Marrow Mania: Forget the bullion. Scrap the stock. The key to infusing meaty flavor is right inside the bone

I first discovered bone marrow while watching a show on The Travel Channel five years ago. You know the type – some food-fantasizing nomad was wandering around, tucking into corner spots and reveling in the many delicacies he found along Italy’s cobblestone streets.

Most of the show had been mild at best – the dainty twirling of plump bucatini in a ruby red tomato sauce painted with torn herbs; the charred, bubbly crust of a classic Neapolitan pie; the dusting of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano on, well, everything. It made me hungry, sure. But scrounge up the cash I didn’t have and book a ticket? Not quite. Then it happened. The host walked into a handsome tavern, softly lit and draped in linen, and ordered something I couldn’t quite make out. When the plate arrived, he picked up a long, narrow spoon and dug into what looked like a cavernous, hollow bone dusted with a bright green salad of sorts. As he pulled a thick, fatty substance from deep inside the cavity to smear across crusty toast, he let out a sigh of pure contentment. After a few more dips and some descriptive mumbling I was far too deeply entranced to comprehend, he picked up the bone and proceeded to slurp out Every Last Drop.

How much is a ticket again? Anything that can make a grown man give in to his animalistic instincts to suck a bone dry on national television was something I simply had to try.

From that moment on, anytime marrow has been on a menu, I’ve ordered it. I let a chilled mixture of marrow, fresh herbs, coarse fleur de sel, freshly cracked pepper and butter melt into a luxurious puddle on my rib-eye. And I’ve used that little spoon to dig and dig into more deep-roasted bones than I care to divulge. But it’s not enough. So much work. So little marrow.

Once considered scrap (the stuff you threw to old Sparky to curl up on the rug with and gnaw on after you’d had your way with them) marrow bones – and more specifically, the fatty, vascular substance found inside them – have been making their way into traditional Italian and French dishes for generations. Cubed and melted down, marrow is the secret behind the glossy elegance of a classic bordelaise. For years, home cooks brave enough to take on a traditional osso bucco have topped roasted veal shanks with a simple gremolada – a chopped herb condiment of parsley, capers and lemon zest – to cut the richness of their family’s unctuous reward.

More recently, though, chefs have been veering away from the traditional, scooping the marrow from its bone and using the many facets of this age-old fat to their advantage. In line with today’s no-waste approach to carnivorous cooking that has brought sweetbreads to the table and crispy pig face to at least one tasting menu (that would be Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat in Chicago), chefs are no longer hiding the silky smooth substance we’ve all been digging for with those dainty little spoons.

As a young cook, Truffles’ executive chef John Griffiths learned to prepare bone marrow the old-fashioned way: cutting the shin or upper thigh bones of the cow horizontally into 2- to 3-inch segments and steaming or roasting them until they proffer a smooth, glossy texture. It’s a preparation chef Wes Johnson was quick to place on his menu as he prepared to open his restaurant, Salt, last year. Though he had played with marrow quite a bit while manning the kitchen over at Eclipse, whipping it into velvety compound butters to add another layer of beefy flavor to juicy burgers and steaks, now he was searing the bones in a piping hot pan, deglazing with a little red wine and then finishing them off in the oven until the marrow had developed a near lava-like consistency. The dish was a hit with diners nabbing a table at Salt for the first time, as spoon after spoon ventured into those bones in search of their molten prize.

When Griffiths was hired to breathe new life into the well-worn menu at Truffles last year, he decided to play with convention a bit, cutting the bone lengthwise instead of horizontally. It was a task that would require him to buy a saw specifically designed to cut through solid bone but one that he believed would make marrow more approachable to diners. Oh, and it would taste better, too.

“This way, you can broil the entire surface of the marrow and it develops a more robust, meaty quality rather than a fattiness,” he explained. “It allows the fat to render and it broils like a good piece of meat.” Perched atop is his own take on the classic gremolada: capers, pistachios, olive oil, garlic, herbs and a sprinkling of toasty bread crumbs. Being careful not to veer too far from tradition, he serves the dish alongside a slice of house-made ciabatta. The result makes even the most jaded of meat-eaters weak in the knees – and happens to be the restaurant’s best-selling appetizer. “It’s one of those dishes,” Griffiths noted, “that you see go through [the dining room] and you just say, ‘wow, what is that?’”

It’s a phrase you might mutter when tasting the bay leaf and marrow soil currently accompanying the Rabbit Pot au Feu on the menu at Sidney Street Cafe, too. Considering it’s dusted along the rim of the plate (not buried deep inside the bone) and that it’s a finely ground powder (not a smooth, glossy fat), it sure doesn’t look like marrow. But just one bite and there’s simply no denying that uniquely concentrated meatiness. Chef-owner Kevin Nashan dehydrates the marrow after incorporating some oil into the mixture, transforming it from a thick, liquid substance into a finely ground powder. “It tastes like an incredible beef broth,” he explained. “It just punches you with beefy flavor.”

Determined to take the more labor-intensive approach to this meaty matter, Nashan has tinkered with a number of other ways to infuse marrow’s unique flavor into dishes recently, from creamy gratin side dishes to a savory bread pudding he paired with a juicy rib-eye and drizzled with a piquant chimichurri sauce. “It’s just an incredible, concentrated beef flavor that you can’t get from other products. … Get people to try it and they see the layers of flavor you can add to a dish.”

While Nashan is currently captivated by the many ways he can let marrow’s rich flavor shine in a slew of savory dishes, in the kitchen at Monarch, chef Josh Galliano is experimenting with marrow’s slick, greasy texture. “Growing up, my aunts would use it as a replacement for butter. That’s how my father’s family did it, rendering it off to start a ragout or something.” Taking his family’s lead, Galliano scoops out the marrow and renders it down to use in lieu of the oil in a warm vinaigrette. After slowly satuteeing in sweet shallots, garlic, parsley and basil, he hits the rendered marrow with a combination of tart vinegars and serves the vinaigrette warm over a fricassee of plump wintry mushrooms, crisp frog legs and the molasses flavors of black garlic. “I need some bread to go with it,” Galliano mused. “And a nap.”

Bone marrow sure has come a long way. For decades, chefs took the path well plowed, forcing us to dig out the fatty little blanket that lies within those once-forgotten bones. But as nose-to-tail cooking becomes the norm both on tables with white tablecloths and those without, marrow is finally coming out of its shell.