When autumn comes with a chill in the air, I often prepare braised short ribs. Although this rich, robust-tasting dish is a favorite in America, I never imagined it would become my winter comfort food.
I was born in Japan and lived there until I moved to the United States as a middle-aged adult. My taste buds were trained in the Japanese way, to appreciate dishes that are prepared so that each ingredient speaks out. Preserving the natural flavor of each ingredient, rather than blending flavors to produce a new taste experience, is a fundamental tenet of Japanese cuisine. My taste buds were also nurtured to expect fermented seasonings that are rich in umami (savory flavor). This means the use of miso, shoyu (soy sauce), mirin, rice vinegar and dashi (kelp stock).
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When I came to America, I found that people didn’t follow formulas as rigidly as in Japan. I first encountered braised short ribs at a restaurant in New York City, and its large portion size and bold, rich flavor seemed to embody the “mighty America” that so impressed and influenced me.
Back in Japan I was accustomed to beef that was meticulously cut into paper-thin slices and used in shabu-shabu (beef slices that are blanched in dashi and dipped in flavored sauces), sukiyaki (beef slices cooked in a mixture of sake, shoyu and sugar) and similar preparations.
Eventually I decided to create a lighter version of braised short ribs that incorporated Japanese influences. I studied many American braised short-rib recipes as a base before I successfully produced a lighter but rich-tasting version of this dish.
Short ribs recipe unites the best of both worlds
Here is how I approached my recipe (also featured in my cookbook, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen”). First, I use kelp stock to braise the meat. Kelp stock provides rich yet clean umami to the braised dish. By using kelp stock I can eliminate mirepoix — the chopped aromatic vegetables that are sautéed for the base in most Western braised short-rib preparations. This significantly shortens the prep time.
Second, I use sake in the braising stock because it also has excellent umami content. I choose sake that is moderately priced; premium sake made from heavily polished rice is less acidic, so it is not ideal for use in cooking.
Third, I do a quick blanching of the short ribs in the boiling water after they are well browned in the skillet. This technique cleans the meat by removing oil and burnt bits clinging to it. This further ensures that the braised dish has a clean taste.
Finally, I use shoyu as one of the key flavoring ingredients in the braising liquid. The additional umami from shoyu is a great asset to the dish.
It is an excellent idea to pair my braised short ribs with sake. To accompany this robust, strongly flavored dish it is not necessary to purchase premium sake such as ginjo or dai-ginjo. Junmai-shu, made from rice that has had 30 percent of the bran polished away, is somewhat acidic, fuller-bodied and earthy. It is a perfect match for the short ribs.
Tokubetsu (special) junmai-shu and kimoto junmai-shu (sake brewed in 100% traditional technique), which I prefer for accompanying my braised short ribs, is excellent served warm, not hot. Warming this style to body temperature of about 98 F, called hitohada (skin temperature) in Japanese, is correct. This opens up the delicate sweetness, bouquet and flavor of the sake. Test the temperature by simply pouring a drop on the back of your hand.
For this holiday season, braised short ribs in the Japanese style with warmed sake is the way to go. You will find much more information about sake, including how to cool and heat it for different dishes, in my book, “The Sushi Experience.”
Hiroko’s Braised Short Ribs
It is best to begin making this dish a day in advance by marinating the meat the day before cooking.
Prep time: 20 minutes plus overnight marination
Cook time: 3 hours
Yield: 6 servings
7 tablespoons shoyu
5 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
5 to 5 1/2 pounds bone-in short ribs (about 6 whole bones)
2 tablespoons canola oil or vegetable oil
1 cup sake
2 cups kelp stock (made by soaking 1 ounce kelp, or kombu, in 8 ounces water overnight)
2 tablespoons sugar
Simmered winter vegetables such as Japanese turnips, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts are excellent accompaniments.
1. In a large bowl, combine 6 tablespoons of shoyu, honey, Worcestershire sauce and red pepper flakes. Add the short ribs to the sauce and marinate overnight.
2. Heat the oven to 325 F. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Remove the short ribs from the marinade and wipe them with paper towels, reserving the marinade. Place the canola or vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add ½ of the meat. Cook the ribs until all sides are golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes total. Transfer the browned short ribs to a sieve and lower the ribs into the boiling water. Quickly swish the ribs in the water and remove them, discarding the water after both batches of ribs have been cooked and washed.
3. Combine the sake and kelp stock in a large pot over medium heat and bring it to a simmer. Add the sugar and the ribs (in a single layer) and bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Cover the pot with a lid, transfer it to the oven, and cook the short ribs for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
4. Remove the pot of short ribs from the oven. Carefully open the lid of the pot add the reserved marinade to the pot. Cover the pot with the lid and transfer it back to the oven. Cook the meat for 30 to 40 minutes.
5. Remove the pot from the oven and cool the short ribs in the cooking liquid. When it is cool, remove the short ribs from the cooking liquid and cut the meat from the ribs into the desired portions, eliminating as much of the fat as you wish. Store the beef in the cooking liquid until ready to serve.
6. Before serving, warm the short ribs in a pot, covered, with 1/3 of the cooking liquid. In another small pot, reduce the remaining cooking liquid until syrupy. Serve the beef with seasonal vegetables and the reduced liquid poured over the meat. Accompany the dish with crusty bread and vegetables.
Main photo: Braised short ribs in the Japanese way. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo