Another American classic, despite the foreign-sounding name.
While Salisbury is a place in England, and beef is indeed a classic British meal, this Salisbury is named after Dr. James H. Salisbury of Scott, New York.
Born in 1823, Salisbury had degrees in Chemistry and Natural Science before going to medical school. While working as a doctor in the Civil War, he observed a number of cases of dysentery; the medical establishment at the time often advised a diet of chopped raw beef.
Salisbury had a slightly different prescription, believing from the 1860s onward that slightly cooked beef, smashed free of connective tissue, was even easier to digest.
Here’s an early version from the January 29, 1885 edition of The Cambridge (Ohio) Jeffersonian:
Salisbury steak appears to be giving remarkably good results as a diet for people troubled with weak or disordered digestion, but who require the supporting power of animal food. The manner of preparing it is described by Dr. Hepburn in the Philadelphia Medical and Surgical Reporter. The surface of a round steak is chopped with a dull knife, the object being not to cut, but to pound the meat. As the meat pulp comes to the top it is scraped off, while the tough and fibrous portion gradually reaches the bottom of trough. The pulp is then made into cakes and lightly and quickly broiled so as to leave it almost raw inside. This diet is sometimes used exclusively in chronic cases, and as a rule no drugs are employed with it except tonics.
The good Dr. Hepburn actually had a bit more advice in the underlying letter, from the January 10, 1885 edition of the aforementioned (Philadelphia) Medical and Surgical Journal:
Salisbury Steak and Treatment.
Eds. Med. and Surg. Reporter: —
Requests have come to me from different physicians asking me to explain more fully about the “Salisbury steak and treatment.” It will save me time and writing if you will kindly publish the following in the Med. and Surg. Reporter:
The Salisbury steak is made by taking the best slices of the “round” of the beef, and chopping it with dull knives. The object is not to cut, but rather pound the meat. A hand-chopper can be used, but if the patient is to live exclusively on this diet he would save much time and trouble by purchasing an American meat chopper and having the knives blunted.
The amount of meat used must, of course, be according to the amount a patient can eat. On pounding the meat, as directed, the pulp comes to the top, and the tough, fibrous portion remains below. This pulp is scraped off and made into cakes — like sausage-cakes — or in shape like a good-sized steak, and gently broiled on a gridiron. It has been found that meat gently cooked is more digestible than raw. The fire must be good, so that the meat may be rapidly broiled — that is, be cooked on the outside and almost raw inside.
A little salt and pepper and a small amount of butter added makes a not at all unpalatable dish, and one which contains all the strength of the beef, with the tough, indigestible portion entirely separated. This diet is used exclusively in chronic cases, by physicians professing to treat according to the Salisbury method. They use but few drugs, and what they use are mainly tonics. I hope to accumulate the history of cases treated by this method, and if I do so will publish them with pleasure.
This diet is used not only in diseased digestion, but diseases of liver, kidneys, stomach, bowels, nerves, etc., and I have seen remarkable results in person suffering from widely different diseases.
W. M. Hepburn, M.D.
October 21, 1869 The (North Vernon, Indiana) Plain Dealer
Dr. Hepburn mentions the American meat chopper, which Dr. Salisbury actually endorsed. Some sources refer to this as an early meat grinder, but in reality, the American Chopper was exactly what it advertised itself to be: a chopper. A crank would turn gears that would move a sharp knife attached to a lever arm up and down in the wood-bottomed metal cylinder; in turn, the container would rotate by ratcheting forward a notch every time the knife was raised.
It was, in effect, a mechanized version of the old chopping knife, a rounded blade that would be run through meat in a bowl. The “before” and “after” of the American Chopper are well illustrated in this 1875 advertising card:
Dr. Hepburn’s advice, then, was to intentionally dull the blade on the chopper to effectively mash the flesh until the meat fell away from the connective tissue. In the 1890s, however, a substantial improvement was made to the available methods of preparing meat on the market: the augur-driven meat grinder.
In the meat grinder, as opposed to a chopper, the screw-like augur pushes cubes of meat up against holes in a metal plate; a blade then cuts downward, using shear force (that is, force pushing in different directions on different parts of the flesh) to pull the meat apart, making connective tissue either small enough to eat or separating it and trapping it in the augur mechanism — an effect familiar to anyone who has had to clean the meat grinder.
It could’ve been the case that the augur-driven grinder would make Salisbury’s steak a prominent recipe in every home, but it didn’t play out quite that way; instead, Salisbury’s dull-knife preparation instructions fell away while the hamburg steak rose to prominence, a trend only slightly interrupted by World War I’s resurgence of Salisbury steak in a desire to stop eating foods that sound German. (We talked a little bit about the relationship between Salisbury steak and hamburger in the post for Hamburg steak from Avon Lake, Ohio.)
Salisbury steak would come to prominence again in the 1960s as part of the second wave of frozen dinners (following the original turkey, beef, and fried chicken options). By this time, there was no trouble telling hamburger and Salisbury steak apart: the hamburger bun had become an integral part of the former sometime around 1916.
From a box sold in Adams, Minnesota, with ephemera from Ohio.
Beat: 2 eggs.
- 6 Tbsp. Ritz crackers (12)
- 2 Tbsp. diced onion (I like more)
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
- 1/2 tsp. rubbed sage (I prefer poultry seasoning)
Add 1-1/2 lb. ground beef and mix well.
Shape 6 patties; cook 4-6 minutes each side. Remove and keep warm.
In same skillet, saute:
- 1/4 c. butter
- 8 oz. fresh or canned mushrooms
Saute 2 minutes. Stir in 6 Tbsp. flour till smooth.
- 3-1/2 c. water
- 4 beef bouillon cubes
Cook till smooth and thickened. Return patties to gravy.
Reduce heat to low–cook open for 10 minutes; occasionally stir.