When I was first starting out as a food writer, in 1999, it seemed like everyone was talking about short ribs. Every self-respecting restaurant had braised short ribs on the menu, except the Korean restaurants, which had grilled short ribs, and everyone proclaimed the economy and flavor of this–and I recall this phrase specifically–“neglected cut.”
I would nod along dutifully whenever I read this sort of thing, despite the fact that I’d never eaten a short rib and wasn’t entirely sure what braising was. I had eaten beef ribs at Tony Roma’s. Then one day it all came together. I had an appealing recipe (which I’ll give below), short ribs were on sale at Whole Foods, and Laurie was out of town, so if the short ribs were terrible I could throw them out and if they were great, I could save her some.
The short ribs were not terrible. Everyone was right. Since then I’ve cooked my way through many short ribs, and I have, if not wisdom, at least some observations to impart on the subject. And I still make, with a few changes, that first recipe, which is from Mark Strausman’s terrific book The Campagna Table.
Short ribs come in two cuts.
English-style ribs are a three to four-inch length of a single rib with meat attached. They tend to hold together best in the pot and make the best presentation, and they are also more likely to be found in a supermarket. The drawbacks are that they tend to be a little more stringy (though rarely unpleasantly so), require a lot more trimming, and often you end up with some pieces with almost no meat on them.
Flanken-style ribs are cut across the ribs so that each piece has three or four bones in it. (Three is easier to deal with.) I tend to buy these when I can, and I usually can, since they’re sold at Don and Joe’s Meats at Pike Place Market. It’s hard to keep them together for a nice presentation after they’re braised, but I don’t really care, especially since they generally require zero prep time.
If this is unclear or you’d like a picture, the Hormel Corporation is here for you as always. This site not only shows what flanken- and English-style ribs look like, but it points out that ribs cut from the chuck are meatier than those from the plate, and when you get a rib that’s mostly fat, it’s an end piece from ribs 10 through 12. This is more than you wanted to know, but I can see myself storming the butcher counter at my supermarket, brandishing a tray of meat, and saying, “Dammit, Bob, I’ve had it with these end pieces of ribs 10 through 12.” There is tons of other great meat info at Hormel.com, from the people who brought you Spam.
Most short rib recipes instruct you to begin by browning the short ribs on the stovetop. This is messy, time-consuming, and–as Cook’s Illustrated determined in 2000–unnecessary, because you can brown the ribs in the oven. Place them on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast them for 45 minutes at 450°F.
Short ribs take well to a great variety of flavors. The recipe I offer here is staunchly European, but my second-favorite is an Asian inspired preparation from Bittman and Vongerichten’s book Simple to Spectacular, which also has four other great short rib recipes.
Like most braises and stews, short ribs are better a day or two after you cook them. Also, I find cooking ahead lots of fun. The pressure is off. If it takes an extra hour, who cares?
Short ribs make an awesome pasta sauce. Just braise them in tomato sauce and shred the meat.
SHORT RIBS WITH LENTILS AND WHEAT BERRIES
Serves 4 to 6
Mark Strausman says, “Short ribs are often found in peasant cooking; they are the least expensive cut of meat.” If only this were still true. Because of their trendiness, short ribs are generally more expensive than boneless chuck roast or several other cuts, but they’re also better.
3 to 4 pounds beef short ribs (flanken or English-style)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 large onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 leek, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 cup French green lentils
1/2 cup wheat berries (see note)
2 bottles (24 ounces) porter beer, such as Anchor Porter
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
4 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs of your choice (I had parsley and sage on hand)
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Season the ribs liberally with salt and pepper and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast 45 minutes or until they’re nicely browned.
While the ribs are roasting, heat the olive oil in a dutch oven or other large pot over medium heat. (I got a blue Le Creuset oval dutch oven for my birthday this year, and it is the ultimate braising tool. Also, it’s called a “cocotte,” which is fun to say.) Add the garlic, onion, carrot, celery, and leek. Cook until vegetables are limp but not browned, 5 to 10 minutes.
Add the lentils, wheat berries, beer, tomatoes, chicken stock, and herbs, and stir to mix. Add the browned ribs, raise the heat to medium-high, and cover. When the pot is boiling, transfer it to the oven. Braise for 2-1/2 to 3 hours, or until meat is very tender. Serve immediately or cool to room temperature and refrigerate.
NOTE: Wheat berries are available in the bulk section at any health food store–although mine managed to run out, so I substituted barley and it was fine. There are hard and soft wheat berries; either will work.