I’m thrilled to share with you a classic Filipino dish that will wrap you in a warm, comforting hug: beef nilaga or nilagang baka. This soul-soothing Filipino beef soup has been a beloved favorite in Filipino households for ages. Picture this: tender beef, rich flavors, and a savory broth filled with a medley of vegetables.
A traditional, hearty Filipino beef soup
Beef nilaga, or nilagang baka, holds a special place in Filipino cuisine as a beloved comfort food. “Baka” is “beef” in Tagalog, and “nilaga” translates to “boiled” in English, highlighting the cooking method used for this dish.
Traditionally, Beef nilaga is made by boiling and simmering beef in water with aromatics for hours until the meat becomes tender and flavorful. The slow cooking process allows the flavors to meld together, resulting in a rich and comforting broth. We typically cook it in a large pot or cauldron over a stove, allowing the ingredients to slowly get tender and for the flavors to really develop.
While the basic recipe remains consistent, there are a few variations of beef nilaga across different regions of the Philippines. Some may add additional vegetables or herbs to customize the flavors, creating a unique twist on the traditional recipe.
The best cuts of beef to use
Let’s talk beef, my friends. For the ultimate beef nilaga experience, opt for tougher cuts like brisket, shank, or chuck roast. These cuts have just the right amount of connective tissue and higher collagen content. During the long cooking time, the collagen breaks down, resulting in tender, melt-in-your-mouth tender meat. Plus, their marbling really adds a depth of flavor to the broth and elevating each spoonful.
If you’d like, you can also mix some of the tougher cuts with stew meat. Alternatively, if you’re feeling fancy, you can use beef short ribs as well. Personally, I like to use beef shanks.
What vegetables should I use?
The traditional beef nilaga or nilagang baka boasts a delightful medley of cabbage, potatoes, and green beans. Some traditional recipes even include small cuts of sweet corn cobs for some sweetness. But hey, don’t let tradition hold you back! Feel free to jazz it up with carrots or bok choy. I personally just opted for cabbage, potatoes, and bok choy. I would have loved to also use sweet corn, but it’s hard to eat sweet corn cobs in a soup even if they’re cut in smaller sections.
Not a fan of some veggies? No worries! Beef nilaga is flexible enough to handle substitutions. If green beans aren’t your jam, you can use snap peas or omit it altogether. At the very least, if you have cabbage there, you should be good.
Do I really have to simmer it for that long?
Now, let’s talk about the secret ingredient to success: time. To unlock the full potential of beef nilaga, you need patience. Let that pot simmer and bubble for a good 2 and a half hours, at the very least. The slow cooking method is essential in blending the flavors together and coaxing the beef’s connective tissue into tender submission. Trust me, it’s worth the wait. While pressure-cooking may offer a shortcut, the slow boil is where the true magic happens. I just find that pressure-cooking the meat doesn’t quite result in the texture I want. I feel like while it does made your beef tender enough, the texture is not the same. It’s like the difference between beat up meat fast to make it tender enough vs. massaging the meat slowly into tenderness. Plus, the flavors are more pronounced when slow cooking the meat.
- 2.5 lbs beef shank, cut into 1.5-inch cubes (no need to cut into bone though)
- half a head of cabbage, quartered
- 1/2 lb bok choy, chopped
- 1 big potato (russet or golden), cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 and half onions, quartered
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- 8 cups of water (plus 3 more cups for later)
- In a large pot, season your cut potatoes with a bit of salt and pepper and fry them for a bit. You don't need to cook them all the way -- I just feel like frying them a little until there's some golden brown marks on the edges bring a lot of flavor. Set aside.
- Season your beef shank with salt and pepper. In the same large pot, heat up some oil and brown all sides of your seasoned beef shank pieces. You might have to do this in batches so you get some nice browning. Set aside.
- In the same large pot, season the quartered onions with salt and pepper and briefly cook them until just slightly tender. You don't want to cook the onions down too much at this stage. Add the browned beef shanks in and cook together with the onions for about 1 minute. Then, add the fish sauce in and mix everything together. It's going to smell pungent, but trust me that the end result won't taste fishy or funky at all. Let it cook for about 2-3 minutes.
- Add the peppercorns, bay leaves, and 8 cups of water to the pot, mix everything together, and let it come to boil. Once it's come to a boil, make sure your heat is between medium to medium-low. Cover the pot and let it simmer for 2 and a half hours. While it's simmering, you may see some impurities or scum come up at the top. Just scoop those out with a mesh sieve and toss them out.
- At the end of the 2.5 hours, you may notice that the liquid has reduced. Add another 2 cups of water and mix. Taste and make sure it's still seasoned well. If it needs more seasoning, add salt and pepper to taste. Then, add the fried potatoes, the quartered cabbage, and your chopped bok choy to the pot. Carefully stir and mix the veggies so they're covered in the liquid. Continue to simmer and cook (with lid or without lid -- it doesn't matter) until the veggies are cooked but still crisp, and the potatoes are tender enough. If you need to add more water, you can add another 1 cup. Otherwise, just taste the soup and make sure it's still seasoned to your liking. Serve with rice!
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