This delicious winter dish used to be considered low-brow, and as a result, beef cheeks were inexpensive. But they became pricey about ten years ago after appearing on upscale winter menus at $35 per serving. Even so, we found some in Whole Foods’ frozen meat section for $8.99/pound. Given there are no bones and little waste, that ain’t a bad price for pure protein (though the fresh version is preferable).
Sadly, the popularity of Beef Cheeks has made them more difficult to find – there are only two of them per cow, after all – so if your local grocer can’t keep up with demand, these alternative beef options work well:
- Beef short ribs (boneless – ask your butcher to remove the bones if need be)
- Pot Roast (Chuck) – may require slightly longer cooking time
BUT, if you have the time to search for the cheeks, you’ll find they assure a great meal. They are falling-apart delicate with a rich and delicious mouthfeel that begs for winter wines! Reach for big, fruit-driven, tannic reds such as Syrah, Zinfandel, the Bordeaux varietals or the reds of Portugal, Spain, Sicily, Calabria, and other warm, Southern climes.
▢ 3 Tbsp olive oil
▢ 3 lbs beef cheeks, cut into (roughly) uniform size, if needed
▢ 1 Onion, diced
▢ 1 Celery stalk, diced
▢ 1 Carrot, diced
▢ 4 Garlic cloves, peeled and minced
▢ 6 Stems of fresh thyme, leaves left on stems (or 1.5 tsp dried thyme)
▢ 3 Bay leaves (or 1-2 smallish ones, if using the stronger California Bay)
▢ 1 Cup beef stock
▢ 2 Cups inexpensive (<$10) red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zin, etc.)
▢ 2 – 3 tsp salt
▢ Freshly ground black pepper
- Remove any large fatty membrane (Note: the silverskin is more easily removed after cooking). Cut beef cheeks into roughly identical sizes if needed, then pat dry and apply salt and pepper liberally to both sides.
- Pre-heat your oven to 325.
The enamal-covered cast iron pot from Lodge is ideal for this dish, but any heavy-bottom pot wil do if it has a good lid that can prevent the liquids from evaporating.
- On your stovetop, heat a heavy-bottomed pot over high heat for 2-3 minutes. When at full temperature, add 2Tbsp of the olive oil and immediately add the beef cheeks. Sear for ~3 minutes on the first side, then turn and sear for another 2 minutes. Aggressive, high-heat browning is key to the flavor development on the bottom of the pan – the fond. You may find this step requires two separate batches to assure each piece of meat makes full contact with the pot – no over-crowding!
- Once nicely browned on both sides, turn the heat down to Medium and remove the cheeks to a platter. Cover with a tent of foil.
- Drizzle a Tbsp of oil into the heated pot and immediately add the onion, carrot and celery, reserving the minced garlic for the next step. Stir lazily until the onion begins to become opaque – about 3-5 minutes.
- Add the minced garlic and sauté for another 3-5 minutes.
- Pour in the 2 cups of wine, scraping the fond from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spatula so it integrates into the liquid. Simmer for a good minute.
- Return the cheeks to the pot along with any juices they’ve released. Add the remaining ingredients – beef broth, bay leaves and thyme sprigs – then cover the pot with a lid and place in oven for 2.5 hours (or until the meat is very tender), turning once about half way through.
- Some 2.5 hours later, remove the pot from the oven and the beef cheeks from the pot – careful, they may be falling apart – and set them aside again under a tent of foil. BTW, you can turn the oven off now.
- Now it’s time to reduce the juices – this is where the magic happens! Discard the thyme sprigs and Bay leaves and use a stick blender to carefully puree the braising liquid (wear an apron, this can be messy) until it becomes lighter in color and a bit frothy and thickened. Return your pot to the stovetop on med-high and bring to a simmer. Continue reducing for ~5 minutes until it becomes darker in color again and forms the consistency of a light gravy (see photo).
- Remove from the heat, return the cheeks to the sauce along with any of the released juices, cover and keep warm until ready to serve.
Side Dish Suggestions
- Mashed Potatoes – The classic pairing for this dish is a generous heap of mashed potatoes topped by the beef cheeks and plenty of sauce.
- Alternative A: Polenta
- Alternative B: Creamy mashed cauliflower (recipe here)
- Sauteéd Winter Greens: with garlic and bacon
- Alternative: Roasted Brussels Sprouts
- Whole Maple-and-Brown-Sugar Roasted Carrots – no recipe needed, just roast the whole (the smaller the better) well-scrubbed carrots, the greens trimmed to within an inch of the top, at 400 degrees for 20 – 30 min. Toss with olive oil before roasting and Maple syrup immediately after roasting. Add a pinch of cayanne or garlic powder or herbs, as you wish!