Veal shanks are popular in many European cuisines, but it’s in osso buco, the northern Italian classic, that they can be at their most heavenly. Osso buco— veal shanks that have been browned and then slowly cooked in a sophisticated and subtle tomato sauce—has an undeserved reputation of requiring large amounts of both time and expertise in the kitchen. Like most braises, it does require slow, gentle cooking to become tender, and it does taste better when made a day ahead of serving, allowing its wonderful flavors time to settle and meld. But few dishes are more forgiving or more seductive. And the truth is, osso buco doesn’t take much hands-on time, nor is the cooking difficult. It’s simply a question of breaking down the steps.
Shop for 1-1/4-inch-thick shanks. Choosing thick veal shanks ensures that the meat will stay moist. You can go thicker if you want; just expect the braising time to be a bit longer.
Brown the shanks well. This is essential for succulent meat and a deeply flavored sauce. To get a nicely browned crust, don’t crowd the pan. At the same time, you don’t want too much room in the pan or it will get too hot, and the shanks could burn.
Braise the meat with tomatoes and in a moderate amount of flavorful liquid. This will yield the deep, rich sauce you’re looking for. After an hour and a half or so in the oven, the meat will start to pull away from the bone. At this point, you can be pretty sure the meat is done. But to be certain, there’s nothing like taking a little taste to confirm their velvetytender texture.
Good technique ensures meltingly tender meat and a richly flavored sauce
1. Sear the shanks to a deep golden brown. It takes only a few minutes on each side, so don’t rush them, and don’t fiddle with them too much. You’ll get the best crust if the shanks sit undisturbed as they’re browning.
2. Use lots of canned tomatoes and a little tomato paste. The chopped canned tomatoes break down during cooking and give the sauce its backbone. A few spoonfuls of tomato paste add roundness and body to the sauce.
3. Cover tightly to trap moisture. Covering the roasting pan with foil ensures that the braising liquid gets taken up by the veal shanks rather than evaporating in the oven. Check on the shanks periodically during braising; the broth should remain about halfway up the shanks.
4. Aim for fork-tender shanks. You’ll know the meat is done when it starts to pull away from the bone and from the string tied around the shanks. If in doubt, taste a piece to check that it’s succulent and tender.
5. For a silky sauce, strain the solids but save those juices. Press hard with a spatula to extract all the juicy goodness from the vegetables that cooked with the shanks. Then discard the solids, which have given up their flavor to the sauce.
6. Finish with gremolata. This classic parsley, garlic, anchovy, and lemon zest mixture adds pizzazz to the sauce and also serves as a pretty final garnish for the shanks.