read in Open Writing an extract from the fascinating diary of Samuel Pepys for the same day in 1660, including this short report:

'To my fatherís to dinner, where nothing but a small dish of powdered beef and dish of carrots; they being all busy to get things ready for my brother John to go to-morrow.'

Powdered beef? Mr Pepys mentions it several times. Does he mean minced beef, or something much more finely ground, perhaps even dry? Powdered, after all, implies powder. Or does it?

The entry for 'powdered' in the Oxford Dictionary gives several meanings, one of which includes this quotation from 1736:

'Powdered beef and pork imported from Ireland.'

That gives us a clue to the meaning in this context: 'sprinkled or seasoned with salt or spice for future use.' This implies something like what we would today call corned beef ó beef which has been treated or preserved with 'corns' of salt. The meaning of corn, here, is a coarse grain or particle.

In other words, we are talking about salted beef.

We learn from Wikipedia:

'In Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, silverside is the cut of choice for making corned beef, so much so that the name "silverside" is often used to refer to corned beef rather than any other form of the cut.'

In the USA, silverside is known as outside or bottom round.

Elsewhere on the Web, we read that tinned corned beef is made from 'low quality beef that has been partially extracted with hot water to make meat extract'. Meat extract was invented and marketed in the middle of the 19th century by a well-respected German research chemist, Justus von Liebig. It has been replaced by what in the USA are called bouillon cubes. In Australia and Britain we know them popularly by a trade name: Oxo cubes.

So if an Oxo cube is a sort of meat extract, what does it actually contain? Read the small print: wheat flour, salt, yeast extract, maize starch, flavour enhancers (621, 627), colour (caramel 111), vegetable oil, autolysed yeast extract, flavourings (including beef flavour), sugar, onion extract, onion powder.

Flavour enhancer 621 is monosodium glutamate, and 627 is disodium guanylate.

The closest it gets to beef is near the bottom of the list, beef flavour. But to be fair, it is no longer called a Beef Extract Cube. It is a Flavour Stock Cube, and other flavours are available.

Other companies manufacture flavour stock cubes. They do add a very pleasant je ne sais quoi when stirred into soups and casseroles. Because they are compressed, and you crush them when you mix them in, they do become powder, even though they contain hardly any beef at all. Samuel Pepys would have had something to say about that.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2012


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