Shreds of beefy, tender meat
Mushrooms as supporting flavor
Deep umami flavor
Shorter cooking time
I have fond memories of my Italian nonna’s hearty meat ragu, or Sunday gravy. Made with sausages, meatballs, and braciole and served over a heaping pile of pasta, it was the backbone of a feast that fed a crowd—and it took her all day to prepare. With fall’s cool, crisp arrival, I usually look forward to making a big batch, but this year I wondered if there wasn’t an easier alternative. There are numerous versions of ragu from all over Italy, and some research turned up a particularly interesting version relying on just one type of meat: beef short ribs. Certainly they’re a great cut, well marbled and flavorful, but I wondered if they alone could make a sauce as satisfyingly meaty as a traditional Sunday gravy.
Many of the recipes called for browning the short ribs and then braising them for 3 to 5 hours (relatively quick, compared with the all-day approach). The most involved recipe was indeed delicious, but it took even more work than my nonna’s, so I left it behind. Simpler versions were mostly thin in body and flavor. However, a subset of this category, ragù di manzo e funghi porcini (beef ragu with porcini mushrooms), caught my attention and eventually became my point of departure. The version I tried was a bit lackluster and tasted more of woodsy porcini than of short ribs, but I felt that with a little work I could transform it into a luscious, rich, and deeply beefy sauce in just a couple of hours.
Meat of the Matter
Although some recipes called for bone-in short ribs, I quickly settled on boneless short ribs, which are less expensive and have more meat. Confusingly, they are not actually bone-in ribs without the bone (for more information, see "How to Shop for Boneless Short Ribs”). I browned the meat and set it aside, sautéed an array of aromatics, and then returned the short ribs to the pot along with a can of whole tomatoes I had chopped (canned diced tomatoes were too firm and didn’t break down during cooking), a sprig of fresh rosemary, and some dried porcini mushrooms I’d rehydrated in beef broth. I set the pot to braise over a low flame and checked the meat periodically for doneness. The good news: The beef became silky and tender enough for me to shred and stir back into the sauce in just 2 hours. However, the ragu wasn’t without problems. Despite my having turned down the flame here and there, the sauce at the bottom of the pot scorched over the direct heat. But, I thought, switching to oven braising would easily fix that.
The other problem presented more of a challenge: The sauce seemed to struggle to highlight the beef’s savory quality. This lack of depth was probably at least partly due to the relatively short cooking time. Having too many competing flavors in the pot surely wasn’t helping either, so I eliminated ingredients: Carrots, celery, and rosemary all got the ax. After browning the beef, I simply sautéed onion and garlic and then added the mushrooms, their rehydrating liquid, and the tomatoes, along with some dry red wine for acidity. Sure enough, as the sauce became focused on a few key ingredients, more beefiness came to the fore.
But the dish tasted a little too earthy from the porcini. I was hesitant to cut back on the mushrooms since I wanted their presence to be noticeable; I just needed the beef flavor to be equally prominent. To balance things out, I turned to two powerhouses: tomato paste and minced anchovies. Just 1 tablespoon of the former and 3 fillets of the latter did the trick, bringing deep meaty flavor to the ragu. That’s because both ingredients are rich in umami-boosting glutamates. For the skeptics in the group, we did a side-by-side taste test of ragus prepared with and without anchovies and found that the minced fillets made a marked difference in the dish’s savoriness—they added roundness and depth of flavor with nary a trace of fishiness.
As planned, I also switched to braising the ragu in the oven, covered, rather than on the stovetop, which eliminated the scorching issue. The sauce wasn’t getting as thick as I wanted, though, so I removed the lid halfway through braising to allow it to thicken via evaporation. This move also prompted the meat sitting above the surface of the liquid to brown, enhancing its beefy taste. In fact, it worked so well that I eliminated the step of browning the meat prior to braising. I saved about 20 minutes of cooking time, and my stovetop was splatter-free—a win-win scenario.
Finally, many of the ragu di manzo recipes I found called for a touch of warm spices, a nod to the importance of the spice route that passed through Italy from the 15th to the 17th century and introduced Europe to Asian ingredients. I wanted to maintain this tradition in my dish, so as a final tweak I played with sprinkling in various amounts of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. The spices worked beautifully, adding subtle background notes that underscored the taste of the beef and mushrooms. It occurred to me that I could trade in the separate spices for a single blend: five-spice powder. Just ½ teaspoon of this mix of cinnamon, cloves, fennel, white pepper, and star anise contributed sweet and warm flavors. My colleagues applauded the deeply beefy flavor and velvety texture of my ragu. And I think that my nonna would also approve.