This Chinese Classic Is Easier to Make than Beef Stew
Red-braising, also called red-cooking — or in Chinese, hong shoo — is a common cooking method throughout much of China. It’s similar to a western-style braise, but much quicker because the meat isn’t browned first. And for most people it’s easier to master than stir fry (the best-known Chinese cooking technique).
A bit of chopping, a quick sauté of an ingredient or two, then add liquid and braise on the back of the stove or in the oven until done. It’s a dish that practically cooks itself.
And the flavor? Exquisite.
Recipe: Red-Braised Beef with Sweet Potatoes
You can red-braise almost anything, but the technique is particularly well-suited to tough cuts of meat that benefit from long, slow cooking in a flavorful liquid.
It’s called red-braising because some components of the braising liquid have a reddish hue that slightly colors whatever is being cooked. The coloring agents are dark soy sauce and caramelized sugar, both of which appear prominently in most recipes for red-braising. But when it comes to cooking beef — particularly in the provinces of Hunan and Sichuan — chili bean paste (a specialty of Sichuan) is usually substituted for the sugar.
As far as I know, sweet potatoes aren’t typically used as an ingredient when red-cooking beef in China. At least I’ve never seen a recipe that includes them. But their sweet succulent flavor perfectly complements the spiciness of the braising liquid, so I think they’re a natural.
There are loads of recipes in books and on the web for Red-Braised Beef, and most are fairly similar. I particularly enjoy Fuchia Dunlop’s discussion of Red-Braised Beef in both Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. My recipe is adapted from hers.
A 3-quart Dutch oven is the perfect cooking utensil for this recipe. If you don’t have one, use any casserole that’s stovetop- and oven-friendly. This recipe does require a few specialty ingredients, as discussed below. Active prep time is about 25 minutes; cooking time (largely unattended) is about 2 hours. This recipe will serve 6 to 8.
- 2 pounds beef for braising (boneless chuck roast is an excellent choice)
- 3 scallions
- 2-inch piece of fresh ginger peeled and sliced into thick rounds (can leave unpeeled if you wish)
- 2 - 3 tablespoons neutral cooking oil (peanut oil is traditional for Chinese cooking)
- 6 tablespoons Sichuan chili bean sauce or paste (see Notes; I recommend the Lee Kum Kee brand)
- 1 quart beef stock (may substitute chicken stock)
- ¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine (see Notes)
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (see Notes)
- 1 star anise (see Notes)
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
- ¾ teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper (optional; see Notes)
- 1 black cardamom (cao guo) or 3 green cardamom pods (see Notes)
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- 1 - 1½ pounds sweet potatoes (1 large or 2 medium)
- cilantro or thin round of scallion greens for garnish (optional)
- cooked rice for serving
You can braise the beef either in the oven or on top of the stove. Instructions are provided for both methods.
- If braising in the oven, preheat to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Fill large (4-quart) pot with water, and bring to boil on stovetop.
- While waiting for the water to boil, slice beef into smallish cubes (about an inch), clean the scallions and slice into rounds, and peel the ginger and slice into thick rounds.
- When water comes to a boil, add beef cubes, and simmer for 2 or 3 minutes. (Why? See Notes.) While beef simmers, put Dutch oven or heavy casserole on stove, with heat on medium.
- Drain beef in colander or strainer after 2 or 3 minutes. Add oil to Dutch oven.
- When the oil is hot, add the Sichuan chili bean sauce and sauté for 30 seconds.
- Now add the beef, the beef stock, the Shaoxing rice wine, the dark soy sauce, the scallions, the ginger, the star anise, the fennel seeds, the whole Sichuan peppers (if using), the black cardamon or green cardamon pods, and sticks of cinnamon. Bring to a boil on stovetop, then reduce to barest simmer and cover, or cover and place in oven.
- If using the oven method, check on the beef after about 15 minutes. You want the beef to be just simmering. You may have to turn the oven down to 275 degrees or so.
Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into rounds or dice. You’ll add these to the beef for the last half hour of cooking.
- Check on the beef after an hour and a half. It should be getting tender (stick the point of a paring knife into a cube of beef to test). Total cooking time is usually 2 hours; but if your meat is particularly tough, it may take up to 3 hours.
- Half an hour before you judge the beef to be done, add sweet potatoes. Continue cooking until sweet potatoes are tender.
- When ready to serve, remove the cinnamon sticks, black cardamon pod, and star anise (or at least warn your diners not to eat them!). Serve over cooked rice. A garnish of cilantro or thin rounds of scallion greens is nice.
- Chuck roast or steak is a great cut for braising. But you can use any other braising cut that you prefer (bottom round, short ribs, etc.).
- Although Westerners often salivate at the thought of rare-cooked beef, many Chinese find the idea revolting. In Chinese cooking, it is common to blanch meat in hot water (Step 4 in our recipe) to remove the “bloody” flavor.
- Chili bean sauce (Toban Djan; sometimes called chili bean paste; may also be called Sichuan chili bean sauce) is made of salted chile peppers and fava beans (broad beans). It may also contain soybeans, but make sure broad beans are included in whatever you buy. Although there is a spicy hot element to this sauce, the heat is pleasant rather than unbearable. Most American supermarkets don’t carry chili bean sauce, though every Chinese grocery will.
- In a Chinese grocery, you may be faced with several choices, which can be bewildering. How do you know which one to choose? I highly recommend the Lee Kum Kee brand. Its flavor is not particularly hot. (Taste it straight out of the jar — it’s spicy but not five-alarm). Not every Chinese grocery carries this brand, but if you live in a reasonably large city with several Chinese grocery stores, at least one of them will surely stock it (Lee Kum Kee is a major brand). Otherwise, it’s available via the internet. Amazon carries it, although shipping is expensive.
- Chili bean sauce is also used in many other recipes, most notably in Mapo Tofu.
- Shaoxing wine (liao jiu) is the most famous variety of Chinese rice wine. Its flavor is very similar to dry sherry (which makes an excellent and readily available substitute). Most Chinese groceries stock this wine. But because it is an alcoholic beverage, local laws may place restrictions on its sale. The alcohol content is fairly low, so once opened this wine will last longer if stored in the refrigerator (the same goes for dry sherry).
- Soy sauce (jiang you) comes in “light” and “dark” varieties. Light soy sauce is thinner than dark and much saltier. If the bottle doesn’t specify which kind it is (in American supermarkets, most bottles don’t), assume that it’s light. Dark soy sauce is darker colored than light and is sweeter, less salty, and has a heavier consistency. Pearl River Bridge is one widely available brand of Chinese soy sauce of good quality, and comes in both light and dark varieties. For this recipe you must use dark soy sauce; the light just doesn’t cut it. By the way, the “lite” soy sauces you see on supermarket shelves just have reduced sodium; they are not the same as either dark or light Chinese (or Japanese) soy sauces.
- Sichuan peppers aren’t actually peppercorns at all — they’re the pods of a fruit of a bush. They have a wonderful aroma and they’re not particularly hot. But they do create a tingling/numbing effect on the lips and tongue. It’s an effect some find unpleasant, so you may choose to omit this ingredient. Most Chinese grocery stores carry Sichuan peppercorns. However, I’ve occasionally been disappointed by the quality of some that I’ve purchased. I’ve bought bags that turned out not to be fresh, and on one occasion bought a bag that contained dried mud. Gross! For your first venture with Sichuan peppercorns, I recommend purchasing them from Penzeys Spice or another reputable, high-volume spice and herb specialist. Penzeys turns over its inventory rapidly, so the spices you buy from them are likely to be fresh. And you really do want your Sichuan peppers to be as fresh as possible. More information in my post on Roasted Sichuan Pepper Powder.
- Star anise has a flavor similar to regular anise. It’s called star anise because it’s the shape of a star.
- Black cardamom (cao guo) is a large black pod about the size of an unshelled almond. It’s traditional in this dish, but can be hard to find. Green cardamom pods are an excellent substitute (they actually have better flavor). I have black cardamom on hand, but when I’ve used my supply I won’t replace it— I’ll use green cardamom pods instead.
- As noted above, you can braise this (or any) dish either on top of the stove or in the oven. I usually prefer the oven because it provides a more even heat that I find easier to regulate. But either method works fine.
Red-Braised Beef works well as the centerpiece for a Chinese meal. While it’s cooking in the oven, you can use the stovetop to stir-fry a couple of accompanying vegetable dishes.
Or you can serve it “Western” style. Fuchia Dunlop suggests there’s no need to serve Red-Braised Beef with rice – it’s equally good served over a bed of mashed potatoes. I haven’t tried this, but it sounds wonderful.
This dish is really nothing more than beef stew — just made with some ingredients that many of us don’t often use. But those ingredients happen to be delicious.
“You should use them more often,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, as she cleaned her plate. “I’m going to have another helping.”
“Is that your third?”
“No, second. After all, I can’t have thirds until I have seconds.”
I love that woman!
You may also enjoy reading about:
The Best Darn Tofu Dish Ever: Mapo Tofu
Quick Vegetable and Pork Stir Fry
Roasted Sichuan Pepper Powder
Sweet Potatoes in Tomato Curry Sauce
Sweet Potato Chili with Black Beans
Sweet Potato Soup with Chilies and Corn
Roast Sweet Potatoes