Braising is one of my favorite cooking methods. You can take a relatively inexpensive cut of meat, and turn it into something sublime, with a bit of effort and some investment of time. There are two critical components of braising, the browning and long cooking time. And not to contradict myself, but you can also do a pressure cooker braise and achieve the same kind of results, and not invest as much time. The benefits of a traditional braise, are the waiting,as the house fills with the wonderful smells of the developing flavors, and the sitting around reading, writing or getting other things done while your meal cooks pretty much unattended.
To braise anything, you first sear the item in hot fat/oil, then add your flavoring ingredients, and wait a few hours for the magic to occur. You need a pot with a tight-fitting lid—I have an oval dutch oven, handed down from my mom, but I dream of owning a Staub dutch oven…the Cadillac of dutch ovens with its concentric rings to help the condensing liquid fall back into the braise evenly, and slowly, and its specially designed lid to keep the precious liquid from escaping.
Because when braising you don’t completely immerse your main ingredient, you do need to exert a small amount of effort to turn the product from time to time. This may seem like way too much trouble on a cold Sunday afternoon when you are wrapped in your snuggy watching a movie, but trust me, it is well worth that great effort!
This technique is a good for a cook just starting out. There are no fancy or complicated cuts, the food—particularly if you are braising meat, will let you know when it’s time to take action, and it’s almost impossible to overcook, or burn the food. When you brown the meat, you know it is time to turn it when you can lift it from the pan with no resistance, to tell if it’s cooked enough simply put a long fork into the meat, and if it slides out easily it’s done—this is what fork tender means. When you reach this point, remove the lid, remove the product and allow the liquid to reduce. Taste for flavor and now, you need to get back to work. Here are step by step instructions for braising, and a recipe for a braise of short ribs with mushrooms.
As braising works well for large, inexpensive cuts of meat, braising also works for vegetables with lower moisture content. Those you typically cook, or could for a long time, such as winter squash, brussels sprouts, leeks, onions, and turnips to name a few. Hardy greens such as collards and mustard will work well too. Use the same techniques you do for meat, but cooking time will be much shorter, as the cellulose that holds vegetables together breaks down much faster than the collagen holding meat together.
One final note here, braising and stewing are not the same. Stewing is similar, and is often used on the same types of meats and vegetables, but stews use things cut up into bite-sized pieces, so cook in a shorter time, and stews do not require browning. Though you may not think of it that way, chili is a stew, as are goulash, boeuf bourguignon, and coq au vin. When you braise or stew always choose fattier cuts of meat, the fat will melt as the food cooks, and add tons of flavor, as well as tenderize the meat. Tomato or wine are also common additions as the acid in them will help denature the proteins, which means they relax also making a more tender product.
I hope if you haven’t tried it before, you’ll take on a braise soon. If you do let me know how it goes, and please share your recipe here.