Braised short ribs are probably my favorite thing to make for people I love (if I’ve made this for you, you know I care). Short ribs are beef, and they are literally the “short” ribs located at the end of the rib cage, the ones closest to the tail end of the cow. A braise is simply a way of slowly cooking something, usually a tougher cut of meat, at a lower-than-normal temperature.
It’s a dish that’s fancy enough to impress dinner guests, and yet surprisingly easy to prepare, given a simple willingness to invest the time. They’re popular at nice restaurants these days as a cheap cut of meat that can be turned into a delicious, tender product (much like skirt steak or lamb shank). Personally I think there’s something deeply romantic about a long, slow braise. It brings to mind the days of yore when our great-great-grandparents would stew a peasant’s portion of meat for Sunday supper, throwing in whatever vegetables could be harvested from the garden. In that manner, it’s a perfect Stone Soup recipe! The braising liquid becomes enriched by the beef, the vegetables, the herbs, the wine, and other ingredients you add to become a perfect sauce for the short ribs later. And the ribs themselves are so tender, fork tender, that they melt in your mouth. Luxurious, spicy, smoky, tender beef… is there anything more sexy than that?
Braised short ribs can be customized however you want, and this particular recipe was cobbled together from so many versions that I won’t bother hunting them down again and linking them all, except to nod in Mark Bittman’s general direction. Here are the ingredients:
1. 5 large, 16 oz. beef short ribs, bone-in (if the main course, 1 rib per person is a generous portion). The bone will slip right off during the braise, but I like it because of the extra beefy flavor it adds.
2. 1 large onion, chopped roughly. The braising liquid will be strained before you make the sauce, so the only reason to chop this smaller is for surface area, and so you can fit things easier in the pot.
3. 2 carrots, chopped roughly
4. 3 cups of strong dark coffee.
5. 2 cups of dry red wine. I used Barbera, but I’ve read Chianti or Merlot is good and cheap, or Barolo (if you’re Mario Batali).
6. 2 cups of beef stock. Every chef will tell you to make your own stock from beef bones, but honesty, who has time to do that? Buy the box.
7. 2 dried chipotle chilis and 2 dried pasilla chilis.
8. 1 bunch of thyme. 1 bunch of rosemary.
9. Salt. Pepper. Coarsely ground if possible.
10. 5 cloves of garlic.
The more traditional way would be to add celery to the onion and carrot (to create the classic French flavor trinity: mirepoix), optionally add some peeled crushed tomatos, and omit the coffee and the chili. I think this version is more interesting, both to eat and describe, but it can be just as successful and delicious without. The other thing to remember is that everything is an estimate; this is not baking! The volumes of liquid are completely arbitrary–all you have to do is add enough liquid to cover the cooking meat.
We start by trimming the short ribs of any excess fat. Some fat is obviously good for flavor, but if there’s a thick chunk of white fat, give that rib a nice nip and tuck. Next, generously seasoning the short ribs with salt and pepper. Ideally I like to have the butcher cut the large short ribs in half with a band saw-to create smaller, 8 oz. pieces, but apparently Whole Foods starts cleaning its equipment after 8pm.
Next, brown the short ribs. Browning is a very important step in the process, and will add significantly to the final color and flavor of the dish (it does not, in fact, “seal” the meat). Add a tablespoon of olive oil to a large cast-iron pot or dutch oven, the same vessel you plan on braising them in. You don’t need a lot of oil because the short ribs are fatty themselves. When the oil is sufficiently heated (it’ll “shimmer”), add your short ribs to the oil. It’s important to be patient in your browning, and you want to allow all four sides (I realize you nerds are probably thinking “wait there are six sides!” but no one cares about those two on the ends) to develop a nice brown sear–this will take maybe 30-45 seconds per side if your oil is hot, but don’t watch the clock, watch the ribs and see when the color is right! My pot was only large enough to brown two ribs at the same time so I did them it batches. If you put in all your meat at once, the sides cook unevenly because they don’t touch the oil at the same time, and you don’t get the nice color you want. You also start crowding the meat, so that it steams instead of fries. Be patient when you brown meat! Set aside your nicely browned short ribs for a moment.
Now for the vegetables. Chop your carrots and onion. (Please don’t cut yourself. Half of my friends don’t “retract” their fingers into a “claw” to hold down vegetables when chopping and it scares the hell out of me.) Instead of peeling the garlic, just give it a good whack (or press firmly on them) using the flat of your knife. I like using the whole chilis because I don’t think they impart much spiciness given the volume of the braising liquid, so I don’t de-seed them, but you can if you want. I like the smokiness and slight heat of the South American chilis, and both of the ones I used are also used in mole negro; I wouldn’t mind using more chilis of greater number and variety in the future.
Drain off some of the excess oil in your pot, leaving a few tablespoons. By no means should you just throw out all of the oil and replace it with fresh olive oil because the leftover contains a ton of flavor from your browning of the meat (and I’ll discuss a neat trick for reducing all that fat later). Heat the pot again, and add your carrots, onions, garlic, chilis, thyme, and rosemary. Saute that a bit for the onions to soften, and after a few minutes add the short ribs. You want to really arrange them tightly so you can cover them with not so much liquid. Pour in your red wine. Allow the liquid to reduce a bit and some of the alcohol to cook off. Then add your coffee and beef stock. After the liquid starts to simmer, you want to lower the heat until only the occasional bubble rises to the surface. You don’t want a high temperature, anything near a constant simmer or a rolling boil, so as not to overcook and dry out the meat. For this reason I like cooking on a stove top because I can easily control and monitor the boiling, but you can also do this in an oven at 300-325 degrees Fahrenheit. If you want, you can lightly season the liquid now with salt and pepper, but don’t bring it close to the level of seasoning you’d like to eat. Some of the liquid will be naturally vaporized during the cooking, and we’ll also want to reduce the braising liquid to make the sauce, further concentrating it.
At this point we’re at the braising step, which is a long waiting game. I’d say 2-2.5 hrs is the minimum amount of time you want to braise it for. I will usually let it go for 3-3.5 hours, to make sure that the tough short ribs become really tender. During the braise you can check on it occasionally to make sure the liquid is still covering the meat, and if not, rearranging it or adding more coffee/wine/stock. After the 3.5 hours, take it off the heat and set it aside to rest. The ribs themselves should be fork-tender, easy to penetrate, and falling off the bone.
We’re at a crossroads here. You can either rest the meat and start making the sauce in preparation for dinner, or… not. Instead, I like to leave it overnight. This accomplishes a few things. First, it allows me to cook a day in advance, and when your main protein takes a total of 4 hours (of which only twenty minutes is actually real activity), you’re probably making it the day before anyway. Second, I think it allows the meat to really absorb some of those cooking liquids and stay moist. Lastly, and most important, it’s an easy way to skim off the fat. I don’t own one of those fancy oil-gravy separators (or any organic chemistry equipment, or a large centrifuge…), but if you leave something oily in the fridge overnight, all of the less-dense fat and oil will separate to the top, congeal, and harden, leaving an easily removable layer of unhealthiness the following day.
So the next day we skim off the fat from the cooking liquid and reheat the pot. When the liquid is warm and circulating nicely, remove the meat and set aside, then strain out all of the random bits of onion, carrot, thyme, bone (removing from the meat if necessary), etc., and reserving the stock. Put the clean stock back in the pot, replace the meat, and finish reheating through (you can test whether the meat is heated through by sticking a needle, or fork, into the center, and testing the temperature when you take it out; if the metal is hot, then the inside is hot; this is the same method you should use to check whether fish is done). Turn off the heat, and let the short ribs rest for a few minutes. As the temperature of the meat goes down a bit, it will reabsorb cooking liquid so it turns out moist.
Making the sauce: In a saucepan, ladle in some of the strained braising liquid. Heat up the saucepan until it is simmering. To thicken the sauce, carefully and slowly add a bit of flour slurry (a bit of flour dissolved in a bit of water). Don’t add the flour directly or you’ll form disgusting chunks of gooey dough. Since I made these ribs for a Passover seder this time, I left out the flour (I tried using potato starch but it didn’t turn out great). Taste the sauce. It’s probably a little bland, so season it with salt and pepper until you think it’s right. I like adding an extra chipotle and an espresso shot to the sauce to give it a final push of spicy/smoky/bitter coffee-flavor this recipe tries to produce; I was pleased that at least one person at the dinner commented on the coffee notes in the sauce. Taste your sauce early and often (not tasting for seasoning is the biggest mistake home cooks, and Top Chef contestants, make), and once it’s just right, take it off the heat because it’ll continue reducing and concentrating (and getting saltier) if you leave it on the burner.
Take a nice piece of short rib, put it in your saucepan to cover it with your sauce, and then plate it over some potatoes, drizzle with your sauce, and if you’re feeling fancy, garnish with a sprig of colorful curly parsley.
If anyone tries this recipe, please feel welcome to leave feedback and suggestions in the comments below!