This is a cholent, and also, it’s not. Traditionally, the ingredients of the Jewish meat, bean, and grain stew would have been sealed in a ceramic pot on Friday mornings (in advance of Shabbat) and taken by home cooks to the local bakery at a time when almost no one had ovens in their home. Each pot would be closed in the ancient stone or brick ovens, with all the other pots from the neighborhood, and allowed to gently cook in the residual heat of the day’s bread-baking for up to 18 hours. In some form, this tradition lasted from the 9th century C.E. until the early 20th century, when home ovens became common. Now, cholent and similar Sabbath stews are still popular in the more religious Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi communities. Today, they’re most commonly prepared in the home in an electric slow cooker.
This quicker version (in the Ashkenazi style) is based off of a handwritten recipe card given to me by my Safta, or grandmother, Hemda Addis. I’ve swapped out the onion soup packets and ketchup she calls for in favor of fresh onions and celery root with paprika, plus a little tomato paste caramelized in fat rendered from the seared short ribs. Toasting the grains before adding them to the pot adds a boost of flavor, and lets me imagine how amazing those shtetl ovens might have smelled when they were opened on Sabbath mornings. I add garlic to the dish twice: in the beginning, to develop an aromatic layered broth, and again near the end of the braise to lend a little sharpness. Safta avoids the bulb religiously, but considering it’s a vegetable that Jews have been associated with and obsessed with for two millennia, I’m sure she’ll understand. Like my Safta, I skip the Crockpot and cook mine uncovered in a gently heated oven, to concentrate the flavors.
A note on short ribs: “Flanken” is a butcher’s term and Yiddish loanword, meaning the meat is cross-cut through the bone, which exposes more surface area and therefore allows you to develop more flavor in the browning step. It’s the same style often used in Korean kalbi, though in this case it’s cut much thicker. You will most likely need to ask your butcher to do this for you. English-cut short ribs, the most commonly available cut in American grocery stores, is cut between the rib, leaving a thick slab of meat on top of a bone, and is either left in long pieces or cut in half crosswise into chunks. They are a fair substitute in this recipe, as long as the pieces are at least 4 inches long. Whichever ribs you use, I recommend heavily salting your meat (I like Diamond Crystal, but any kosher salt is fine) up to 48 hours before cooking, then letting the pieces dry on a rack placed over a sheet pan in your fridge, uncovered, in order to get a deep, delicious crust on them when you sear. (The dry surface also makes them splatter less in the oil.) —Adam E Rose
- Prep time 45 minutes
- Cook time 5 hours
- Serves 4 to 6
beef short ribs, flanken-cut to 2 inches wide
2 1/2 tablespoons
kosher salt, plus more for seasoning the meat and garlic paste
sunflower oil (or other high-smoke-point neutral oil)
large onions (white or yellow), diced small
medium celery root (celeriac), peeled and diced small
Hungarian sweet paprika
dried bay leaf
garlic cloves, peeled
extra-virgin olive oil
raw buckwheat groats
1 1/2 cups
dried navy beans, soaked in cold water overnight in the refrigerator and drained
medium (or 6 small) waxy potatoes (I used Yukon Gold)
Chopped dill, for serving
- Place the short ribs on a wire rack positioned over a sheet pan. Season the meat heavily with salt at least 3 hours in advance (at room temperature), or up to 48 hours in the refrigerator.
- Heat the sunflower oil in a large Dutch oven, over high. Use paper towels or clean kitchen towels to dry off the surface of the short ribs as much as possible. Sear the short rib pieces on all sides, making sure to develop deep color on every surface, about 15 minutes in total. Avoid overcrowding the pot by working in batches, if necessary. Remove the short ribs from the pot, then transfer to a large plate, cutting board, or back onto the sheet pan where they were seasoned. Carefully pour off the rendered fat and oil into a heat-safe dish.
- Heat the oven to 250°F.
- Reduce the heat to medium-high. Add 2 tablespoons of the reserved fat back into the same Dutch oven, then stir in the onion and celery root. Stirring frequently, sauté the vegetables until they are a light golden brown, about 10 minutes. If at any point the mixture begins to stick to the bottom, pour in a little water and scrape up the sticky bits with a wooden spoon.
- Add 1 additional tablespoon of the reserved fat and the paprika, stirring to integrate the spice until it is fragrant and slightly muted in color, about 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and sauté until it begins to stick slightly, about 1 minute. Stir in the beef stock, water, seared short ribs, bay leaf, and 2 1/2 tablespoons of kosher salt. Turn down the heat to medium-low and bring the mixture to a simmer.
- Make the garlic paste: Grate the garlic cloves with a Microplane into a bowl, then mix in a teaspoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt; or pound the garlic in a mortar and pestle with the oil and a pinch of salt. (Alternatively, smash the garlic cloves with the side of your knife into your cutting board, then sprinkle a little salt and continue to chop and smash garlic into a paste, then mix it with a little olive oil.)
- Mix in roughly three-quarters of the garlic paste (about 3 tablespoons or so) and lightly stir to break up any clumps. Transfer the pot to the oven and leave uncovered. Let the cholent braise for 2 hours, checking every 30 minutes or so to ensure the pot remains at a gentle simmer. Reduce the heat to 230°F if it is bubbling more aggressively.
- After the pot has been in the oven for 2 hours, put the barley and buckwheat in a cold skillet and then place it on the stove over medium heat. Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, toast the grains until the buckwheat groats develop a rich darker color and the grains smell nutty. (Be very careful not to burn them.) Carefully open the oven and immediately add the toasted grains to the cholent pot, along with the soaked navy beans. Peel the potatoes and add them to the Dutch oven.
- Return the pot to the oven to braise for another 2 hours, until the meat is tender enough to shred with a fork but still has a little resistance. The beans and grains should be cooked and the potatoes cooked through. Stir in a teaspoon of the remaining garlic paste and a teaspoon of honey. Season with more salt and garlic paste to taste. Depending on the fat content of your short ribs and your personal preference, you might want to skim off and discard some of the ruby-red fat from the top of the stew using a ladle. Allow the cholent to cool a little before serving, topped with dill.