Like many cooks, I find deep joy in treating those I love to a memorable holiday meal. This year, I’m excited to wow my family and friends with glazed short ribs. These ribs ooze gorgeousness, with rich, velvety meat that cuts easily with a fork and flaunts a dramatically dark, tangy-sweet glaze. Everyone at the table will adore them; plus, the bulk of the prep—which is a breeze—happens well in advance.
The recipe is modeled after one that my colleague Andrea Geary used to cook at a top restaurant in Scotland. Her concept was straightforward and brilliant: The day before serving, she braised boneless beef short ribs—a heavily marbled cut that’s rich in collagen—in stout (she was in the Scottish Highlands, after all) and then chilled the ribs in their cooking liquid overnight, where moisture and flavor continued to permeate the meat. On the line, she fired the dish to order by first painting the fridge‑cold beef with the reduced braising liquid spiked with black treacle and balsamic vinegar before sliding it into the oven. Once the ribs were piping hot, she lacquered them again, creating a mirrorlike gloss that turned heads in the dining room.
Shopping: Boneless Short Ribs Aren’t Ribs at All
Don’t be fooled by their name: Beefy, easy-to-prep boneless short ribs aren’t actually ribs. Cut from the area closest to the shoulder—the chuck—of the cow, they are basically butchered and trimmed chuck roast. (Don’t sub bone-in short ribs, which are entirely different. They come from the plate, or front belly, of the animal and are much fattier.)
When adapting the recipe for a home kitchen, I experimented with browning the meat prior to braising, but it robbed the surface of some of its fall-apart tenderness. So I went straight to preparing the braising liquid in a Dutch oven. Instead of stout, I opted for equal parts beef broth and dry red wine—a classic duo—along with a little brown sugar for caramelly sweetness and a dose of soy sauce for salty umami. In keeping with the dish’s European feel, I selected onion, carrot, and thyme for aromatics.
After nestling the ribs into the burgundy liquid, I transferred the pot to a 275-degree oven for a gentle 2½-hour braise. During this low, slow simmer, the beef and liquid shared flavors, though the ribs weren’t quite as beefy tasting as I expected. A couple of spoonfuls of lightly sweet, mushroomy miso did the trick: Now the ribs were as beefy as could be (see “Making Beef Taste Beefier” to learn more).
Science: Making Beef Taste Beefier
Although beef is considered a prime example of savory umami flavor, it doesn’t taste particularly beefy on its own. That’s because the meat contains relatively little glutamate—less than a strawberry has. Glutamate is the central umami amino acid, producing ultrasavory taste by triggering umami receptors on our taste buds. But if you add glutamate-rich ingredients such as miso and soy sauce to beef as we do in our short rib recipe, the meat can taste exceptionally beefy thanks to a synergistic reaction between the glutamate and inosine monophosphate (IMP), a compound in beef. The glutamate stimulates umami receptors on our taste buds while the IMP effectively holds the glutamate in place on the receptors, intensifying the umami experience up to eightfold when the compounds are present in equal amounts. –Paul Adams
After I chilled the cooked ribs, my serving-day tasks were easy: First, I spooned off the fat that had solidified on top. Next, I removed the meat, strained the liquid, and simmered it hard it to create a thick, clingy base for the glaze. Balsamic vinegar brought the mixture alive with tart acidity. Molasses added smoky-sweet gusto; cornstarch slurry, additional viscosity; and hot sauce, a smidge of bright heat.
Science: Lustrous Lacquer That Clings
The glaze that we brush onto the ribs after braising and chilling owes its razzle-dazzle to three components.
Sugar: Brown sugar and molasses turn the glaze thick, clingy, and glassy. Once the sugar molecules dissolve, they stick together, impeding the flow of liquid. The tacky mixture immobilizes water on the surface of food, making it glimmer.
Cornstarch: Cornstarch provides additional viscosity. It’s made up of long polymer molecules that bump into each other when they’re suspended in a liquid, slowing the glaze’s flow.
Gelatin: As the beef’s collagen transforms into gelatin, it melts into the braising liquid that anchors the glaze, fortifying it with silky body.
After arranging the ribs on a parchment-lined baking sheet, I brushed them all over with the syrupy glaze and slid them into a 450-degree oven. Every 5 minutes, I gave the ribs a quarter turn and brushed them again to create a substantial glossy coating, stopping when they reached 140 degrees. At that temperature, not only had the abundant gelatin in the meat remelted but so had its rich intramuscular fat, lavishing the beef in unctuous juices. The ribs became so tender that a quick shake of the baking sheet sent them jiggling, a sign of the melt-in-the-mouth deliciousness to come.
Along with mashed potatoes or polenta, I suggest serving the ribs with a simple green vegetable. Or try my Apple–Celery Root Salad: It’s fresh and bright, just what you’ll crave between bites of the opulent beef. Little will your guests know how easy it was to pull together such a lovely meal.