Low, slow turns beef shanks into a beautiful braise
Braised beef shanks are intensely flavored and budget-friendly. But whether they are raw or braised, beef shanks are never as visually appealing as, say, a rib-eye steak.
You may not even know what a beef shank looks like since supermarkets know it's a not-so-pretty cut, and many don't even have them available.
My grass-fed, grass-finished beef shanks are even harder to find, but locating either is worth the effort.
Many folks braise them with the same vegetables used to braise a chuck roast; onions, carrots, celery and potatoes. Some sear them and then simmer them to make a truly flavorful beef soup.
Here's what I learned this time making beef shanks. The squiggly whitish lines wandering through a beef shank are not fat; they are connective tissue. That connective tissue is why braising a beef shank is necessary since that tissue can, if cooked any other way, be tough and chewy.
When beef shanks simmer in a braise, that connective tissue softens and melts into the liquid, forming gelatin. That's nutritionally good.
Since my beef shanks were from grass-fed, grass-finished beef, I decided to use grass-fed, grass-finished beef tallow to sear them, boosting my braise's flavor. My kitchen filled with a mouthwatering, beefy aroma as my shanks seared and while they braised. Yum!
Since not everyone has beef tallow in the fridge, olive oil can be substituted.
While my shanks seared, I cut the carrots, potatoes, onions and celery into easy-to-eat chunks and minced the garlic.
Once my beef shanks had a nice brown on them, I removed them from the pan and parked them on a plate. Into the pan went my onions, and when they softened, I stirred in the minced garlic so it would not burn and get bitter. Next, in went the carrots and, after a bit, the potatoes and finally the celery.
Next, I poured-in filtered water, since I don't like tap water's flavor. Then, I added an equal amount of red wine. I stirred the liquid around dissolving all the accumulated brown bits in the pan's bottom and watched the liquid turn a beautiful brown. I seasoned the liquid with salt, pepper and thyme and then slid the beef shanks in, so they were nearly submerged under the liquid.
I did not want the liquid to boil since that would tighten the shank's protein and make them chewy no matter how long I let them cook. When a few small bubbles appeared, I lowered the temperature and slid a digital thermometer in to warn me if the liquid came close to 190 degrees, which it never did.
Does that lower temperature make it take longer to cook? Yes. But the extra time is worth it.
After three hours, I cut off a tiny piece of the shank and sampled it. It wasn't soft enough yet, so I let it go for another hour and tested again. Finally, soft and moist, not chewy at all.
I removed the shanks and cut them into serving pieces, reserving the bones for soup. I ladled the veggies into another bowl with some of the broth and served dinner.
Everything tasted great with a big, beef flavor -- just what I wanted.
Here's how I braised my beef shanks.
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write to him at don@ theleanwizard.com.
Don Mauer's Braised Beef Shanks
2 tablespoons beef tallow (fat) from grass-fed, grass-finished beef or olive oil
3 pounds grass-fed, grass-finished beef shanks
2 large carrots, peeled, trimmed and cut into chunks
1 large onion, peeled, cut in half and sliced crosswise
2 celery ribs, trimmed and cut into chunks
3 medium red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into large chunks
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2 cups water
2 cups red wine
1 teaspoon dried thyme (or 1 tablespoon fresh)
1 teaspoon sea salt (or more to taste)
½ teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
Add beef tallow or olive oil to a large, heavy Dutch oven and place over medium-high heat. When hot, add the beef shanks and sear for 5 minutes or until browned. Turn shanks over and sear for 5 minutes, or until browned. Transfer to a dinner plate.
Add the onions to the pan and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, until beginning to soften.
Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute or until fragrant. Add the carrots and sauté for 2 minutes, add the potatoes and sauté for 2 minutes, add the celery and sauté for 1 minute. Add the water and scrap-up any brown bits from the pan's bottom. Stir in the wine, thyme, salt and pepper. Place the seared beef shanks in the pot shifting the vegetables around so the shanks are submerged. When the liquid begins a low simmer, turn the heat to low; cover and cook for at least 4 hours or until the beef shanks are tender. Make sure the liquid does not boil.
Remove the shanks and slice the meat off the bones and place the meat on a platter. Ladle some of the cooking broth over the meat. Using a slotted spoon transfer the potatoes, carrots, celery and onion into a serving bowl.
Nutrition values (using beef tallow) per serving: 567 calories (23.7 percent from fat), 14.9 g fat (6.1 g saturated fat), 38.6 g carbohydrates (33.6 net carbs), 5.5 g sugars, 5 g fiber, 47.1 g protein, 107 mg cholesterol, 725 mg sodium.
Nutrition values (using olive oil) per serving: 569 calories (24.1 percent from fat), 15.3 g fat (3.9 g saturated fat), 38.6 g carbohydrates (33.6 net carbs), 5.5 g sugars, 5 g fiber, 47.1 g protein, 99 mg cholesterol, 725 mg sodium.