Steaks and chops are easy to find almost anywhere, but some less-common cuts can be a challenge. Unless you know a farmer or meat-cutter, you'll almost always have to special-order beef cheeks. They're one of the toughest and leanest pieces of beef aside from the heart, but to knowledgeable cooks, they're well worth the trouble. When lovingly slow-cooked in your Crock-Pot, they're tender and have an impeccably rich, beefy flavor.
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Let's Get Cheeky
When you're choosing meats for your meal, it's important to know where a cut comes from. Little-used cuts such as the loin are very tender, while heavily used muscles from the leg and shoulder tend to be tough. Because cattle chew almost constantly, their cheeks are among the most-used muscles on their body -- and are correspondingly chewy themselves. Each cheek ranges from 10 ounces to about a pound, depending on the size of the animal it's taken from. Usually, it has a few streaks of tough gristle or surface fat that need to be removed. Depending on the size of your slow-cooker, you can leave them whole or cut the cheeks in half.
Searing and Browning
Slow-cooking is wonderfully effective at breaking down and tenderizing tough muscle fibers, but a Crock-Pot's low temperature and moist cooking environment make it impossible to generate any meaningful amount of browning on the meat. It isn't mandatory to brown the meat, but searing creates savory flavors in your beef cheeks by fragmenting their proteins. It's the same process -- called Maillard reactions -- that makes a grilled steak taste so good. You can lend those flavors to your beef cheeks by searing them in a hot skillet or Dutch oven, browning them on all sides, before adding them to the slow-cooker. The browned-on juices also have lots of flavor, and can be dissolved in wine or water and added to the pot.
Braising the Cheeks
Most recipes for cheeks, hearts and other tough cuts call for them to be braised. This means simmering them in broth, sauce, or a combination of broth and wine, along with aromatic ingredients such as onions, garlic, celery, carrots and bay leaves. Arrange the aromatics under and around your beef cheeks, then pour in enough liquid to cover the meat at least halfway. Simmer them on high for three to four hours, or on low for six to eight hours, then test them to see whether they're fork-tender. If not, replace the lid and cook for another hour before testing again.
You can braise beef cheeks in your oven -- in a roasting pan or Dutch oven -- but a slow-cooker gives you the option of cooking them without added liquid. The lid traps the natural steam and juices from the cooking meat inside the pot, keeping the air moist and preventing the cheeks from drying out as they cook. A small amount of concentrated liquid will pool at the bottom of your cooker, providing the basis for a rich sauce once any fat has been skimmed away. Season your cheeks with a dry spice rub, and extend the cooking time by 30 to 45 minutes before you begin testing for doneness.