About 20 years ago a revolution made its way through restaurant kitchens. Eager to explore how science could influence the kitchen, chefs experimented with new gadgets, dreamed up previously unthinkable dishes, and in some cases completely rebuilt the physical kitchen itself. The movement was called Modernist Cooking, and it was the biggest shift in restaurant kitchens since Nouvelle Cuisine lightened French cooking in the 1960s. Guided by the writings of a few prominent food scientists like Harold McGee and Nathan Myhrvold, chefs started to explore the science behind the cooking process. In many cases they revealed that much kitchen wisdom was nothing more than unchallenged tradition. For some chefs, this disruption was understandably disconcerting. They felt tradition had gotten them where they were. But for others a new frontier awaited. With their science-based understanding of the how’s and why’s, these pioneers dreamed up radical new dishes and hypothesized novel results. They built new equipment, and with that new equipment, new techniques. Sometimes they repurposed old equipment, and something like a vacuum sealer evolved from food preserver to cooking vessel. Chefs sealing food under pressure could even alter the physical state of their product. Place a strawberry and balsamic syrup into a chamber vacuum sealer, and 10 seconds later you’d have a strawberry so cellularly infused with balsamic you’d swear it grew that way. With the revolution fully underway, costs for these new appliances dropped, and before long, many of these gizmos found their way into homes. Probably the most prominent of these devices was the immersion circulator and the technique of submersion cooking called sous-vide.
I remember the Christmas my wife got me an immersion circulator. Aside from maybe the GI Joe Mobile Command center I got when when I was 8, the most childlike measure of giddy I’ve ever felt on Christmas was in 2013 when I opened up a box to reveal my new stainless wonder. They had been available to home cooks for a few years, but they cost upwards of 700 dollars. The model my wife gave me in 2013 was one of the first that was almost actually affordable for home cooks.
I couldn’t wait to experiment, and I ‘sous-vided’ everything—steak, carrots, fennel, fish, chicken, custards, bread dough(!). Sometimes the results were revelations. Occasionally, the final dish was…interesting. In some instances, I learned how unnecessarily wasteful the whole process was. Why fill a large plastic tub with 8 quarts of water, wait 30 minutes for it heat up, and submerge a few plastic-bagged asparagus for 10 minutes? Flash cooking the little spears in a skillet for 2-3 minutes was easier and yielded a better result. I didn’t get down on myself for the failures. Even Edison had a few exploded lightbulbs, right? The issue was that in most of my failures, science revealed the traditional method was superior. Success came when the circulator’s science showed off a result tradition could only dream of. That’s when I discovered the 72 hour short rib.
The short rib is one of those magical muscles on a cow that packs huge amounts of flavor but only if cooked a certain way. The most common method is braising. Brown the meat, then half submerge it in wine, stock and aromatics for a couple of hours. By dinnertime you’ve got a crazy-tender meat with a sauce so complex it actually makes you stop and think. Braises are great, but they require you to overcook the meat to achieve that tenderness. The intramuscular collagen that makes the meat so tough has to melt away, but that collagen won’t budge until it reaches 180ºF. What if you could make a short rib with that same level of braise-y tenderness, but only cook it to medium-rare? It’s one of those contradictory holy-grail questions. How, for example, can you cook something to 132ºF and 180ºF at the same time? The immersion circulator, sous vide, and the 72-hour short rib answer that question.
Food scientists discovered that if you cooked tough cuts of meat sous-vide for very long amounts of time, the collagen would still liquify even if the temperature never exceeded medium-rare. And the result is breathtaking. When the short rib is plated you’d swear it was a normal, braised short rib, that is, until you cut through it. As your fork makes its way through the tender rib it opens up a coral-hued interior that will instantly stop you in wonder. You’d swear it was magic, if it weren’t, you know, science. Soon you’ll be inviting all of your friends over to show off this new discovery. “Sorcery!” they’ll shout. “Witchcraft!” they’ll chant. But before these zealots drag your heretical rump roast out to the stake you can protest, “Nope. Science!”
72 Hour Short Rib - Serves 4
Note: This recipe requires a set up for sous-vide. If you don’t have an immersion circulator, they can bought easily for around $100 at many cooking stores or online.
Red Wine Sauce:
Red Wine Sauce:
Note: You may have unused stock in the risotto recipe. That’s okay. Just put it in a container and save for another use. Exact measurements of liquid for risotto are difficult to state in advance.
John Tufts is an award-winning actor and author. In addition to being paid to travel the world to wear tights and fight with swords, he has also written a book about the food of Shakespeare’s England called Fat Rascals: Dining at Shakespeare’s Table. His book is available at john-tufts.com/fatrascalsbook. His food history web series, “Eatso-Facto,” currently airs on YouTube. You can follow him on Instagram at @johnnymtufts. He lives in New York.