Braised Short Ribs

March 17, 2009

I love cooking short ribs. They’re inexpensive, full of flavor, and the standard cooking method — braising — couldn’t be simpler.

The last time I made these I tried Mark Bittman’s recipe for short ribs with coffee and chiles, but I wanted something less exotic, a final, hearty, end-of-winter meal. I chose a recipe from the only stand-and-stir cooing show I watch on Food Network, Anne Burrell’s Secrets of a Restaurant Chef. Two things attracted me to her recipe: it didn’t call for beef stock, and it had a tomato base.

Anne always says “Brown food tastes good,” which is the operating principle when preparing short ribs. Most of the depth of flavor comes from browning all of the elements. If you’re not using beef stock (a pain to make from scratch and awful when store-bought), the caramelized ingredients in braising liquid serve as an excellent substitute.

Mise en place

Again, a short ingredient list: 12 ounces of tomato paste, a bottle of wine (I used a California pinot noir; less expensive cabernets would be too bitter when reduced), 3 chopped celery ribs, 1 chopped large onion, 2 chopped large carrots,  2 large garlic cloves, 3 1/2 pounds of short ribs (I couldn’t find fewer larger ribs), a bundle of thyme, and 2 bay leaves.

I trimmed some of the silverskin and excess fat off the ribs, salted them generously, then browned them in olive oil over high heat. Here’s where a bit of patience is rewarded: brown the ribs in small batches to keep them from steaming, give them at least 2 minutes per side, and brown at least 4 sides of each rib. Don’t be timid, you want very brown ribs:

Brown ribs

While the ribs cooked, I pureed the vegetables and garlic in a food processor until I had a coarse paste.

Veggie paste

Once all the ribs were browned, I dumped the oil and fat out of the pot, added a fresh film of olive oil to the pot at medium-high heat, then added the vegetable puree and more salt. I let the puree sit and brown, scraping the browned bits off the bottom every once in a while for about seven minutes. Again, let the food get really brown.

Browned veg

I added the tomato paste and repeated the process, browning and scraping for another 5 minutes.

(Browning the vegetables and tomato paste replicates the steps in a classic beef stock recipe: cover meaty beef bones with tomato paste, then roast in an oven with carrots, onions, and celery. When brown, add everything to a pot of water and simmer for a few hours.)

I added 2 cups of the wine to the sludge and let it cook for a few minutes until thickened. While the wine cooked I set some water to boil.

Sludge

At this step the recipe tells you to set the ribs in the sludge, then add the water to cover. If you intend to mix the paste and water together, however, the big ribs get in the way of your stirring. I added a cup of water to the paste and mixed it before adding the ribs, then added enough additional water to just cover the ribs. I also tossed in the thyme bundle and bay leaves, then tasted the liquid for seasoning (more salt).

Braise the ribs

I covered the pot and put it in a 375 degree oven for 3 hours. I checked the level of the liquid in the pot every hour to make sure the ribs were covered. I would have added more water to cover, but I didn’t need to. If I was cooking fewer, larger ribs I would have turned them halfway through the cooking time, but the smaller ribs remained completely submerged.

During the last hour of cooking I made some mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, but you can also try celery root and potato puree. After three hours the ribs were ready:

Ribs are done

I removed the ribs from the sauce with a slotted spoon, they were so tender that tongs would have broken the meat apart. After the ribs sat under foil for a few minutes I pulled the bones out. I also removed some of the fat from the sauce and corrected the seasoning one last time. The recipe doesn’t call for pepper at all, but I added some at this step.

I plated the potatoes, set the ribs on top, added the sauce, and put some green beans to the side:

Final plate

How did they taste? How can you go wrong with fall-off-the-bone, fork-tender beef with the perfect balance of fat and lean? The sauce was the real surprise, much deeper and less tomato-ey than I expected. The brightness of the beans were a perfect counterpoint to the richness of the beef and potatoes.

Bittman said it best: After you’ve eaten a dish like this, chocolate is for wussies.

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