Beef tea

If you read a lot of old cookbooks, or if you like old fiction, you are guaranteed to have heard about beef tea. Most of the cookbooks written before about 1960 that I have read have at least a couple of recipes for sick people (generally under the heading 'Cooking for Invalids' or 'Invalid Cookery'), and it is very rare that you won't find a recipe or two for beef tea in there between the nourishing gruels, soft preparations of brains or fish, and strange egg dishes.

There are a couple of different basic recipes for beef tea. This recipe from the CWA Cookery Book, Tenth Edition is pretty representative, though:

1lb. Beef; 1 pint water

Shred the beef, add 1/2 pint cold water, put in a jar, and stand in a saucepan of cold water. Bring the water to a boil and simmer for 2 or 3 hours, then strain off the beef tea and add 1/2 a pint of boiling water to the beef. Stand in boiling water again and simmer for 3 hours. Then add to first straining, let stand and skim before heating up again for use.

Not altogether dissimilar is this recipe from the Australian Enquiry Book:

Take 2 lbs. of lean beef, gravy beef, or steak. Cut it into small pieces, or better still, run it through a mincing machine. Put it into a wide-necked jar, cover with water, and place in the oven for three or four hours. When required, strain off the soup, and, to keep up the supply, add more neat, and fill up with water each time you take from it.

What's not clear with this one, though, is whether you heat the beef tea again when you add more water, or whether you just drink it at whatever temperature it has reached.

If you don't fancy beef tea

The other related thing you could feed a sick person, if for some reason beef tea didn't appeal, was raw beef juice, and surprisingly enough, there are multiple recipes for that too. Here's one from the CWA:

1/4 lb. Top Side Steak; a pinch salt

Warm the steak until a light brown on the griller, slash well with a sharp knife, squeeze between two saucers, or with a metal lemon squeezer, and strain. -Wickepin Branch, C.W.A.

Presumably after feeding this to your invalid, you could then eat the steak yourself, albeit a little mangled. It would be harder to do that with this recipe from the Housewives' Friend:

Quarter of a pound of beef, salt, 2 tablespoonsful water

Chop the beef fine, put in a basin, and sprinkle with a little salt. Add the water, stir well, and press meat with a spoon. Cover and let it stand for one hour. Then forcibly press juice through muslin by twisting it. May be taken cold or tepid.

There's something about the idea of tepid meat juice that chills my blood, and it's hard to say that that wasn't the point.

But why?

Well, that's the big question, isn't it? Why? What could possibly persuade people to reach for a cup of tepid meat water in case of illness? Most cookbooks will just take it as read that of course you would want to, but fortunately, the Harmsworth Household Encyclopedia is here to clear things up. Its entry on beef tea runs to half a page, and begins:

If correctly made, beef teas are very valuable for invalids, having strong restorative powers and nutriment, especially if the fine particles of lightly cooked albumen can be digested; when that is the case they need not all be removed by the use of a specially small mesh strainer or of a piece of fine muslin.

However, you have to be careful with your albumen cooking. The entry goes on to say that:

No variety of beef tea must be allowed to boil, or even become so hot that the albumen it contains coagulates. This takes place below boiling-point. Boiled beef tea is less easily assimilated on account of the hardened albumen, and therefore is almost valueless.

Harmsworth even clears up the question of what anyone would be doing feeding a lot of raw cow squeezings to a sick person:

Uncooked beef tea is of the greatest value in cases of extreme exhaustion, or for weakly infants. Usually only one of two teaspoonfuls are given at a time, as it is very strong.

Everyone loved it

You can find references to beef tea going back a couple of hundred years in any newspaper archive you care to look in, assuming the archive itself goes back that far. The first reference in Papers Past (the NZ archive), is from 19 December 1840 in an article about the death of the Earl of Durham. The earliest reference in Trove (the Australian archive) is from 6 November 1819, also in an article about a death headed A Miser. And if we look at Chronicling America, we can go back even earlier, to an article in the 8 August 1771 edition of the Massechussets Spy talking about recent deaths from excessive heat. The article says, among other helpful remedies and advice, that "A tea of lean beef, well charged with crude sal ammoniac or even common salt, where the other cannot be had, and drank very warm, is very serviceable".

In terms of most recent entries, Chronicling America only runs until 1963, but there was mention of beef tea to be found right up until 1962. Papers Past offered a supermarket ad from 1987 that included Faggs beef tea ($2.19, if you're wondering), as well as this article from 13 July 1979 in the Press, which is how I learned that beef tea was something you used to drink on a plane.

The traditional beef tea has been withdrawn not because of the economic setbacks created by the American ban on the airline’s DC10s, but for fear of the liquid’s apparent burning properties in the event of its being spilled on passengers.

A spokesman for Air New Zealand’s public affairs division confirmed yesterday that there had been “one or two unfortunate incidents,” but denied an allegation by a reader of “The Press” that an American tourist was threatening to sue the airline for damages after beef tea had been accidentally spilled into her lap. Later, after checking with the airline’s legal division, the spokesman called back to report that an American woman had in fact been scalded by beef tea on a domestic flight while on holiday with her husband in New Zealand last year.

The woman required medical treatment for burns and said the mishap had ruined their holiday. Air New Zealand then offered to fly the couple back to New Zealand at its expense for a happier and less painful stay. In the meantime the offending liquid was banished from the airline’s fleet. The airline spokesman said an amicable agreement had been reached with the couple, no attorneys being involved, “The woman agreed that the hostess had not been wholly responsible for the accident,” said the spokesman.

If only they had known to serve it tepid.

A very retro looking red and yellow label for Faggs Old Fashioned Beef Tea. Apparently it is rich in vitamins and health restoring proteins, and it's great added to gravies, soups, and stews.
Faggs beef tea. Original image here

Meanwhile, Trove, startlingly enough, includes a recipe for beef tea in an article in the Canberra Times on 10 August 1994, although it sounds slightly less horrible than the classic preparation.

Ingredients: 500g lean beef - shin is good, 30g butter, 1 clove, 1 small onion, salt

Method: Cut the beef into small dice, and put into a saucepan with the butter, clove, onion and a little salt. Stir the meat over the heat until it produces a thin gravy: then add 1.1 litres of water and simmer for one hour, skimming off every particle of fat. After cooking, strain the liquid through a sieve and keep cool until required. As the beef tea is needed for the patient, heat it through in a double saucepan. These quantities make about 625ml of good beef tea and heating in a double saucepan means that you don't lose any of it by reduction.

Cooking with beef tea

So, you've made your beef tea, but the person you've made it for is sick to the back teeth of having it offered at every meal. What then? Do you make something else? Do you switch to raw beef juice to teach them a lesson? No. If you can't get them to drink the stuff, make them eat it. The most common recipes using beef tea are puddings and custards, and I will give one of each here. From the Harmsworth Household Encyclopedia, this recipe for beef tea pudding, which I suppose sounds slightly less bland than having the tea on its own:

This nourishing and simply made pudding is prepared by beating up 2 eggs wuith 1/2 pint of beef-tea, and pouring the mixture into a well-greased pie-dish containing 2 or 3 tablespoonfuls of breadcrumbs. In order that the breadcrumbs may become thoroughly soaked, let the pudding stand for about 1/4 hour, and then bake it in a very slow oven. When it is firm, which should be in about 25 min., take the pudding out of the oven and serve it immediately.

And from Lady Hackett's Household Guide, this beef tea custard:

Take one cupful of beef tea, pour over a well-beaten egg, see that it is seasoned properly, and either cook in a little dish in a slow oven, or in a mould with buttered paper over, and steam until set, which will be in a short time if the beef tea was warm, about 15 minutes. Mutton, chicken, or veal broth, if made strong enough, may be turned into savoury custards in the same way.

It's hard to say what "seasoned properly" might mean here, considering that almost all of the recipes I've found have been completely bland except for a little salt, but I think it is probably safe to assume that it means "not very seasoned at all by most people's standards".

Good in either end

If you are feeling so sick that you can't keep any food down at all, don't despair. The benefits of beef tea are still available to you. The Pharmacopoeia of the Montreal General Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital includes three different recipes for nutrient enemas, and this is number three:

Add to four ounces of lean beef carefully shredded four ounces of beef tea, ten grains of fresh pepsin and one drachm dilute hydrochloric acid.

Digest at a temperature of 100° F. for two hours, stirring frequently; use as directed for No. 1.

If the idea of hydrochloric acid in your enema is a bit much, then enema number 1 might be more your speed:

Fresh Milk three ounces.

Raw Beef Juice one ounce.

One Egg.

Pancreatic Solution, one drachm (or an equivalent of pancreatin). The mixture to be kept at a temperature of 100 F. for one hour. From half to one ounce of brandy may then be added, and the whole be slowly and gently thrown into the rectum at a temperature of 100 F.

It is very hard to say which of these sounds less desirable, but I guess the threat of either of them might be enough to get you drinking your beef tea the normal way.

Incidentally, the further back you go, the more likely you are to see the enema as the recommended way to serve beef tea. The Medical Compass (1834), Popular Directions for the treatment of the Diseases of Women and Children (1811), and The Domestic Medical Guide (1803) all agree that this is an excellent option.


For every person you can find saying that beef tea will do you good even if you have to take it rectally, you'll find someone saying that it actually does no good at all (and that's not even counting places like Harmsworth that say it's very healthful as long as the albumen hasn't hardened).

Under the title "A Popular Fallacy" in the Auckland Star on 30 June 1900, we have the following rather grim experiment:

If two puppies be taken from the selfsame litter, and one be fed on beef tea, and the other on the beef from which the tea has been made, the beef tea fed pup will only survive for about two weeks, but the pup fed on the boiled-out beef will live, the chances are, to be a healthy dog. And yet popular prejudice would regard such meat as denuded of all nutriment! However, no more convincing illustration than the one we have given could be found to satisfy the lay mind that those chemists are scientifically right who insist that if beef tea is to be of any value as a life-sustainer, it must incorporate those parts of the flesh that are absolutely insoluble in water.

An article headed "Don't Rely Too Much Upon Beef Tea" from the Wanganui Chronicle on 18 December 1899 says pretty much the same thing, but with starving people instead of puppies. "Beef tea is a stimulant, slight and evanescent, but to "live on beef tea,"which has been the shibboleth of many a sickroom, is impossible," it says. And in the New Zealand Herald on 8 January 1887, an article headed "New Views as to Beef Tea" says, among other things, "Dr. Fothergill's Manual of Dietetics says that beef tea, as ordinarily prepared, is practically destitute matter that can ever form tissue, and is equally without value as fuel food."

Still a fad?

You might not have heard of anyone serving or drinking beef tea any time in the last thirty years, but apparently it is still going on. I have found quite a few recipes for it, and several of them mention that it has caught on in restaurants (although presumably not administered rectally). These days, you're more likely to find bone broth touted as a cure-all, but if you're hanging out for something a little more retro, beef tea is always available. Just remember that once the albumen has hardened it's almost valueless.

I'm sure that will help.

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