Why It Works
- Shanks that are one to one and a half inches thick are just big enough to provide each person with a perfect serving size, and they don't take an eternity to reach tenderness, like larger ones do.
- The marrow in the bones bastes the meat as it renders in the heat.
- Minced vegetables break down to form a chunky and thick sauce.
The most incredible thing about osso buco, the hearty Milanese dish of braised veal shanks, is how singular its flavor is given how simple it is to prepare. The braise itself contains little more than your classic assortment of aromatics, like onion, carrot, and celery; the shanks themselves; and some wine, broth, and maybe a little tomato. Those ingredients alone should produce a fairly run-of-the-mill braise—tasty but unremarkable. And yet, osso buco's flavor is unmistakable and superb, something you won't forget once you've eaten it for the first time.
The reason is twofold. First, there's the osso buco itself. The name, literally translating as "pierced bone," refers to the marrow bones in the middle of each crosscut shank. They contribute a tremendous amount of flavor as the rich marrow renders during the braise, basting the meat and infusing into the sauce. The second is gremolata, the dish's secret weapon. A mixture of finely minced lemon zest, parsley, and garlic, the gremolata is stirred into the braise near the end and also sprinkled on top as a garnish, adding a fresh, bright, and sharp kick. Together, these two features elevate osso buco to something extraordinary.
Making it starts with the shanks. Some restaurants and cookbooks call for mountainous hunks of meat, which look impressive but comes with a couple drawbacks. First, it takes longer for the heat to penetrate and melt the tough connective tissue into tender gelatin, extending what is already a long cooking time. Second, it leaves you with servings so huge, it becomes a challenge to try to finish one; since the bone-in cut is impossible to evenly divide (who gets the marrow-filled bone?), splitting such a big section of shank isn't practical, either.
Too thin, though, and they'll curl and bend with the heat, leaving you with a saucer-shaped shank. Ideally, then, what you want are shanks no thinner than an inch and not much thicker than an inch and a half. That gives you a generous yet realistic portion size for each person.
Some people like to tie a length of butcher's twine around each shank, which can help hold the meat to the bone and prevent curling of thinner cross sections. My testing left me undecided on the benefit of this: The shanks I left untied didn't have any problems; meanwhile, some of the ones I did tie had the strings fall off as the meat contracted in the heat, and the others required snipping off the strings before serving, a small annoyance. It's possible that I got lucky with my batches and, if I'd continued testing untied shanks, that I'd have eventually discovered some fail rate. At the very least, I can conclude that the strings did no real harm, so if you don't mind taking the time to tie up the shanks and remove the strings later, it may be a worthwhile extra step. If you do mind, I wouldn't worry too much. The worst that happens is you have to reassemble a fallen-apart shank on the plate.
Next, the shanks are seasoned with salt and pepper and lightly dredged in flour, then browned in oil. You may find that a shank or two will have trouble browning evenly as the meat contracts around the bone—if it contracts enough, the bone can act like a tiny stand, with the meat hovering above the oil. Just do your best to push the meat down into the oil, and don't sweat it if a few shanks don't brown perfectly in every spot.
Once browned, the shanks are set aside, and finely minced aromatics go into the pot. The important thing here is to cut the vegetables into tiny pieces—they're going to melt and form the sauce, so if they're too big, you'll be stuck with a broth studded with vegetable chunks. I don't think that's ideal, especially since I use such a light dredging of flour. If you use more flour, the liquids will thicken more, but they'll also have a more muted flavor; less flour leaves the broth thinner, meaning finely minced vegetables can step in to thicken the sauce more fully. I like hand-mincing in situations like this, but if your knife skills aren't up to the task, or if your patience is limited, it's far better to throw the aromatics into a food processor and pulse them to a fine mince than to err on the too-large side. Save your chunky vegetables for another day.
When the minced vegetables have softened and are just starting to turn a light golden color, I add some hand-crushed drained canned tomatoes to the pot. Tomatoes are an optional ingredient in osso buco, but I like the flavor and texture they add. Still, I don't want one of those very tomato-heavy osso buco renditions that you sometimes see, so I drain and seed the tomatoes, using only the flesh.
The veal goes back into the pot along with any accumulated juices, plus dry white wine and some chicken stock. Beef stock might seem like the obvious choice here, but unless you have some homemade on hand, chicken is your best bet—it's versatile and, when store-bought, has better flavor than most of the beef broth options out there. If your stock is homemade and it has a naturally high gelatin content (you'll know because it will set like jelly when it's cold), you're good to go. If not, it helps to sprinkle some powdered gelatin onto the stock, allowing it to bloom for a few minutes before adding it to the pot. Even when hot and liquid, gelatin-rich stock has a thicker, more viscous texture that seems much richer than that of a watery broth.
A few sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf, and the whole thing goes into a low, 325°F (163°C) oven to cook. For the first couple hours, I use a parchment paper lid. This slows down evaporation enough that the pot won't go dry too quickly, but still allows some water to cook off and the exposed surface of the meat to brown in the dry oven heat, leading to deeper, more complex flavor.
For the last hour, I remove the parchment and let the braise brown more deeply in the oven. If it gets too dry, you can moisten it with more stock or water at any point.
Remember, recipe times are almost always rough estimates: A variety of factors, from the meat to the oven to the pot used, can all affect how long it will actually take for the meat to become tender. Use the cooking times as an approximate guide, not as an absolute law. If your shanks need more time to get tender, give them as much as they need, adding more water to make sure the pot doesn't get too dry. That's real cooking—using your senses and adjusting as you go.
A couple teaspoons of the gremolata go in for the last 15 minutes or so, once it's become clear the shanks are tender enough. You can test this by trying to slide a fork into them: If it slides in easily, you're all set.
One traditional way to serve osso buco is with a golden mound of saffron-flavored Risotto alla Milanese. Slide a shank on top, spoon the sauce over it, and put it on the table. Everyone can sprinkle extra gremolata on top as a garnish, depending on how strong they want that flavor to be.
It's as classic and basic as a braise can get, and yet it's truly like no other.
- 6 (1- to 1 1/2-inch-thick) pieces osso buco (veal shanks) (about 4 pounds; 1.8kg total)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup all-purpose flour (5 ounces; 140g)
- 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (1/2 ounce; 15g)
- 1 large yellow onion, minced (12 ounces; 340g)
- 2 medium carrots, minced (6 ounces; 170g)
- 1 celery rib, minced (4 ounces; 120g)
- 3 medium cloves garlic, minced
- 1 (28-ounce; 800g) can peeled whole tomatoes, seeded and drained, tomato flesh crushed by hand
- 1 cup (235ml) dry white wine
- 3/4 cup (175ml) homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock (see note)
- 3 fresh thyme sprigs
- 1 bay leaf
- For the Gremolata:
- 2 tablespoons (about 20g) finely minced flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems
- Zest of 1 lemon, finely minced
- 6 medium cloves garlic, finely minced
Preheat oven to 325°F (163°C). Season veal shanks all over with salt and pepper. If you have butcher's twine, you can tie a length of it tightly around the circumference of each shank; this can help them hold their shape during cooking, but is not absolutely necessary.
Add flour to a shallow bowl. In a large Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in batches, lightly dredge shanks all over in flour, shaking off excess, and add to Dutch oven; be careful not to over-crown the shanks. Cook shanks, turning occasionally, until lightly browned on both sides, about 4 minutes per side; lower heat as necessary at any point to prevent scorching. Transfer browned shanks to a platter and repeat with remaining shanks; add more oil to Dutch oven at any point if it becomes too dry.
Add butter to Dutch oven, along with onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cook, stirring, over medium-high heat until vegetables are softened and just starting to turn a light golden color, about 6 minutes.
Add tomatoes, wine, and stock to Dutch oven, along with veal shanks and any accumulated juices. Try to arrange the shanks in as even a layer as possible (a little overlap is okay to make them fit). The liquid should nearly but not totally cover the shanks; if it doesn't, add more stock or water until it does. Add thyme and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer.
Prepare a parchment paper lid following these instructions. Cover shanks with parchment lid and transfer to oven. Cook for 2 hours.
Meanwhile, for the Gremolata: In a small bowl, stir together parsley, lemon zest, and garlic. Set aside.
Remove parchment paper lid from shanks and continue cooking until they are fork-tender, about 1 hour longer. If the pot becomes too dry, add more stock or water as needed to keep it moist; evaporation and reduction are good, but the pot shouldn't go dry. Feel free to move the shanks around so that any that are submerged can be exposed to the oven air. During the last 20 minutes of cooking, stir in 1 to 2 teaspoons (5 to 10ml) gremolata, depending on how strong you want the lemon and garlic flavor to be.
Carefully transfer shanks to a platter. (Using a spatula and tongs together can help prevent them from falling apart.) Using a spoon, carefully scrape off any excess fat on surface of braising juices. The liquid should be saucy and thick; you can adjust the consistency by adding either water or stock to thin the sauce, or simmering it on the stovetop until more fully reduced. Discard thyme and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper if necessary.
Remove twine from shanks, if used. Serve shanks on plates, spooning braising sauce on top and passing remaining gremolata at the table for diners to sprinkle as a garnish to their own taste; make sure to offer small spoons for scooping out marrow from bones. Osso buco is traditionally served with Risotto alla Milanese.
Dutch oven, parchment paper, butcher's twine (optional)
For the best sauce, we recommend truly mincing the vegetables; larger chunks don't break down into a thickened sauce in quite the same way. If your knife skills aren't up to the task, use a food processor to pulverize them quickly and effectively. Using a food processor often releases some of the vegetables' liquids, so be sure to add those to the pot, too. If using store-bought broth, add about 2 teaspoons powdered gelatin to the broth and let it hydrate before using.