Collagen determines, to a large extent, whether cooked meat ends up tender or tough. It is also the determining factor in how long you should cook a given cut of meat. Collagen fibers are the biological equivalent of steel cabling, forming a mesh that holds bundles of meat fibers together. Proper cooking unravels the cable-like structure of collagen fibers and dissolves them into juices, transforming the tough collagen into tender gelatin.
In order to unravel collagen fibers, you must heat them. Heat causes the fibers to shrink, and the contracting mesh squeezes juices out of the meat. The hotter the cooking temperature, the more collagen mesh contracts, and the more juices are lost. If you cook the meat at lower temperatures, fewer of the collagen fibers shorten at any given point in the cooking process, so the mesh constricts the meat less. This is why meats retain more of their juices when cooked sous vide. But at lower temperatures, more time is needed to shrink, unravel, and dissolve enough of the collagen fibers to make the meat pleasantly tender.
Adapted from Modernist Cuisine
Tips & Substitutions:
- We love cooking tough cuts of meat sous vide, like short ribs, brisket, and pork belly. For our Best Bets for Cooking Tough Cuts of Meat table, see page 228 of Modernist Cuisine at Home or page 3·109 of Modernist Cuisine.
- We prefer bone-in ribs, but you can use boneless ribs as well.
- While you can use a zip-top bag when cooking many sous vide recipes, longer cooking times, such as what is called for here, require using a vacuum sealer. Vacuum sealing is safer, more reliable, and will prevent oxidation and off-flavors.
- In fact, when cooking sous vide for such extended periods, we often double vacuum seal the meat.
- Cooking the ribs at 62 °C / 144 °F for 72 hours will result in a tender, flaky meat with a pink hue, but you may prefer a different color or texture. By varying the cooking time and temperature, you can produce dramatically different textures. For example, to achieve the color and texture of medium-rare steak, cook the ribs for 72 hours. For something in between, cook the ribs at 60 °C / 140 °F, as we did in this recipe. For a very flaky temperature similar to a traditional braise, cook them at 88 °C / 190 °F for just 7 hours.
- You can also make these ribs in a pressure cooker. Try cooking bone-in short ribs at 15 psi for 50 minutes.
- If you are making the ribs in advance, immediately plunge the vacuum-sealed pouch into an ice bath when the ribs are done cooking, and then refrigerate them. Just before serving, slice the meat from the bones and then reheat the slices of meat in a sous vide bath, about 30 minutes.
- To serve, cut the rib meat off the bone, and slice it into 2-inch cubes.
- We like to serve these ribs with our Red Wine Glaze and Potato Puree from Modernist Cuisine at Home. We’ve also served them with a Wasabi Foam and Manischewitz Beef Jus, and we’ve smoked and cooked them sous vide and served them with our East Texas Barbecue Sauce (see page 5·79 of Modernist Cuisine).