Braising. A much-lauded technique that always seems to please the palate. "It's simple, anyone can do it" is the common adage that chefs and cooks tell amateurs.
But is it really that easy? How do you know if you've seared the meat properly, if it's cooked tender enough but not mushy, if your sauce has enough body and flavor?
The general concept of braising meat is easy: sear some meat, add some liquid, and let time (lots of it) do the hard work of cooking for you. Yet the simple steps do require experience to master properly.
I've braised things for a few years now. Not regularly, but enough that I rarely use measurements and recipes. But I just finished the book Heat by Bill Buford, which chronicles life in Mario Batali's kitchens, and a concept that struck me was how Batali says that restaurant cooks try their best to push a pan's limits: to get things darker, browner, more flavorful. Home cooks, afraid of spatter, grease, and mess, rarely take the plunge.
A few weeks ago, I tasted Sake Braised Short Ribs and had fallen in love with them. They were a nice change from traditional short ribs that are braised in red wine: the sauce was lighter, sweeter and had a slight spicy finish. Given the freezing temperatures to hit Boston this weekend, they were an automatic addition to my dinner menu. But with the concept I had been mulling about fresh in my mind, I was determined to get my meat well-seared, as dark as I could get them.
My short ribs were marinated overnight in a mix of lemongrass, ginger, red chili flakes, salt, and pepper. I dutifully heated up the giant Le Creuset Dutch oven and let my oil get to almost the smoking point. In when the first rib and within 15 seconds, it started to burn. More specifically, the lemongrass and ginger started to burn.
Here's a basic concept that I learned the hard way in cooking school: burned pan = burned flavor = ruined dish. So what could I do? I yanked the ribs out and realized I had to scrape off the marinade. The pan also had to be cleaned out. The routine started again: oil, hot pan, and sizzle, the meat seared. And seared well. It also took a bit of wiggling the pan around since the burner isn't quite level to make sure that the oil covered the bottom and the pan didn't scorch.
Lots of smoke and oil spattering later, the ribs were caramelized and dark. Darker than I've ever seared them. It was a proud moment. In went the rest of the marinade, sake, homemade veal stock, and a few spices.
Yes, I had to clean up quite a bit of greasy spatter everywhere. Yes, a few droplets of hot oil hit my hand and face. But was it worth it? You betcha. These short ribs had intense flavor because the fond and the browning that developed really gave the sauce and braising liquid depth of flavor, flavor that no number of spices could give.
So how much are you willing to risk for amazing food? Are you willing to push the limits and learn something like I did today? It's tests like these that show if the kitchen rules the cook (ie. splatter is not allowed) or if the cook rules the kitchen.
Sake Braised Short Ribs
1 stalk lemongrass
one 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped finely
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red chile flakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3-4 pounds bone-in short ribs
1/2 cup sake
zest of one lime
1 Tablespoon ground star anise or 1 whole star anise
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 quart veal stock or low-salt beef broth
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
- Trim away and discard the root and the top few inches of the lemongrass stalk so that you end up with just the bulbous part. Remove any brittle leaves and then chop finely with a sharp chef's knife.
- In a small bowl, combine the lemongrass, ginger, chile flakes, salt and pepper. Rub all over the short ribs, cover and marinate for at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. Remove the meat from the fridge about 1/2 hour before cooking.
- Preheat oven to 275 F if you are going to braise for 2 - 2 1/2 hours, 200 F if you are going to braise for 5-6 hours (preferred).
- Heat the oil in a large braising pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Scrape the rub off the ribs and reserve with the rest of the rub in the dish. Sear the short ribs in batches, adding more oil as needed, until well-browned on all sides. Do not let the bottom of the pan burn, but get the meat as uniformly dark and brown as possible. Transfer the ribs to a plate as they're done. Blot the extra oil from the bottom of the pan with a paper towel.
- Add the sake and cook, scraping up the browned bits stuck on the bottom of the pan, until reduced by half. Add the stock, leftover rub, lime zest, brown sugar, and star anise. Add the ribs back to the pot and enough water (if necessary) to just cover the ribs. Bring to a boil, then cover the pot with a tight fitting lid or foil and place in oven.
- Cook for 2 - 2 1/2 hours at 275 F or 5-6 hours (or even overnight!) at 200 F, or until the ribs are fork-tender but not falling apart.
- Remove the ribs from the pot to a dish and cover with foil to keep warm. Strain the cooking liquid into a large saucepan. Let the liquid cool and remove any fat from the surface. Bring the liquid to a rapid simmer, and cook until the volume is reduced by at least half and the liquid thickens a bit. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary, adding additional chile flakes if you would like it spicier. (For a fancier presentation, take the cooled meat and remove the bones. Trim the cartilage that is between the meat and the bone. Trim of any excess fat and cut the meat into serving-sized pieces (about 3-4 inches).)
- Gently reheat the meat in the sauce and serve topped with fresh cilantro.