Recipe: 7 Day Fermented Beef Short Ribs
Frustration level: 7/10
For the very first recipe feature on Way Too Complicated, I felt it was only right to start off with one of my absolute favorites: the 7 day fermented beef short ribs. (Well, it’s 5-7 days—more on that later.) Admittedly, this could be classified as cheating because I previously wrote about this fermentation process for Life & Thyme, but these short ribs are truly so good I think they deserve some more time in the spotlight (and this recipe offers much more commentary + chef notes than the original).
Plus, I promised you suffering didn’t I? This recipe certainly delivers on that: between the gluey goop you’ll have to scrub off your food processor, to the burnt goop you’ll have to scrape off your stove or grill, it has no shortage of frustrations just for you!
Note: After this recipe and yesterday’s opening musing, this newsletter will resume its Saturday cadence.
The first thing to be aware of if you proceed with making these short ribs is that things get very (literally) sticky, very quickly. If that bothers you, I highly recommend wearing gloves (or at least removing any jewelry) and putting down plastic wrap on all the surfaces you may be using. Here’s a photo, to show you I’m not kidding when I say sticky AF. (For styling purposes I even suffered through this process without gloves. Don’t do that.)
The other thing is that there comes a certain degree of risk with this recipe, because it involves fresh garlic in low oxygen environments. The probability of you falling victim to botulism because you ate this is very, very low, but I still have to openly state it so you know. If it is any reassurance, I have made this particular recipe for thousands of people across the U.S. as part of my dinner experience Asian in America—including carrying 20 pounds of fermented beef to Hawai’i in my luggage (see below)—and to date, no one has ever fallen ill.
This process will take you about 5-7 days in total, and you may find yourself pondering what the heck you got yourself into sometime during those 7 days. I know I did many times, having to fly in for popups in different cities at least a week in advance as I drove around searching frantically for high quality butchers. Every time I managed to cut myself cleaning sticky rice off the blade of my food processor, I would curse myself out for ensnaring myself in this mess yet again, but…the short ribs are so delicious I kept them on the menu for two long years while touring Asian in America. So I hope that gives you some needed confidence when you look at your beef after the debacle of getting the fermentation started, notice the garlic has turned green (that’s okay!!!), and are about to unsubscribe from this cursed newsletter.
Without further ado, here’s an introduction to this type of fermentation, excerpted from my Life & Thyme piece:
Naem is most commonly used to refer to soured pork sausages, found in almost every market in the Northeastern (Isan) region of Thailand. The presence of naem is particularly pronounced in this region due to its landlocked geography and subsequent focus on raising pigs and using pork in the cuisine. Nearby regions of Laos and Vietnam also have their own versions of lacto-fermented pork similar to naem, such as som moo and nem chua. (It’s important to note naem can also refer to the fermentation style used to sour these sausages, so it should be understood in the context of both a noun and a modifier.)
The ingredient list in a classic naem sausage is short: ground pork, pork skin, salt, sticky rice, and garlic. Instead of being stuffed into casings, the mixture is typically packed into large, covered pots and sold by weight (naem maw, maw translating to “pot”), or bundled into cylinders with banana leaves or plastic (naem taeng, taeng translating to “cylinder”). Whole bird’s eye chilies often dot the exterior of both naem varieties—they are frequently eaten alongside the naem, but are not incorporated into the initial mixture.
The hallmark of naem is a sourness of the finished meat product, which comes from the process of lactobacillales (lactic acid bacteria) eating the sugar from the sticky rice and converting that into lactic acid. Lactobacillales occurs naturally in the environment and span numerous different strains, so those eating and making naem the classic way—allowing for wild fermentation—can expect slight variations of flavor from each batch. Because lactobacillales is salt tolerant, naem employs a high salt content coupled with the development of lactic acid to prevent the development of problematic bacteria such as clostridium botulinum (which cannot reproduce at pH levels below 4.6).
The length of the fermentation process depends on temperature and humidity; for a speedy ferment, 84F and 50% humidity results in great tasting naem in a mere three days, whereas cooler temperatures (including refrigerating the mixture) still allow for lactobacillales activity but require more time. Given the popularity of naem and its propensity to be eaten raw, the product is now regulated for bacterial content, giving rise to the use of commercially produced fermentation additives like curing salt (which contains sodium nitrite) and naem powder mix (a combination of curing agents, preservatives and salt). You can read more about the naem powder mix in my piece for Serious Eats here.
I’ve been a diehard fan of the naem style of fermentation ever since I stumbled across a post from Leela Punyaratabandhu (known for her blog SheSimmers) about naem si krong mu, or naem style pork ribs. Similarly, my favorite preparation method for a naem fermented dish also employs a larger cut of beef: boneless beef short ribs. (Note: The name is a misnomer; this cut is from the shoulder of the cow and less fatty than bone-in short ribs.) After fermentation is finished, I grill them for a nice outside char, then sous-vide to medium rare. I find the results to be full of saturated, beefy flavor that sits surprisingly light in the belly. It stands up to flavorful vegetables, like mustard greens or pea vines, and even plays well with other funky and sour accompaniments like fermented fish broth or pickled plums.
7 Day Fermented Beef Short Ribs
Prep Time: 1 hour
Fermentation Time: 3-5 days
Active Cook Time: 30 minutes
Inactive Cook Time: 2 days
680 grams (1.5 lb.) boneless beef short ribs, cut into roughly 2-by-4” rectangles | Note: Make sure to source high quality beef for this process. | Tip: I usually buy ~half pound over the amount I need so I can trim the ribs of excess fat before fermentation. Fat goes rancid more easily, plus this recipe uses low-temperature sous vide for the final cook, so too thick a layer of fat is still unpleasantly chewy in the mouth. You can render the extra fat to make other yummy things, like beef fat beans. I’ll send out a recipe for that later on this year!
30 grams garlic, peeled, chopped | Tip: If you haven’t watched the scarring episode of Rotten that features garlic, you should. It’s advisable to buy quality garlic (local if possible!) that you peel yourself for this recipe—I know it’s annoying, and sometimes I don’t do it either, so at the very least it’s worth getting organic garlic here if you’re able.
21 grams kosher salt (3% by weight of short ribs) | Note: I use Morton’s Coarse and yes I will fight all of you Diamond Crystal fans about it.
108 grams cooked short grain sticky rice, cooled to room temperature | Tip: I highly recommend using a rice cooker for consistent results. I use Zojirushi and while it’s more expensive than a standard rice cooker, its fuzzy logic (a real, technical term) does make a difference.
Pat short ribs dry with paper towels, and trim away fat if necessary. Make sure your final weight is that specified in the recipe.
Thoroughly clean and pat garlic dry with paper towels.
Place garlic, sticky rice, and kosher salt in food processor and process until the mixture turns into a sticky, smooth paste. Any visible garlic should be in small, even pieces.
Prepare one or two suitably sized vacuum-sealer bags by propping them open wide, and folding down ~2 inches from the top as to not dirty to the area that will be sealed. Note: I use a standard Foodsaver vacuum sealer at home, not a chamber vacuum as most restaurants would use. That’s totally fine for this recipe!
Using gloved hands, divide up the paste into roughly equal parts, matching the number of short rib pieces you have. Scoop up the paste and slather all over each piece of short rib making sure to cover all surfaces. Do this as quickly and in as few motions as possible, as the paste tends to begin sticking to your hands and itself instead of the short rib. Tip: I also find it useful to save some of the paste to drop into the base of the vacuum bag, and some to drop in after all the meat has been moved into the bag, so you have some extra paste that you can move around.
Carefully place short ribs into vacuum-sealer bags, avoiding the bag’s sides. Repeat until all pieces of short rib are in bags, nestled tightly together. Tip: Sometimes the paste will create little air gaps in the bag between meat pieces. Squish the bag thoroughly to remove these.
Vacuum seal each bag. Tip: If using a Foodsaver, use the “Moist” function.
Place vacuum-sealed short ribs in a warm, well-ventilated area inside your home. You’re aiming for a range of 75F to 85F. Note: Humidity is out of the question for these since they are sealed, but if you were to do these in a fermentation chamber you’d be looking for a humidity of around 50%.
After 3-5 days, remove short ribs from vacuum-sealer bags. Note 1: I suggest starting at 3 days first, then increasing your fermentation time based on how tangy you like your meat. Note 2: You may see some green appear on the garlic during this time. Very normal! Don’t worry. When you open the bag, take a sniff first: it should smell sweet and a little tangy, but not overly so. There should be no rancid or otherwise “off” odors—if there is, best to discard your batch, your nose is telling you something!
Optional step: If you want to be extra safe, cut off a piece of fermented meat, and puree it with distilled water until it becomes mushy. Then use a pH test strip to check that the pH is 4.6 or below, meaning botulism could not survive in that environment. Note: To be honest, I’ve never done this.
Heat up a cast iron skillet, grill pan, or grill pan with holes on your stove over high heat until smoking, or fire up an outdoor grill. Place short ribs on skillet, grill pan, or grill, and sear or char on all sides until blackened. Note: You don’t want to cook your beef too much in this process. If your heat isn’t that high, and it’s taking a while to blacken your beef, just thoroughly blacken one side for flavor, then lightly sear the other sides to kill off any extra lactic acid bacteria. You may need to scrape sticky rice off your pan, stove, or grill in-between rounds, as that goop can also inhibit the flame.
Prepare 2-3 new, suitably sized vacuum-sealer bags and prop them open wide. Preheat sous vide to 135F.
Transfer charred short ribs into vacuum-sealer bags and seal. Place bags into water bath.
Let short ribs cook sous-vide for 48 hours, adding additional water if necessary, and making sure the beef is submerged for the entirety of the cook process.
After 48 hours, remove short ribs from the water bath. If you are serving these immediately, proceed to next step. If you are reserving for later, cool your meat properly and reserve in refrigerator or freezer. Note: To reheat, sous vide the short ribs again at 135F until fully heated through.
Optional step: Heat up a cast iron skillet or grill pan until smoking, or fire up an outdoor grill. Remove short ribs from the vacuum bags, plot dry with paper towels (they’ll have emitted plenty of jus), and place them on the skillet, grill pan, or grill and sear or char on all sides for 30 seconds each. Note 1: For events, I usually torch the meat as it’s easier and faster to do for a large amount of short rib (plus I actually like the lingering taste of butane). Note 2: You can and should reserve all that yummy jus to make a nice sauce! I personally like to just strain it, then thicken with a cornstarch slurry, and top with some freshly ground black pepper.
Let short ribs rest ~5 minutes before slicing and serving. Tip: These short ribs have a beautiful color inside, versus the black, red-ish, and grey outside, so I recommend slicing into them and displaying that side up on the plate. If you cut them into little rectangles, a la Fancy Restaurants (and what I did above), you’ll lose much of that outside charred flavor but receive nice clean edges in return.
If you do not have a vacuum sealer, you can also place short ribs into a non-reactive container (e.g., glass jar), like Leela does, and pack it tightly to remove as much air as possible.
If your home’s ambient temperature is different from the range above, adjust the fermentation time accordingly (adding a few days for cooler areas, removing a few days for warmer ones).
The level of sourness is very much a personal preference, so don’t be afraid to cut off a few pieces throughout the fermentation process, cook them (easiest would be to microwave), and taste them to see at what point of the cycle you like the flavor most. Make sure to wear gloves and use clean (preferably sterilized) tools when interacting with the in-process naem, and to cleanly re-seal after each test.
If you do not want to sous vide the boneless short ribs, you can also braise or roast them in the oven until your desired level of doneness. If you do that, you can skip the pre-charring step.
If you prefer a more well-done boneless short rib, you can raise the temperature of the sous vide to your preferred internal temperature.
I hope this issue gives you a good sense of what to expect from the recipes portion of this newsletter! If you do make these short ribs, please tag me (@chefjennydorsey everywhere) in your photos—I’d love to see them! And if you’re having some issues with the recipe, please comment below so I can help troubleshoot with you. Don’t be shy with questions—I genuinely enjoy troubleshooting as I learn a lot about how people cook in the process, and it helps me improve my recipe writing, so thank you! (Of course, that’s not license to be a jerk in the comments. It’s impossible to know exactly how recipes will unfold in other kitchens, so please be patient as we work through any issues together.)