Mostly I try to keep this blog focused on farming, wine and terriers. My Facebook friends will know that’s where I rant about politics. On most days, I can keep the two worlds separated. But although my Facebook political posts are often liked, retweeted, and quoted, I’ve only had one post go anywhere near viral. As in more than 1000 likes and more than a hundred comments in less than 24 hours. And that was a post in the Instant Pot Facebook page about using the versatile cooking pot while RVing. Well, if that’s my fanbase, I’m throwing them more red meat. In this case, the delectable beef product known as Short Ribs.
Just a side note: if you don’t know the Instant Pot, learn about it here. I own several pressure cookers and a fancy schmanzy Cuisinart Slow Cooker for home. But you can’t beat the Instant Pot for RVing or for small kitchens or tight budgets. It is SEVEN APPLIANCES IN ONE! It’s a slow cooker, it’s a pressure cooker, it’s a rice cooker, it sautés, it’s a warmer, it’s a steamer, and it even makes yogurt!
When I’m RVing, my recipes have to fulfill several functions. They have to include ingredients that I can pack or prep before I set out. Preferably most of those ingredients are shelf-stable as my little RV has a refrigerator about the size of two shoe boxes. I like two different kinds of recipes: 1) Things that can be made fast for when I return from a hike so hungry that I might gnaw off my own arm or 2) slow cooker recipes for the days when I putter around the campsite doing RV-keeping chores. This recipe falls into the latter category.
First of all, everyone knows their short ribs, don’t they? They are the beef equivalent of pork spare ribs. There are two main kinds: 1) Chuck short ribs tend to be meatier than the other two types of ribs, but they are also tougher due to the more extensive connective tissues (collagen and tendon) in them. Plate short ribs tend to be fattier than the other two types. So, in general, you will want to use the former in the slow cooker because it takes that long slow cooking to break down those tissues. You can get them bone in or boneless. Go for the bone-in as the bones will help create a stock as the short ribs cook. The fattier ones, save those for barbecuing. Find more about short ribs here.
So short ribs are one of my favorite slow cooker meats and are especially good when you are doing some off-season camping and you want a hearty hot meal on a cold night. There are many recipes for short ribs. Believe me, I’ve read dozens of them. But one of the key things with RV cooking, is you have to be able to improvise. And you can’t carry your favorite cookbooks along with you. There is the Interwebs if you are in a campsite with wi-fi, but who wants to use a recipe out on the road that you haven’t stress tested? What if you screw it up and you are out at a dry campground in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park? You could dip into that peanut butter reserve that you have in the back of the cabinet for just such emergencies. But better to figure out a way to improvise through various disasters.
One of the most common disasters I’ve encountered RVing is that you find you can’t get some simple but crucial ingredient at the camp store or in one of the little towns outside of National Parks. So, it’s important to have a few recipes locked in the memory banks, but also a repertoire of improvisational tactics. Short ribs, in my experience, lend themselves to improvisation beautifully.
Here’s the basic ingredient list for serving about 2 or 3 dainty appetites or 1 person with a day or two of leftovers, depending on how many vegetables you add in. And, if you are like me, you will add a lot of vegetables. Don’t expect to sit down to a huge slab of tasty beef. This is a vegetable heavy version with a small amount of meat for flavoring and a few tasty bites.
3 bone in short ribs (usually about 1-1/2 pounds)
1 small or half large onion, chopped in uniform small dice
As many garlic cloves as you like. I use four. Small dice.
3 large carrots. I prefer them diced in rounds.
1 can, 14 oz, diced or whole tomatoes
1/3 cup wine
1 or 2 slices of bacon or Prosciutto
But be prepared to substitute if you can’t find what you need. Here are some things to keep in mind. You want to keep the liquid you add to the bare minimum because you don’t have the evaporation you have when you cook something in the oven. I’m actually on a mission to figure out how I can walk right up but just below that line, because the less liquid, the more intensely flavored the sauce. I’ve read that the minimum amount of liquid that it’s probably safe to include in a slow cooked Instant Pot recipe is 1 cup. But before you throw a cup of stock into the Instant Pot, remember that that one cup can include the liquid that comes out of your vegetables. And believe me, a hard old carrot can put out a surprising amount of liquid. If you cook your carrots the French way, you’ll know this. As an aside, the French slice their carrots, add a bit of fat (butter or olive oil) and simmer them in a covered pot on the lowest possible heat WITHOUT ADDING ADDITIONAL LIQUID. Try it and you will be surprised how much liquid comes out of those orange babies. So be very careful in adding any more liquid. Many recipes call for stock. I don’t add it. The meat makes its own stock. And that can of tomatoes? I pour the liquid out into a measuring cup first to make sure it isn’t over one half cup. Then, I look at the vegetables I’m adding. Onions and carrots will leach out a lot of water. If you add mushrooms, expect a huge amount of liquid to come out of them. Again, be careful that you add the smallest amount of liquid that you feel you can get away with.
So here’s the methodology, rather than the recipe.
Generously salt and pepper the short ribs and set aside to come to room temperature.
Chop the Prosciutto or bacon and sauté on fairly low heat to render the fat. I prefer Prosciutto because it has a subtler flavor and I prefer it for the RV because it seems to last longer than bacon. One of the things I love about the Instant Pot is that it has a sauté function. Adjust the sauté to the low function. Your goal is to get as much fat out as possible and slowly crisp the meat. Once the Prosciutto or bacon is rendered, remove it and set aside on a paper towel.
Add a little olive oil if needed. Bring to medium temperature. Add the short ribs and brown on all sides. Many recipes call for dredging the ribs in flour. I don’t bother. I find it can add a doughy flavor, especially in a slow cooker. And who needs it? If, when your meat finishes cooking, you feel the sauce is too thin, you can always boil it down or add a bit of roux or corn starch to thicken it up. Remove the short ribs, cover with foil and set aside.
Now I’m not a brilliant cook, but I have known several professional cooks in my day. And if you’ve ever wondered why a real chef can make even a simple dish like roast chicken taste a thousand times better than yours, it’s the result of a few very easy little tricks. One of them is that almost everything needs to be sautéd and browned slightly. Please resist the temptation to just throw everything in the Instant Pot. Every little step you make will add exponentially to the flavor of the final dish. So sauté every vegetable. It really matters.
Now back to our regularly scheduled recipe:
Add the garlic and sauté a bit but don’t brown.
Add the onion and sauté until they soften.
Add the diced carrots and sauté. If you cook until they brown, you will have a deeper, roasty flavor. But you do risk overcooking the garlic and onions. My goal is always to sauté until the carrots start to give up a little of their water, about 5-7 minutes.
Deglaze the pot with the 1/3 cup wine.
Here is another professional chef’s tip that makes a HUGE difference, especially when cooking in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker. It is absolutely essential to cook off all the alcohol before you put the lid on. If you don’t, it will create a bitter taste especially in a closed environment like a Pressure Cooker or Slow Cooker. How do you know the alcohol is not yet cooked out? Well, you can smell it. Especially if it’s a big Napa Valley type red wine. When the alcohol is evaporated, you will smell the vegetables again instead of the booze. If you don’t drink as much wine as I do and aren’t sure when the alcohol is gone, give it about 7 minutes.
And while we are on special chef tips that make a huge difference, here’s something I learned. Before you dice your garlic cloves, cut them in half. Now, on either half, you will see a shoot, sometimes green sometimes white, running through the center of each half. Pull that out. It will add bitter notes. And if it is green, yell at your greengrocer because he is selling you old garlic.
Now back to our regularly schedule recipe.
Add the short ribs back to the Instant Pot on top of the pile of carrots. Now carefully add in the liquid from the canned tomatoes. Decide how adventurous you want to be adding the minimum liquid. Add as many or as few of the tomatoes as you think you can get away with. I always think I’ll just add half the tomatoes. I usually end up defaulting to the whole can. Don’t worry that the tomatoes are whole. They will liquefy.
Set the Instant Pot to Slow Cook and to the Normal Setting. Don’t forget to ensure that the vent is set to one of the Venting modes, not the Sealing mode.
Cook for 6 hours. I know you aren’t supposed to open the pot, but I can’t help it. Especially since I’m on a mission to find out how little liquid I can add. So I check after four hours. Sometimes I punch the heat up to the More setting. Personally, I haven’t found much difference in the settings. But I do notice more aromas coming out of the pot on More, so I’m assuming that setting reduces the sauce more, therefore concentrating the flavors.
When the time is up, open the Instant pot and assess your sauce, is it thick enough? If not, remove the short ribs and put the Instant Pot on sauté on the high setting. Cook the sauce down until it’s thick and lovely. Thicken with cornstarch if you absolutely can’t wait. (Methodology: use one tablespoon cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon of the liquid from the pot. Stir until no lumps are left. Add mixture to the pot and stir to fully integrate.) My preference is to make a roux. This involves heating and melting one tablespoon of butter, then adding one tablespoon of flour. Cook this mixture over low heat until it is a rich warm brown and emits a nutty flavor. Be sure the flour is completely cooked or you will add a raw floury taste. Then add the mixture to the Instant Pot. But seriously, one of the genius things about the Instant Pot is the ability to take it off Slow Cooker mode about an hour before finish time and punch up sauté. That will let you boil the sauce down a bit. Just remove the meat to a separate plate, reduce the sauce with sauté on the high setting. Then add the meat back in the pot and return to Slow Cooker mode.
So there you have it. Very simple short ribs. I don’t add the brown sugar some recipes suggest. I don’t add stock. I let the ingredients make the stock. I serve over mashed potatoes. Or, if you are in an RV and don’t want to boil water over a propane stove to make potatoes, reduce the carrots and add a potato or two cubed to the pot. As I said, learn the basic premises of cooking certain foods, then improvise. If you can’t find or don’t have canned tomatoes, you could use mushrooms (although they aren’t as acidic and wouldn’t break down the meat fibers as well. Also they will excrete a lot more liquid than the tomatoes will.) Or add cubed parsnips for a sweeter flavor. Both potatoes and parsnips stand up to a long RV trip, so I would recommend stocking up before you leave home. They’ll always come in handy. If you don’t like tomatoes, use beef stock for your liquid.
But keep experimenting. And let me know if you have better tips/substitutions. I’m still playing with this one.