One of my favorite ways to cook these days is sous vide* and one of my favorite things to cook is short-ribs. I have cooked short-ribs a number of ways and by far the most consistent, delicious, show stopping way to cook them is sous vide. There is no other method of cooking where you can get a luscious fall off the bone texture and at the same time keep the meat at medium rare. It is awesome!
*If you are unfamiliar with sous vide cooking keep an eye out for an introductory post on sous vide cooking in the very near future, as well as a review of equipment on the market today!
I decided to run a test to deduce the effects time has on the texture, color, and moisture loss of beef short-ribs at a constant temperature. Following the taste test, a clear winner emerged in each of the three categories: texture, color, and moisture loss. What surprised me was that it was the same period of cooking time that won in all three categories. I had found the sweet spot of beef short-rib cookery.
I began by setting my Anova Precision Cooker water bath to 55°C. I seasoned 5 boneless beef short-rib pieces with kosher salt and seared them with grape-seed oil in a cast iron pan. I then weighed each short-rib piece individually, gave them each a good crack of black pepper, and placed them in individual Ziplock freezer bags with a sprig of Thyme. I placed all 5 bags into the water bath using the water displacement method to evacuate all of the air from the bags. I marked each bag with a different period of time, 24/48/60/72/84hrs. At each of the time intervals I removed the appropriate bag and shocked it in an ice bath and refrigerated it until the last bag was complete. To bring the ribs to temperature for the taste test I reheated them in a 250°F/121°C grill until the internal temperature reached 55°C. As they reheated, I painted them with a red wine reduction to form a flavorful crust on the exterior of the ribs.
Choices I Made and Why?
I chose 55°C for two reasons. One, I want to cook the short-ribs as rare as possible but still have them fall off the bone tender like you would expect from a traditional braised short rib. This leads up to the second reason. Below 55°C collagen does not dissolve as rapidly.
This means meat will not get as tender when cooked at these temperatures, even for long periods of time. Dr. Douglas Baldwin has done the research and explains it really well in his Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking: “At lower temperatures (120°F/50°C to 150°F/ 65°C), Bouton and Harris (1981) found that tough cuts of beef (from animals 0–4 years old) were the most tender when cooked to between 131°F and 140°F (55°C and 60°C). Cooking the beef for 24 hours at these temperatures significantly increased its tenderness (with shear forces decreasing 26%–72% compared to 1 hour of cooking).” So as you can see, 55°C is the sweet spot for a beef short-rib that is medium rare and fall apart tender at the same time.
PRE-SEAR VS. POST-SEAR
Whether it is before or after the bath, searing is extremely important when cooking sous vide. This is due to the Maillard Reaction. The Maillard Reaction is not just one but hundreds of chemical and physical reactions that happen when heat is applied to food. These reactions are responsible for that beautiful crusty bark on a smoked brisket and the golden crust on a loaf of bread. In other words, Maillard Reaction = FLAVOR. As you can imagine, cooking food in a precisely controlled water bath in itself does not impart much flavor to food. It does, however, allow for great control over cooking. Searing, in conjunction with sous vide, is the best of both worlds. So why one over the other? Post-searing is great for steaks and chops. They’re still easy to handle post-bath and you get a fresh and flavorful crust right before you serve. For cuts of meat that you plan to cook to “fall off the bone” tenderness, pre-searing is the way to go. The raw meat is much easier to handle and makes great contact with the pan giving you a very even sear. In this case, I chose to pre-sear because of the way I would be reheating them for service. Because the searing was already taken care of, I could just heat the cooked/cooled very gently in a low oven/grill. This technique works great if you plan on glazing your meat, as it allows you to paint multiple layers on your previously established crust, maximizing flavor, without overcooking the meat.
WHY BONELESS SHORT-RIBS INSTEAD OF BONE-IN?
Yes, bone-in meat tastes better! However, for this test I chose boneless short-ribs in order to establish another control for calculating moisture loss.
Disclaimer: these results are not scientific at all, but merely a fun test I did at home. When I reference the “taste test,” I mean my wife and I sat down for dinner and ate short-ribs, lots of them. Just your typical Tuesday night meal…
What gives meat it’s color in the first place? Turns out, it is the protein Myoglobin and it rapidly denatures as cooking temperature is increased (Sen, A.R. 2011). But what about when the temperature remains constant? Most of the relevant studies I have found (García-Segovia, P 2007) (Vaudagna, S. R. 2002) have referenced temperatures effect on the color of meat but less has been done on time’s effect at a constant temperature.
As you can see from the results of my very basic test (figure 2.0) the redness did decrease over time with temperature remaining constant. A very interesting outcome and it will definitely factor in to how I plan the presentation of my dishes going forward.
TEXTURE AND MOISTURE LOSS
Onto the effects time had on the texture and moisture loss. Again referencing figure 2.0 you can see that, over time, more and more collagen and connective tissue was broken down, yielding a more tender short-rib. The question is, does this at some point become undesirable? Can meat be too tender?
The 24 hour rib was not tender enough. It was edible and very tasty, but had the chew of a steak rather than the fall off the bone texture we were looking for. The 48 hour short rib was unanimously the winner of the taste test, tender and moist but with good chew. We found the difference between the 48 and the 60 hour sample not worth the extra time in the water bath. Especially when taking color into account. Now, back to the question, can meat be too tender? The answer is yes! Besides the dramatic increase in moisture loss (figure 3.0), in the taste test we found that 72 hours and beyond the texture of the short-ribs started to degrade. The 72 hour rib had a slightly mealy texture and did not have as nice of a chew or mouth feel as the preceding samples. The 84 hour rib was much dryer and had a more traditional texture like that of an over braised short-rib.
Time to make bold claims: 48 hours at 55°C is the sweet spot for beef short-ribs. When taking color, texture, and moisture loss into account this time and temperature combo is awesome. If could only cook one thing in my immersion circulator I would still own one, just to cook these short ribs. Seriously. Oh and eggs, eggs are amazing sous vide, but more on that in another post.
What would i change?
It’s obvious to me that this warrants further investigation. Next time there are a couple of things that I would do different to establish better control.
- Use and exact ratio of salt to more accurately calculate moisture loss
- Tighten the temperature range
Increase the number of samples
- Not sear as to avoid any moisture loss variance
What do you think? Does color matter? What else would you like to see me experiment with sous vide? Let me know in the comments below.