Chinese Red Cooked Beef


Home-cooked Chinese food is typically not ‘my thing’.  I’ve just never really taken the time to learn the techniques or accumulate the tools. It might also have to do with a few of my Mom’s failed attempts at Chinese cooking back in the 70’s (Public Service announcement: By no means should Betty Crocker or Redbook recipes be your guide to Chinese cooking!). And then I read a recipe for Chinese Red-cooked Beef. Truth be told, I practically slobbered all over the cookbook. For those that don’t know (I didn’t), Chinese Red Cooking is a soy sauce-based braising method, more properly called hongshao and popular in Shaghai, which imparts a dark red-brown color to beef and the sauce.  Soy sauce, bean paste, rice wine or sherry, and/or caramelized sugar work to impart the red coloring and provide a deep savory flavor. Warm spices like star anise, cinnamon, and ginger give incredible flavor. Think of it as another version of your favorite slow-cooked stew sans veggies. Jack. Pot.

Due to the ‘low and slow’ cooking method, fatty cuts with a lot of connective tissue work best. Your mind should skip to rib meat (commonly called ‘beef fingers’) or short ribs. Don’t forget about your friend pork belly either. All you need is a bit of patience and some time and you’re good to go. There are no crazy techniques or super specialized equipment. Simple gets the job done here.

Instead of blanching the beef in boiling water like most recipes, I opted to sear the beef to add more meaty goodness and depth of flavor.  Call me crazy, but the browned beef bits make a difference in the end result. Also, don’t skip the caramelized sugar part–it adds depth too!

Chinese Red Cooked Beef

  • 2 pounds of beef fingers
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 and 1/2 cups dry sherry
  • 1/2 cup low sodium soy sauce or liquid aminos
  • 1 tsp white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp dried orange peel (you can substitute fresh zest if necessary)
  • 3 whole star anise
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 red chiles, diced (or 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes)
  • 2 tsp grated ginger
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1.5 cups water or beef broth (low or no sodium); as much as needed for appropriate liquid level

Combine sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir to dissolve. Continue to cook on medium heat, watching carefully, until golden brown. If the sugar crystallizes at the edge, push it back into the liquid with a wet pastry brush. Once sugar is caramelized, remove the pan from the heat, wait about 1 minute, and add the Sherry. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Shanghai Beef

Just starting in the carmelized sugar process. Don’t skip this step! It adds depth of flavor.

Chinese Red Beef

The water has been added and the sugar is a handful of minutes into cooking. Notice the faint golden color. Watch very closely as the sugar can go from caramelized to burned in seconds.

Red braised beef

The color is a bit darker, but we’re not done just yet!

Shanghai beef

There we go! Nice dark color but not burnt. Burning the sugar will give you bitterness instead of deep flavor.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Completely dry beef with paper towels or bar towel.

braised red beef

Just like any other time you sear meat, dry thoroughly. Too much juice on the surface leads to the meat steaming at the surface instead of undergoing the Maillard reaction which gives the nicely browned surface. You want that browned crust to build layers of flavor.

Heat high-heat oil (beef tallow works best) in a pan until almost smoking. Place beef with a bit of room between each piece (crowding the pan begets steaming the beef, not searing), and sear the beef until well browned on all sides.  Remove the beef from the pan to a plate.

braised beef

Sear your beef. Be patient. When the beef forms a good crust, you’ll be able to turn it without it sticking to the pan. The key is to dry the meat and have a well-heated oil. Don’t crowd the pan and allow the pan to return to temp between batches.

Drain fat from pan.  I know I usually hold high disdain for those ‘fat-drainers’ out there, but trust me on this one, you’ll make more fat during cooking. Reduce heat to medium low. Add dry spices to the pan and heat for about 1 minute. Add your red pepper flakes here if you’re not using fresh chilies. Add the soy sauce or liquid aminos. Add the ginger, garlic, and peppers. Deglaze the pan by scraping the bottom with the edge of a wooden spoon. Once all the good bits are worked free from the bottom of the pan add the sugar-Sherry mixture. Return the beef to the pan, placing it evenly in one layer.

Chinese beef

Add the beef to the super flavorful sauce. Practice patience. Or maybe tie yourself up Houdini-style. It’s going to be hard to resist the aromas emanating from the kitchen!

The liquid level should come up to about 1/2 the level of the top of the meat. Add water or low sodium beef broth if needed to achieve the appropriate liquid level.  Bring the beef and liquid mixture to a simmer, place the lid, and tuck it away in your preheated oven. Cook until the meat is fork tender and the fat and connective tissue is dissolved, about 3 hours.

Chinese Red Briased Beef

If I didn’t learn from past mistakes (i.e. blistered and/or skinless mouth), I’d dig right in straight from the pan. This stuff smells righteous!

Remove the meat from the pan to a plate.Remove star anise from the pan liquid. Boil the sauce until it is glossy and reduced to about a cup. Chop or break meat into chunks.

Chinese Beef

You. Have. No. Idea.

Serve meat, drizzled with sauce, over rice or with your favorite steamed or sauteed vegetable. We love to pair it with Bao Buns picked up from a local Asian market, Kimchi, and wilted bok choy. Other veggies such as broccoli, broccoli rabe, bok choy, kale, or spinach pair well too. I’m not ashamed to admit this deliciousness never makes it to the table..strictly a stand around the kitchen table, getting jiggy with the beef-bao bun combo, and rolling eyes in delight. Enjoy!

Chinese red-cooked beef

Dig in! Kimchi, bokchoy, and bao buns make delightful additions!