Rich, tender meat
Quicker, simpler method
Savory Thai curries are often categorized by the color of the spice paste used to flavor and thicken them. Green is hot and pungent, mild yellow is sweet-spiced, orange is pleasantly sour, and salty-sweet red features a lingering burn. And then there is panang—a sweeter, more unctuous derivative of red curry that’s enriched with ground peanuts and seasoned with sugar, fish sauce, deeply fragrant makrut lime leaves, and a touch of fiery Thai chile. Panang curries are often made with beef—usually a flavorful but tough cut, such as chuck roast, shank, or brisket, that needs to cook for a long time to turn tender. And unlike those aforementioned curries, which are typically brothy, panang is a drier style of curry that contains a judicious amount of coconut milk, giving it a thick, velvety consistency that steadfastly clings to the pieces of meat.
For a cook who has time, making panang curry from scratch can be a labor of love: toasting and pounding spices and aromatics to make the paste; frying the paste in a little coconut cream skimmed from the can; adding the coconut milk, seasonings, and beef; and, finally, simmering it all to meld the flavors. But even in Thailand, many cooks start with store-bought paste, which can make this dish easier to pull together.
Tender at Heart
Most traditional panang curry recipes call for a tough, collagen-rich cut of beef for the same reason that Western stews do: The abundant collagen breaks down during the prolonged cooking time, so the beef turns silky and fall-apart tender. I came across a few modern panang curry recipes calling for quick-cooking cuts such as sirloin or flank steak, but they weren’t nearly as nice to eat; cooked briefly, these cuts have a steak-like chew that’s not right in Thai curry, while a lengthy simmer toughens them. I’d stick with traditional collagen-rich cuts.
However, unlike Western beef stews, which cook the meat directly in the braising liquid to maximize beefy flavor, most traditional panang curry recipes I found called for cutting the beef into chunks or slices and simmering them in plain water until tender, which takes 1 to 2 hours, depending on the cut. The water is then discarded, and the meat is combined with the sauce for the last few minutes of cooking to purposely limit the amount of beefy flavor so that it won’t muddy the flavors of the spice paste. I proceeded with simmering the meat separately, but I planned to double back at the end of testing and try cooking the meat in the sauce.
When Beefier Is Not Better
Boiling the beef in water and combining it with the curry during the last few minutes of cooking doesn’t infuse the dish with deeply meaty flavor—and that’s the point. Unlike Western beef stews, which are meant to taste ultrabeefy, traditional versions of panang curry cook the beef separately so as not to muddy the flavors of the spice paste. We tried cooking the dish both ways and preferred the more assertive curry flavor produced by the traditional Thai approach.
But first: Which cut of beef should I use? For my early tests, I defaulted to chuck roast for three reasons: good flavor, availability, and affordability. The downsides were that trimming fat and gristle from the roast was time-consuming and generated a lot of waste, and even when cut into thin slices, it needed 2 hours of simmering to turn tender. Looking for other options, I considered cuts such as shank and brisket, but these would require some trimming as well as a long simmering time. Ultimately, I ditched them all in favor of a cut we often turn to for braising: boneless short ribs. They’re flavorful and well marbled, so they’d be sure to cook up moist. And even though they’re a bit pricier than chuck, there’d be much less waste and knife work—a worthwhile trade-off. Sliced ¼ inch thick, the short ribs cooked up tender after just about an hour of simmering. On to the paste.
Short Ribs: Perfect Texture, Minimal Knife Work
Panang curry is quick to make if you start with jarred paste, but don’t try to shortcut it further by using a quick-cooking cut of beef such as sirloin or flank steak. We tried, and the results were like steak with sauce, not the fall-apart-tender texture you get by braising a collagen-rich cut. Chuck roast is a popular choice, but it requires lots of trimming and takes 2 hours to cook, so we use boneless short ribs instead. They become at least as silky as chuck does after just 1 hour, and they require almost no knife work.
Nut Like the Rest
I usually wouldn’t be so quick to endorse a prefab ingredient, but most commercial Thai curry pastes are nothing more than purees of the same herbs and spices I would have to buy and grind myself—in this case dried red chiles, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, cilantro root, white pepper, and salt. Plus, pastes are inexpensive and keep well in the refrigerator for about a month.
Unfortunately, panang curry paste isn’t widely available in American supermarkets, so I’d have to start with the more common red variety and doctor its flavor. I planned to add some form of peanut and work in plenty of makrut lime leaves so that their bright, citrusy fragrance would stand out in the rich sauce.
Once I had another batch of beef ready to go, I sizzled a few tablespoons of red curry paste in a little vegetable oil to intensify its flavor and then added a can of coconut milk. Traditional recipes often call for frying the paste in coconut cream that has been “cracked”—that is, simmered until its oil separates out, but we’ve found that coconut milks from different brands yield varying amounts of cream and that vegetable oil works just as well. To that mixture I added a few teaspoons of fish sauce and a touch of sugar for salty-sweet balance, followed by the cooked short ribs. I then simmered the curry until the liquid was reduced by roughly half and was thick enough to coat the meat. Finally, I stirred in a few tablespoons of peanut butter, an ingredient I’d seen called for in several recipes. Its flavor and texture overwhelmed and overthickened the curry, so I reduced the amount of peanut butter in subsequent batches, but it never tasted quite right. The better option was to scatter finely chopped roasted peanuts over the top before serving, which lent the dish subtle nuttiness as well as a nice crunch.
Some recipes instruct you to simmer whole makrut lime leaves in the sauce and remove them just before serving, as you would bay leaves in a soup or stew. Others called for slicing the stiff, shiny leaves into very thin slivers and adding them to the pot just before serving or even sprinkling them over the top as a garnish. After trying both approaches, I found that the latter delivered brighter, more vibrant citrus flavor in every bite. I also came up with an acceptable substitute: a 50/50 combination of lime and lemon zest strips.
Ingredient Spotlight: Makrut Lime Leaves
Shiny makrut lime leaves boast a tangy, floral aroma that perfumes many Southeast Asian dishes. They’re available in Southeast Asian markets and freeze well. If you can’t find them, a combination of lemon zest and lime zest will approximate their flavor.
I doubled back to the question of whether to cook the beef in water or in the sauce: A side-by-side test confirmed that tasters unanimously preferred the water method; the sauce in the other batch was not only muddy-tasting but also much too rich after reducing for such a long time.
Curry in a Hurry? Even Thai Cooks Do It
Making curry paste from scratch is great if you have time to toast, grind, and pound all the spices, herbs, and aromatics. For a casual meal, most cooks—Thai cooks included—make curry using jarred paste, which contains all the ingredients you need and turns this deeply flavorful dish into a fast weeknight meal.
With savory-sweet heat; lush, creamy body; nutty richness; and floral, citrusy tang, my version of panang curry was satisfying in a way that belied the ease of making it.