By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 5:18 PM
Can your beef ribs be cooked medium, juicy yet still pink on the inside, with all the tenderness of a steak and the rich flavor of the rib meat?
That would be nice. But is it possible? Yes; it just takes a bit of time.
Two days, to be precise.
One of the first things a beginning cook learns is what our ancestors discovered once they finally managed to tame fire and use it in cooking: When meat is exposed to heat, it changes. Heat tenderizes; it alters flavor and texture.
The next lesson is that there is a big difference between the various cuts and how they should be prepared. A tender steak is best cooked at high heat for a short time. If you cook it too long, it becomes dry. A tough cut, on the other hand, should be braised (or otherwise slow-cooked) for a long time, until it is thoroughly overcooked, in order to tenderize it.
Those have been the basic truths about cooking meats since, well, not the dawn of time, but the dawn of gastronomy. That is why we still refer to a filet as a "fine" cut and to beef ribs, chuck and brisket as "lesser" cuts. The potential to yield a perfectly tender and pink piece of meat has made certain cuts much more expensive than other, presumably tougher and much more abundant cuts from the same animal.
The past year or so, I have been working on a restaurant menu for a modern bistro-style grill in Oslo of which I am a co-owner. The restaurant is named in honor of Saint Lawrence, whose martyrdom on a gridiron and famous last words - "This side is done; turn me over and have a bite" - have made him the patron saint of both grill cooks and comedians. The menu is heavy on meat, all of it finished on a charcoal grill.
One of our wishes had been to combine the roughness of the grill - the texture and temperament of fire - with the knowledge provided by modern food science. We also have tried to avoid the typical restaurant cuts. With filet, rib-eye and top sirloin on the menu, we are sure to please, but it becomes more expensive and less of a challenge (and less fun) for the cooks. So we asked ourselves: Could we serve beef ribs and shoulder of lamb in much the same way as one would a steak or a leg of lamb?
The problem, or one of the problems, is collagen. Most cheap cuts contain a lot of connective tissue (of which the main component is collagen) that, when uncooked or undercooked, renders the meat incredibly chewy. If you have ever tried making beef stew in a hurry, you'll be among the many who learned the hard way.
So the traditional approach is to heat the meat until the connective tissue breaks down and the collagen is transformed into gelatin. Most often that means braising. While that time-proven technique certainly does the job with collagen, it has other effects as well: The meat turns brown as the myoglobin (what makes the meat red) is exposed to excessive heat; the water-holding capacity of the meat is greatly reduced as the protein actin is denatured; and the meat becomes rather stringy. All of those changes occur at between 150 and 170 degrees. In braising, the effective temperature is around 212 degrees for a long time.
I'm not saying those effects are bad. Even though most of the juices might be gone, the gelatin (and intramuscular fat, which tends to be in such cuts) ensures that the meat still feels moist. Also, the muscle fibers have more or less fallen apart, so if you are cooking in a wet environment, such as when you braise, moisture will seep back into the meat.
But that was not what I was aiming for. I wanted something different, and to achieve it I needed to study what goes on inside a piece of meat when it's cooked.
Most cookbooks tell you that to denature the collagen, you must heat the meat to at least 160 degrees; many say around 180. If that was the case, the best we could hope for was a controlled braising process.
After a lot of trial and error and research, we found there was a way to beat the system, to tenderize the meat and make the collagen break down without too much else happening. The answer lay in the varying temperatures given by cookbooks. How come some call for a one-hour bake at 350 degrees and others three to four hours at 250? While actin and myoglobin are temperature-sensitive, collagen is time- and temperature-sensitive. It breaks down at low temperatures (in fact, there is a bit of denaturing going on even as it hangs in the butcher shop) and the process speeds up as the temperature increases.
The way forward demanded time, time and more time, plus accurate temperature control. By cooking the ribs at steak temperature, around 140 degrees, we got the collagen to slowly but steadily break down while the moisture and color of the meat were more or less unaffected. All the meat needed was a touch of fire to get a nice brown crust. Charred and hot, straight from the grill, it was hailed as a small triumph of our kitchen and one of our favorite dishes. No one would suspect all the thought and research behind it.
The impractical reality, though, is that it takes two full days to prepare. (After one day, the meat tends still to be on the tough side.) In the restaurant, we constantly work on how to preserve the flow in the kitchen while a central piece of equipment is tied up for such a long time.
The same applies for a home cook. We use commercial sous-vide equipment, but the recipe for 48-Hour Beef Ribs also works in a residential oven, which is what I used in the development stages. You must be able to set the oven temperature low enough, and you must be willing to wait.
When pragmatism, not perfection, is on the table, I opt for a simpler and more traditional recipe. Red Wine-Braised Beef Ribs are full-flavored and a lot less demanding of your time. The recipe involves a pretty straightforward way of cooking the meat until it almost falls apart. But there is still some science involved. Rather than simply braise the meat, I roast it first in the oven to start the flavor-enhancing processes and again at the end to yield a nice crust.
Science; yet the result is magic.
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