I had one goal when developing this recipe for red wine–braised beef short ribs, and it was under no circumstances to churn out a copycat boeuf Bourguignon recipe where the beef just happens to be short ribs. Since boeuf Bourguignon is, in its simplest sense, beef braised in red wine, that may sound like a distinction without much basis. But there are a handful of things that to my eye signal boeuf Bourguignon territory—prime among them the not-too-thick stew-like braising liquids and an assortment of braised-vegetable accoutrements. A lot of red wine–braised beef short ribs lean too far in that direction, and I didn't want any part in it.
What I was after was something very different. I wanted pieces of bone-in beef short ribs braised until fork-tender, and I wanted them glazed in a deeply reduced sauce that's thick, glossy, and sticky. I also wanted the sauce's flavor to have clarity, so that what shines through is an intense red wine flavor, underpinned with a rich meatiness. What I wanted, in essence, is the kind of braised short rib dish you'd normally find only in a good restaurant.
What became clear after several rounds of recipe-testing is that if I braise the beef solely in red wine or a combination of red wine and stock, no amount of reduction could get me to the place I wanted to go. The braising liquid will reduce in volume, but its consistency will remain thin to the very end. (And oh god, the number of recipes I've seen that show a picture of a beautifully thick sauce but employ cooking methods that experience proves can't possibly yield those results is enough to drive me to abandon my mission entirely and just start drinking straight from the bottle.)
Beyond just the consistency and basic flavor profile of the sauce, I also wanted to make sure it wasn't too harsh. Aiming for a strong red wine character that's further concentrated through reduction can lead to a sauce with sharp edges from the wine's acids and tannins. Something has to round it out.
Here's my solution.
What Kind of Beef Short Ribs to Get for Braising
Before braising beef short ribs, you have to buy them. This can be a frustrating experience. Short ribs run a range of quality levels, and some of them aren't worth the trouble. I had several failed shopping excursions while developing this recipe because I couldn't find good ones. (I even had to cancel a photo shoot the first time around after wasting too much of the morning bouncing from butcher counter to butcher counter until finally giving up. And this was in New York City, a place where it's generally very easy to find great ingredients!)
What you want are short ribs that are meaty, with a solid inch and a half or more of meat on top of the bones. That meat should be visibly marbled with fat; there can be a thin cap of fat on top of that, but it shouldn't be excessive. If you get short ribs that have striations of muscle that look extremely lean and then a thick fat cap on top, you're going to end up with meat that's tough and dry, not tender and melting.
Short ribs can be cut two different ways: flanken- and English-style. The flanken cut yields strips of beef with the cross-sections of multiple rib bones in it. That's what you see in the photo above, and it's the cut used in Korean barbecues for LA-style galbi. English-cut short ribs, conversely, divide each portion such that the slab of meat sits atop a single rib bone that runs the length of it.
Either cut works for a braise like this, though keep in mind that flanken-style are often portioned into much thinner slabs. If you get flanken-cut ribs, make sure they're about two inches wide, so that you get nice, thick hunks of meat. Flanken ribs can be sliced between the cross-cut bones to make individual bone-in portions, as shown in the photo above.
English-style short ribs don't need any special treatment. They're naturally thick enough because the width of each rib bone determines the thickness of each piece. I'd recommend getting English-cut ribs that are about four inches long each.
My preference for this kind of braise is English-style, only because I find it more visually impressive on the plate. Assuming you get sufficiently thick pieces of either kind, there's no other significant difference; as you can see from the photos, the ones I used were flanken-cut, and it all turned out just fine.
Red Wine–Braised Short Ribs: The Secret in the Sauce
Most of this recipe follows the same basic template for beef stews and braises: brown the meat and aromatic vegetables, add the braising liquid, cook gently until the meat is tender. What I had to figure out for this recipe were the essential details: how much wine and how much stock to use in my braising liquid and then how to handle those liquids after the braising step, so that I ended up with the sauce I wanted, one that's thick and rich and intensely wine-y but without tasting harsh.
For liquid ratios, I started from a very practical place: I was going to use a single 750ml bottle of dry red wine for the braise itself. It's a sufficiently large quantity to give the sauce a predominantly red wine character, while still leaving room for just a little more liquid in the form of stock to bump up the savory base of the braise (exactly how much stock depends on whether you're cooking it in a Dutch oven or a pressure cooker; a pressure cooker's max-fill line means there's less space for stock than a Dutch oven).
There are all sorts of ways to thicken a sauce. You can use starches like flour or cornstarch, rely on the gelatin from a good stock, use vegetable or fruit purées, gently cooked eggs (think custards and Greek avgolemono), or rely on emulsified fats, such as in a vinaigrette. Each comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and some methods are more appropriate than others depending on the situation.
My goal here was to braise the short ribs and then serve them with a sauce made from their braising liquid that had a very clear, very clean red wine character. I wanted it to glaze the meat too, with a richness that thinner, lighter broths can't deliver.
Using a starch-like flour or cornstarch was definitely on the table—I'm not opposed to them the way some people are, as I don't always mind the subtle starchy quality they add to a sauce. They can dull flavors, which isn't great, though I think this phenomenon is sometimes over-exaggerated by critics.
Of those two common household starches, flour is the guiltier party in terms of adding a distinct starchy taste. Cornstarch is cleaner, but when leaned on too heavily, it can lead to sauces that have a viscosity that's slightly slimy or even jelly-like, not thick in that lip-sticking kind of way. I knew I might use one of these thickeners in my sauce, but I also knew that if I relied on them alone, they wouldn't deliver the results I wanted.
I've turned to puréed vegetables before in a braised beef shank recipe, and it's delicious, but the sauce has a consistency that makes it pretty obvious there's some kind of purée doing the thickening. All that puréeing can also incorporate air into the sauce, lightening its color. Once again, that wasn't the rich, clear effect I wanted here.
What I really wanted was the thickening power of gelatin, which gives exactly the kind of viscosity I was after without adding any unwelcome flavors. In the world of sauces that means using a really good homemade stock, the kind that sets like a jelly in the fridge. You can also use store-bought stock, which is completely devoid of gelatin, and then add a packet of unflavored gelatin to it to compensate.
My challenge here was that the only way a good stock could sufficiently thicken the sauce was if I used a lot of it, reducing it down until the gelatin was very concentrated. Not only is that not practical at home, but it works against another of my goals: a sauce with a very clear red wine flavor, since more stock in the pot means less room for red wine. I wanted plenty of red wine.
That meant that the stock could only be a part of my solution, but not the entirety of it.
My secret weapon to get my sauce all the way to where I wanted it to be: a bottle of port. While the beef is braising, I take an inexpensive bottle of ruby port and gently simmer it in a saucepan until reduced to a mere 1/2 cup. This concentrates the port's jammy wine flavor along with all its sugars, creating a viscous syrup that tastes kind of like wine honey.
After the ribs are braised, I remove the meat from the pot and set it aside, then strain out all the aromatic vegetables. I reduce the braising liquid down as well to concentrate the wine and gelatin from the stock (and any additional gelatin that the short ribs added). Then I stir in the half cup of reduced port wine. Its honey-like consistency thickens the sauce, its jammy flavor makes the sauce taste even more intensely like red wine, and its sugars round out the red wine's sharper acidic and tannic edges.
At this point, if you want any additional thickening, you can add a small amount of cornstarch slurry to get you the rest of the way there, just enough to ensure your sauce coats the back of a spoon but not so much that it's obvious cornstarch has been used.
Adapting Red Wine–Braised Short Ribs for the Pressure Cooker
While developing this recipe, I also worked on a pressure-cooker version. The pressure cooker saves some time, which is always welcome, though it doesn't turn this recipe into a 30-minute weeknight meal.
The time-savings a pressure cooker does offer are during the beef-braising portion of the recipe, which trims two to three hours of standard braising time down to about 45 minutes. Otherwise, you still have to spend some minutes browning the beef, and all of the reduction of the port wine and braising liquids still has to happen as well—a pressure cooker only works when it's sealed, making evaporation (and thus reduction) impossible.
I learned the hard way that you also need to spend a few extra minutes before sealing the cooker to boil off most of the wine's alcohol. If you don't, your short ribs will come out smelling strongly of alcohol, and no amount of reduction at that point can get rid of it. A strong red wine flavor in the sauce is great, but a strong punch of ethanol is not.
No matter which method you choose, the result can not be mistaken for boeuf Bourguignon. These short ribs are their own dish entirely, and they're delicious.
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