Every few years a dish seems to come out of nowhere and spread like kudzu. One day it’s a novelty in a restaurant at the top of the gold card chain (molten chocolate cake) and the next it’s a staple in every mainstream cookbook (braised lamb shanks).
Short ribs are the latest great idea everyone seems to be having at once. They’re on menus everywhere, they’re in the glossy food magazines and they’re in just about every cookbook coming out this fall.
But this time there’s a reason for the feeding frenzy.
Short ribs are that rarity in the kitchen: good and easy. Cooked to perfection, they turn so tender the rich meat literally falls off the bone in an intensity of flavor. And all they take is the most elemental of recipes: Brown, add liquid, stand back. Three kitchen-perfuming hours later, you’re looking at an irresistible one-pot meal that’s actually fit for company.
Short ribs used to be perceived as cold-weather food, guaranteed to warm the house and stick to your own ribs. They also have a long tradition in Jewish cooking. But now, like duck confit, they have both transcended the seasons and become as omnipresent as asparagus.
Unlike most other meats, short ribs take on the essence of whatever you put in the pot with them. Grill a steak and top it with hollandaise sauce and you taste beef with sauce. Braise short ribs with ginger, garlic, star anise, soy sauce and Sherry and you get beef with levels of flavor worthy of a high-rise. As the beef is soaking up the spices and wine, its bones are enriching the liquid that becomes the sauce. This is not so much cooking as transmigration of soulfulness.
Even better, short ribs are amenable to just about any seasonings. You can take them around the world in 80 spices: Mexican cumin and chipotle, Indian curry powder, Japanese wasabi, Italian basil, Greek oregano. You can simmer them in red wine or beer or sake, or even barbecue sauce. And always, the beef in the end will still be unmistakably beef, but with a resonance even the best fillet lacks.
Then there are the bonus points: You can cook short ribs in advance (they’re even better the next day). And you won’t have to give up a few Starbucks to afford them.
A new status
In some ways they’re like meatloaf for the millennium -- doable and economical. But short ribs are suddenly socially acceptable now that top restaurants have adopted them (pricey Craft in New York says it goes through 500 pounds a week). They also hold together better than a stew or pot roast, which means you can serve a portion that looks almost elegant.
When you bite into short ribs, it’s obvious that you’re not tucking into a slab of beef from the prime part of a steer. This is a come-to-where-the-flavor-is cut, from the forequarter where the meat is fatty and laced with connective tissue that melts into richness as the ribs cook. The only thing comparable is veal breast, which is much trickier to handle. Oxtails are even richer and fattier, but almost too much so; they’re also more of a pain to deal with because of all the bones and grease.
One sign short ribs are done is that the meat is falling off the bones. Between those bones and the fat, a good portion of what you pay for is left in the pot, which is why you have to figure on about a pound a person. If you buy meat from a good butcher, you shouldn’t have to do much trimming of excess fat, though.
As with a great stew, short ribs need to start with serious browning. That deep, dark crust lays in the ground floor of meaty taste. Some recipes call for dredging the ribs in seasoned flour as you would for a stew, but I prefer the pure flavor of bare meat.
Browning is probably the messiest part of cooking short ribs, but Jeremiah Tower offered a sneaky tip from the late James Beard in his last cookbook, “Jeremiah Tower Cooks”: Run the ribs under the broiler instead of searing them in hot spattering oil on the stove top. You still have to turn them four times to brown all sides, but it is fast and efficient. The olive oil you need in a skillet does add a layerette of flavor, though, so it’s best to lightly brush the ribs with it before broiling them.
A number of cookbooks out now make short ribs look a lot more complicated than they need to be. You don’t really need to steep them overnight in some 23-ingredient marinade. I did find that curing them with salt, even for an hour, produces better meat, though. Adding pepper and garlic powder and letting them sit overnight, as one cookbook recommends, also didn’t hurt.
But short ribs should really only be a three-step process. A couple of times I’ve taken off my apron after shoving a batch into the oven and had a Peggy Lee moment. But that really is all there is. Cover the pan and the meat will cook to melting tenderness in a low oven, where the heat is easier to hold at a stable level than it is over a burner.
Some recipes specify cooking the ribs uncovered in a roasting pan rather than a deep Dutch oven. This creates more of crust on the meat, which can be a good thing. But if you want ribs you can almost eat with a spoon, the cover is key.
The braising liquid can be just about anything but plain water -- wine or stock, or Port or Sherry, or Chimay ale or vermouth -- supplemented by the holy stewing trinity of carrots, celery and onion. Thyme, rosemary and bay leaves are natural partners. Dried wild mushrooms like morels lay in a smoky undertone. In reality, though, you can pour a can of beef stock over browned short ribs and throw in a bunch of garlic powder and get something as good as some restaurants serve. Short ribs are very undemanding.
In buying the meat, try to get the kind sometimes labeled flanken, with three or four short bones in a long skinny strip. Individual ribs cut into 2-inch squares work fine, but there’s something appealing about the strips, which you can serve whole.
The cooking liquid forms a natural sauce, but usually it has to be defatted before you serve it. If you have time, the best method is to let it cool completely, then lift off the layer of congealed fat. A little mustard or good vinegar added as you reheat the sauce will cut the richness.
Because short ribs are that unctuous, the only careful consideration is what to serve with them. Mashed potatoes (light on the butter and cream) are a natural, as is polenta or couscous or basmati rice, all of which will soak up the sauce. Plain noodles are also good. On the side, pickled cucumbers, a carrot slaw or a huge salad of arugula, tomatoes and a few red onions will also counter the intensity.
More and more restaurants are cooking short ribs just to transform them into other dishes, like sandwiches or tacos or ravioli, and even to use as a richness enhancer for overpriced burgers. You could do that with leftovers, I suppose, but I never seem to have any.