It wasn’t too long ago that Bon Appétit and their Test Kitchen series were the pinnacles of food media. Their well-lit studios and charismatic hosts and guests had a huge influence on foodie culture, one that imploded in recent years due to a number of scandals. Chief among them: the lack of paid opportunities for people of color as well as the cultural appropriation of white chefs making predominantly ethnic foods; the sidelining of professional chefs and cooks in favor of social media “celebrities”; and one-time Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport resigning in 2020 after 2013 brownface photos came to light. There’s also the fact Condé Nast’s employees are unionizing in hopes of finally receiving fair recompense for all their work.
More on the public radar, however, is Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen star Brad Leone, host of It’s Alive With Brad and self-proclaimed “fermentation expert.” Leone’s show focuses on home-curing and preservation. He makes foods like sauerkraut and pickles that humans once relied on to survive long, cold winters without dying of scurvy or malnutrition. Knowing how to can fresh produce and other foods is a fantastic skill that can save loads of money and provide a taste of summer in the middle of February. There’s just one problem; despite his Instagram popularity, Brad’s not great at it and it’s making people sick.
Last year, Bon Appétit was forced to remove one of Brad’s videos involving the home-canning of seafood, which raised an online clamor from experienced home canners who pointed out that it’s impossible to safely preserve seafood using only a water bath. The bacteria that cause botulism thrive in a low-acid environment, like that found in jars of fish. More acidic foods and brines, like those from pickles, are so hostile to bacteria that 212° Fahrenheit boiling water is enough to safely sanitize food. But safely preserved seafood and meats require pressure canning. The inescapable pressure elevates the boiling point of water to 240°, enough to kill even the hardiest microscopic bug. Leone’s guest chef, Charlotte Langley, later posted a statement on her Scout Canning website stating Bon Appétit had cut all the critical filmed safety measures from the published videos. Leone apologized for the video on his Instagram page and moved on. “I apologize again and will do better as a teacher and student of food,” he said. Unfortunately, it appears he didn’t take this lesson to heart.
Yeah … That’s not what pastrami should look like. As you can see, it’s lacking the traditional pink color because Leone failed to use any significant amount of nitrate, found in leafy greens and available in bulk from food markets for the express purpose of curing meats. He even acknowledges the need for nitrates before casually disregarding them.
Good god do I hate his mustache.
Instead, Brad creates a homemade brine using raw sauerkraut brine, salt, raw sugar, and a few pureed celery stalks — which don’t contain nearly enough nitrates to make any difference — and lets the meat soak for 8 days before applying a rub and cooking the brisket. What emerges is edible, probably, despite not even boiling the brine to kill off bacteria. He cooks it to a temporarily safe temperature and it’s probably alright for a few days. Why do I say probably?
Holy shit pic.twitter.com/OY00ohGfM8— We’re In Hell (@WereInHellYT) April 11, 2022
Holy shit, indeed.
I grew up in a farming family. My grandfather raised beef cows. My parents had a vegetable garden of about an acre, seeded and (poorly) weeded by my brother and me. From Memorial Day to Columbus weekend we stuck plants in the ground, picked the fruit, and pulled the plants back out. My mother spent days pickling cucumbers, beets, and string beans in 90-degree heat and heavy humidity in a farmhouse cooled by nothing more effective than a box fan. Blueberry, raspberry, and blackberry jams as well. Huge pots of boiling water sat on the stove all day, first sterilizing jars and then, once filled and sealed, sterilizing them again. Jars sat in the dark basement for months or years before we cracked them open. We checked for mold, foul odors, bad textures, and finally flavor each time. Any jars that seemed “off” were tossed immediately despite the work that went into their creation. Because you don’t mess with listeria and botulism, at least not twice. I don’t mess with canning these days, despite decades of experience as a home cook. Even placing eggnog in the fridge for months on end makes me a little nervous, despite its flammability.
So yes, if the salinity of your brine is high enough and if you store it properly and if you cook it properly, it’s probably safe to eat. The problem lies in, potentially, hundreds or thousands of people following Leone’s methodology with their own ingredients. If their brine isn’t salty enough, if there are too many bacteria present, if any of a dozen things go wrong, someone’s getting sick or worse. YouTube and Instagram tutorials have made us all self-taught “experts” in something. If that something is makeup application or Photoshop layers the worst that happens is someone looks ridiculous. The stakes escalate when food safety becomes an issue. That’s why the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning exists. Reading a dry How-To manual may be less entertaining than a chucklehead poaching salmon in a glass jar, but you’re more likely to survive. And if you really want homemade pastrami, check out S10, Ep. 20 of Good Eats, in which Alton Brown gives a fantastic and scientific explanation of food preservation, including how to make both corned beef and pastrami. The key ingredient? 2 tablespoons of saltpeter. Listeria doesn’t stand a chance.
Header Image Source: Bon Appétit screenshot