Cooking Class: Braising

Use this slow-cooking method to deliver rich taste and tender meats.

Frugal-minded cooks find braising a godsend. The method involves slowly simmering food, usually meat, in a moderate amount of liquid in a covered pot. It works wonders with inexpensive, tough cuts, such as bottom round, pork shoulder, and short ribs-meat that would be tough without a long, slow simmer in aromatic broth. It's also a forgiving technique. If you use a little more onion, a little less carrot, that's OK. After an hour or more of cooking, the flavors meld, and no one will know the difference.

Braising is sometimes confused with stewing. In a stew, the ingredients are submerged-as in soup. In a braise, the meat and vegetables are partially submerged (the liquid shouldn't reach more than halfway up the sides of the meat) so that they are cooked both in steam and liquid, a combination yielding richer results and more profound layering of the flavors.

Best braising choices
Typically, braising is best employed with tough cuts of meat―meat with lots of collagen, which slowly melts into the broth and infuses it with flavor. (Small, tender steaks and pork chops fare poorly in a braise; lacking the necessary connective tissue, they simply dry out.) Hard, fibrous vegetables are also good in braises, which is why you'll often see hearty root vegetables in the cooking liquid.

Equipment
A braise should be cooked in a tightly closed pot―a Dutch oven is ideal. The pot should be deep enough to hold ample liquid to partially submerge the meat and vegetables so they benefit from cooking in the broth, as well as steaming in the aromatic flavors. The pan should also be wide enough to contain a large mix of ingredients―a whole roast and lots of vegetables, for example. Be sure to choose a heavy pan, too, because it needs to maintain an even temperature. We tested the recipes in a variety of pans―aluminum, stainless steel, enamel-coated cast iron, and nonstick―and as long as the pans had a heavy bottom, they performed well.

The only other necessary component is a tight-fitting lid to seal in flavor, create internal condensation so the broth doesn't evaporate and reduce too far, and keep the food evenly heated. If your pan's lid doesn't fit snugly (or if you don't have a lid), place a sheet of aluminum foil over the pan (as a liner), and cover with the lid, a large skillet, or a baking sheet.

Browning
Browning caramelizes the natural protein, sugars, and fat on the outside of the meat. As the meat browns, some of those proteins, fats, and sugars also stick to the pot's bottom. Those browned bits are then dissolved by the cooking liquid, enriching the broth, coloring it deeply, and contributing a great deal of flavor.


Braising is about layering flavors, starting with the caramelized meat and building up to a last touch of perhaps vinegar, honey, or fresh herbs. To further enhance the taste, braise in a broth enriched with other liquid: wine, fortified wine such as dry sherry or vermouth, fruit juices, liqueurs like brandy, or vinegar. Braising in broth alone may result in a finished dish without much depth. But enhanced broth provides a rich base with notes of sweet or sour, herby or floral, which will balance the flavor and texture of the meat and vegetables.

 

Cooking liquid

Braising is about layering flavors, starting with the caramelized meat and building up to a last touch of perhaps vinegar, honey, or fresh herbs. To further enhance the taste, braise in a broth enriched with other liquid: wine, fortified wine such as dry sherry or vermouth, fruit juices, liqueurs like brandy, or vinegar. Braising in broth alone may result in a finished dish without much depth. But enhanced broth provides a rich base with notes of sweet or sour, herby or floral, which will balance the flavor and texture of the meat and vegetables.

Flavorings
Braising is an application where dried herbs shine. When they are added at the beginning and simmer for the duration, they have plenty of time to soften and release their woodsy, hearty essence; crush them to release more flavor and aroma before adding them to the pot. Fresh herbs, on the other hand, should be added at the end to brighten the taste and offer color.

Most of our recipes also include flavorings such as onions and carrots, which cook with the meat the entire time and enrich both the meat and the broth. For a more refined presentation, these ingredients would be strained out to give way to a smooth sauce. For our homey, more casual recipes, we keep these vegetables. Onions actually melt over time; carrots provide sweet tidbits of color.

Simmering
Brown the meat on medium to medium-high, but braise on low, just so a few bubbles surface every few seconds. (Boiling will cook the meat too quickly and make it tough.) Once the broth comes to a simmer, cover the pot and turn the heat down. The meat's collagen melts when it reaches a temperature of about 160°. The trick is to bring the temperature up slowly so the sauce thickens as the meat cooks―and then hold the meat at about that temperature for the juiciest results.

Side dish braises
Braising is most often used with meats. But sturdy vegetables―such as sliced or quartered fennel bulbs, halved leeks, chopped kale, and cubed winter squash―can also be braised with flavorful results. You can brown the vegetables first, or skip that step; it's not as crucial as it is for meat braises. The vegetables shouldn't be submerged; rather, some pieces should sit above and some below the liquid line. Give them a gentle stir occasionally so those in the liquid do not become too soft. Most braised vegetables are enhanced by a little acid at the end of cooking. Try a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of vinegar. Then transfer the vegetables to a plate, and reduce the broth to a tasty glaze that can be spooned over top.

The bottom line

These are the most important things to remember about braising.

• Brown the meat for more flavor.

• Don't completely submerge the meat in liquid.

• Cover the pan, and simmer over low heat.

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