Monday 23 February 2015

Shin of Beef Ragù

If as a kid you were one to enjoy Hamburger Helper then you will love this sophisticated, grown up version. I had been planning this post for several months. This is the perfect winter dish so I was saving it. It's a classic Italian ragù. There are many different versions of this and lots of ways that you can make it your own. It's very simple and very delicious. A ragù is a hearty, meaty sauce enjoyed most commonly with pasta or polenta. Other common ingredients are tomatoes, onion, garlic and wine. A popular Italian sauce is Bolognese, a meaty tomato sauce. Ragù is a similar meat-based sauce where tomato plays a smaller role. The result is much more stewy and satisfying in a whole other way. I'm only using beef in this recipe but you can add sausage if you like. I once watched a video of Raymond Blanc, one of my favourite chefs, prepare a whole shin of beef. It looked fantastic and the pure caveman-like experience of cooking a large leg with a big ol' bone in the middle appealed to my inner prehistoric. I decided to make a ragù out of a nearly 8 lb shin of beef segment. So this recipe yields a big batch of sauce. If you want to make a smaller batch, you can easily halve this recipe (including braising time) and just use 3 or 4 nice osso buco cuts of beef shin. That way you can sear them on all sides and proceed cooking in the same way I'm about to show you.

First, let's take a moment to appreciate this amazing piece of meat. I placed a special order at my butcher shop and then they cut me a good sized segment. This might gross some of you out and I can appreciate that. To a true chef or foodie this is something to marvel at. If you don't feel comfortable doing it yourself, ask your butcher to trim the shin of any silver skin. During the course of cattle's lives their legs get plenty of experience walking around (ones not penned up in factory farms at least) and supporting a whole lot of weight. In turn, the muscles in the legs are very tough and riddled with sinew and connective tissue. It's one of your standard cheap, tough cuts. The best way to prepare this kind of meat is by braising it. That means cooking it in a flavourful liquid at a low temperature for a long time. That will cause all the miserably tough bits to soften and melt away. What's left is tender, juicy, fall-off-the-bone, fall-apart-in-your-mouth meat. It makes a fantastic, chunky sauce.

My butcher trimmed out a segment I chose from the middle of this shin. He cut it with a big mechanical saw in the back. He left it with with a French end, meaning he left a segment of clean bone on one end for presentation. When I went home, I discovered that it was just too big for my dutch oven so I brought it back and he sliced the bone end right off. Rather than let it got to waste, he sawed it in three pieces so I could still use them to bring flavour to my ragù. These were all just little perks for me to enjoy. If you're making this yourself. 3 or 4 osso buco cuts, as I mentioned, will work just fine. Extra bones are not required. In total I had 7.7 lbs of meat and bone. 


Any drinkable red wine will do in this recipe. Never use a red wine that you would not drink on its own. Some people seem to think you can use bad wine to cook with and it will somehow improve, but that's not how it works. The flavour of the wine is the flavour that will end up in your cooking. So pick a wine with a flavour you like. Please never use any specialty cooking wine in European cuisine. It's all garbage and you can make your own wine and seasoning much better. 

Last Christmas I received a bottle of Madeira wine. Madeira is a Portuguese fortified wine from the islands of the same name. It is sometimes enjoyed as an aperitif or with dessert and many people use it to cook with. It's particularly fantastic with red meat so I decided to use it for this recipe. The choice is up to you. If for whatever reason you can't cook with alcohol then you can substitute for more beef stock or even water if you're in a pinch. If you use water, you'll likely need to add extra seasoning for flavour. 

One final note, you'll need a heavy dutch oven or pan that's large enough to fit your meat and sauce with a tight fitting lid. 


7-8 lb piece of beef shin
2 cups Madeira wine (or red wine of your choice)
2 cups beef stock
1 large (796 ml/28 fl oz) can crushed tomatoes
1 onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 chili pepper, finely sliced (optional)
2 tbsps sugar (optional)
2 tbsps tomato paste
2 tbsps red wine vinegar
Olive oil 
2 dried bay leaves

Preheat oven to 275 F/135 C.

Lightly rub the beef with olive oil and season generously on all sides with salt and pepper. 

Get a heavy pan or dutch oven good and hot before adding a little olive oil and the beef. Give the beef a good sear on four minutes a side. Try to get an even sear as possible. If you are using osso buco cuts, I recommend cutting a couple of slits on either side of the outer membrane to avoid buckling during this step. Also fry in batches to avoid steaming.

Don't forget to sear the ends!

When you have a good sear on your beef remove it and set aside. I also added the bones and gave them a couple of minutes in the pot as well before setting them aside. Reduce your heat to medium and add the onion with a little salt and pepper. Sautée for about four minutes until they get soft and translucent. 


Add the garlic and chili pepper and sautée for an additional 2 to 3 minutes.

Clear a space in the middle of the pot and add the tomato paste.

Use a wooden spoon to fry the tomato paste for a few seconds before integrating it with the rest of the onion mixture. Packaged tomato paste tends to have a bit of a metallic flavour and I find this step cooks that out. It makes a nice difference. 

Then add the Madeira wine. Bring the heat up to high and let the alcohol burn off. This will take under a minute at boiling. You will be able to tell when the alcohol has finished vaporizing by the smell. While burning, alcohol gives off a pungent chemical smell (don't worry, it won't stink up your kitchen). When that dissipates and it smells like something you can eat, then you can move on to the next step. Add the bay leaves at this stage. 

Then add the beef stock and the crushed tomatoes. Add the sugar. This will act mainly to counteract some of the tartness from the tomatoes. I also added my bones fragments at this stage. Bring the sauce up to a simmer. Stir.

Add the browned shin of beef along with any accumulated juices into the sauce and cover. If you don't have quite enough sauce you can add more stock or water. Then place a lid tightly over it and place in the middle of your preheated oven. Allow to cook undisturbed for about six hours. If you are halving this recipe and using osso buco cuts then you can get away with 2.5 - 3 hours.

After braising, remove the ragù from the oven and uncover. You will notice that meat will have decreased significantly in size due to all of the tough parts melting away. Cheap cuts like this tend to be on the fatty side so you'll notice a layer of grease on the surface of the ragù as well. 


Carefully transfer the shin from the pot to a container large enough to fit in. Caution and a steady hand are key because the meat will be fork tender at this stage.  

Take this opportunity to remove the bay leaves (and any additional bones you may have used). Remove the center bone from the beef. This will take little to no effort as the meat should fall right off. 

Shred the remaining meat with a pair of forks. Then skim all the grease from the top of the ragù and discard it. 


Add the meat back into the sauce and stir occasionally over the stove at a gentle simmer for about 20 minutes. Skim any foam or additional grease that may risen to the top. If you're making this to accompany pasta, you can start boiling your water at this stage. Since this is a very chunky sauce you've got to eat it with chunky pasta (seashells, rigatoni, penne... ) nothing like smooth and dainty like spaghetti.

Before serving, add the red wine vinegar to the ragù and stir it in. This won't be enough to make it sour. It's just to add a little acidity to brighten up the mellow, stewy flavours. It's a little step that really rounds out the flavours. As always, taste for salt and pepper and adjust accordingly. 

So aside from an afternoon and a few basic kitchen skills you can make a comforting ragù of your very own at home. I've said it many times before but I love a good braise. It takes tough cuts of meat like this and makes them so buttery soft. The meat imparts and bones impart such a sumptuous flavour to the sauce. During braising the buttery marrow from within the bone will melt into the sauces flavour profile. The end product is lip-smackingly delicious. It also goes great with rice, farro or crusty bread. It's comfort food at its finest. Building different layers of flavour in this way is a generally common cooking technique that's foolproof and always creates a delicious dish.

Any leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks. Note that as with anything saucy that you cook bones in, the sauce will be full of gelatin and when chilled it will go solid. It looks pretty weird but trust me, that's perfectly normal. All you need to do is warm it up and it will melt back into a saucy consistency. Also, any leftovers will taste better the next day and better still the next couple of days after that. 

I hope you enjoyed! Toronto has been incessantly cold for the past few weeks in a row now so this was a nice pick me up. Give it a try and see for yourself.


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