Everything You Need To Know To Make The Best Nilaga

This super simple boiled beef dish can be made extra.

IMAGE Majoy Siason

When it comes to one of the simplest dishes you can cook at home, the nilaga has to be one of the recipes on top of that list. 

The nilaga, or simply a boiled beef dish, is classically simple. The most common nilaga is really the nilagang baka. To make this, you simply have to boil beef until tender, add a few other ingredients to accompany the beef chunks and make it taste better with seasonings.

With such a simple dish, there are many ways to make it more delicious, even at its simplest form. Here's how you can make the most simple nilaga into a truly spectacular meal: 

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1 Sweat the onions. 

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You'll want to peel and then cut these into quarters. You can cook the onions gently over low heat so you don't brown or even burn the onions. No need to chop these finely either since these will disintegrate in the broth while your beef tenderizes. Don't worry though! That's perfectly fine because it will have done its job and delivered its flavor into the broth when it does. 

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2 Use the right cut of beef. 

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The next step is to add the beef. The kind of beef you use is important. The classic beef cut for nilaga is the beef cubes from the kalitiran. (You can totally use other cuts, too. Beef shank or the bulalo makes a great affordable beef cut for nilaga, too!) This beef cut is a fantastic combination of fat and meat which is important in creating the flavor you will taste when you finally taste your nilaga

If you want to develop even more flavor in your nilaga, you can sear the beef chunks in the hot oil before adding the water and the peppercorns. Browning causes the Maillard reaction to create a layer of fond which is responsible for the increased flavor you'll taste in this version of your nilaga. Once you get all your beef pieces all added in, pour in the water and the peppercorns. 

When water comes to a boil, bubbles will appear on the surface of the water.
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3 Simmer, don't boil.

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This is the step where the magic begins. The beef cuts you use will release its flavor into the water and create the body that makes the broth flavorful, aromatic, and absolutely appetizing. You need to bring the water to a boil first and then lower that heat to a gentle simmer. This is key to cooking nilaga that contains tender beef and a delicious broth that you want to continuously sip until it is gone.

Remember the difference between boiling and simmering, so you can gently extract the flavor in a shorter time than vigorously beat the beef with the large water bubbles. 

 

4 Skim the scum! 

As soon as the water comes to a boil, you'll start to see the impurities start to rise from the beef and into the surface of the water. While these impurities are harmless, it creates a broth that's cloudy. To cook a broth that's as clear as it can be, you'll need to skim all that scum off and out of the broth that you're creating. 

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To skim the scum off, use the largest cooking spoon you have and skim the surface of the water, inserting the edge of the spoon under the scum to scoop it out into a small bowl until full. Drain the water from the bowl and toss out the impurities into the trash. Repeat.

You want to do this immediately when it happens because if you leave this for last, those impurities will sink to the bottom of your pot and will be harder to remove later. 

While you're doing this, you may notice that small bits of impurities escape your spoon. You can leave these bits be.... or grab a small strainer and scoop out these bits with that. Do this for the clearest broth you can create outside of a professional kitchen. 

Steaming and boiling are two methods of cooking you can easily do.
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5 Let it slow cook. 

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Now that you've skimmed the scum, you can let it continue simmering until the meat is tender. Just check your water level so you don't evaporate all the water. Add more as needed as it continues to simmer.   

You can skip the long cooking time if you use a pressure cooker, which will cut long cooking times to as much as half! We think that's time well spent for anyone who is running low on time.     

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6 Add other hearty vegetables.    

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The classic vegetables in nilaga are potatoes and cabbage. Potatoes are hearty root vegetables that need time to cook through so as soon as your meat is almost tender, add the potatoes. When those chunks are tender, add the cabbage. These cook fast so as soon as these are cooked through, you are almost done. 

However, there is no reason why you can't add other vegetables to the pot, too. Pechay is a great substitute for the cabbage while kamote can add a sweetness to the nilaga that you might find really appetizing after a taste.  

Photo by Patrick Martires

7 Serve patis, calamansi, and sili on the side.   

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The beef is tender, the potatoes are tender, the cabbage wedges are just softened, and the broth is as clear as you can get it. It's time for the finishing touches and these are the three seasonings that make the nilaga appetizing: patis, calamansi, and sili. Season the broth with patis and then if desired, serve steaming hot bowls of your nilaga with calamansi and siling labuyo. Serve more patis on the side as well so those who love their nilaga with more salt can season it to their level of nilaga perfection. 

All these little details you just did in the creation of your dish will create a bowl of nilaga that's better than any other. 

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