Slow oven braising and plenty of garlic, scallions, star anise and pan-Asian ingredients turn inexpensive beef short ribs into a tender, exotic main course. Recipe below.
The first time I tasted steak I was in college. Cheap cuts of meat were what we ate in my working class family when I was growing up. Chuck roast, pork steaks [as opposed to the leaner, more costly chops], beef stew, burgers made from fatty ground chuck… We also occasionally had short ribs, but only as an ingredient in a beefy vegetable soup.
I relate this personal history with cheap cuts not as a tale of woe and deprivation. These cuts are often more flavorful than their pricier brethren and probably largely responsible for my love of all things meaty. But they’re usually tougher than the more expensive cuts too. I remember many happy, chewy meals.
Braising takes care of the toughness issue. Slow, moist cooking breaks down connective tissue and melts some of the fat also present in most inexpensive cuts of meat. The result is wonderfully flavorful, juicy meat that is almost falling-apart tender.
Quicker cooking foods, such as chicken, fish, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, can be braised on the stove top in a covered pan. But for roasts and other cheap cuts, oven braising is the best choice. Even with the lowest possible flame on your stove, at least part of your pan will be hotter than the 300º to 350ºF heat of the oven. And it will likely be concentrated in the center of the pan, directly under the meat. Oven braising surrounds the covered pan, applying even heat from all sides. So everything cooks evenly at a much gentler temperature, and the meat doesn’t dry out.
Slow braising also allows the meat to become suffused with the flavors of spices, herbs, seasonings and braising liquids. And during the long cooking process, flavors that may seem alarmingly big at the start—one ingredient for these short ribs was six cloves of garlic, for instance—become muted and subtle. In the end, no one flavor dominates. Instead of a “wow, I-can-really-taste-the-ginger” dinner, you’re more likely to have a “this-is-delicious-what’s-in-it” main course.
As winter settles in here in the northern hemisphere, braising offers another benefit. For two or three hours, the oven makes the kitchen the cozy, warm center of the house or the apartment—to me, that’s always a good thing.
Just about a year ago, as it happens, I did a wine-braised French take on short ribs and served them over puréed cauliflower. Last weekend when beautifully marbled short ribs seemed to jump into the grocery cart at the store, I decided to try an Asian spin on them. For the most part, the various recipes I looked at for inspiration didn’t settle on any one Asian cuisine. Neither did I. I used Chinese hoisin sauce; Japanese soy sauce and rice vinegar [although versions of the vinegar are found in most Asian kitchens]; star anise, native to China and Vietnam, but equally widespread in its use; and fresh ginger, used not just throughout much of Asia, but in West Africa and the Caribbean as well.
Oven-braised Asian Short Ribs
3-1/2 to 4 pounds bone-in short ribs
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
6 scallions, cut into 2-inch sections [reserve the green tops of one]
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh minced ginger
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup reduced sodium soy sauce
2 cups water
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
5 whole star anise
cooked white rice
zest of 1 orange
reserved green onion tops, sliced
Special equipment: Parchment paper, cut to fit just inside the pot
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Trim any excess fat from short ribs, but don’t go crazy—fat equals flavor. Season generously with black pepper, but do not salt. Heat a heavy dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add oil and brown short ribs on all three meaty sides [but not on bone side] for about 8 minutes total. Work in batches if necessary, to avoid overcrowding the pot. Transfer ribs to plate with tongs. Reduce heat to medium and add scallions, carrots, garlic and ginger to pot. Cook, stirring frequently [you want to sweat the vegetables, not brown them], for about 5 minutes.
Add orange juice, soy sauce, water, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, brown sugar and crushed red pepper flakes to dutch oven, stirring to combine. Scrape up any browned bits. Return short ribs to dutch oven, arranging in a single layer—it’s okay to crowd them together now. The liquids won’t completely cover the ribs—that’s perfectly fine. Tuck star anise in among ribs, submerging them in the braising liquids. Place parchment paper over ribs and braising mixture. Cover pot with lid and place in oven on middle rack. Braise until ribs are tender, about 2-1/4 to 2-1/2 hours, turning ribs once about halfway through cooking.
Remove from oven and transfer ribs to platter and tent with foil. [The slablike bones will likely have separated from the meat; you can discard them if you wish, but I prefer the look of the short ribs with the bone, so I reunited them when I plated the ribs.]
Strain braising liquids, pressing with a spoon to get as much of the liquids as possible. Spoon of some of the fat or use a gravy strainer—again, don’t go crazy here. Return braising liquids to dutch oven and boil over medium-high heat to reduce a bit to create a sauce, 5 or so minutes. To serve, mound cooked rice on each plate and spoon sauce over it. Top with a short rib and garnish with orange zest and scallion tops. This last step is key—the zest and scallion tops add a fresh brightness that balances the richness of the meat.