The braising cooking method is a chef’s best-kept secret for achieving succulent and tender meats, poultry, and even vegetables. And perhaps best of all, this easy to master technique requires little effort with big rewards.
When you braise a tough cut of meat, cooking it low and slow with an assortment of other vegetables and aromatics, you get not only fork-tender meat but a thick sauce that’s been building its flavor all day long in the oven or on the stove.
There’s simply nothing better than meltingly tender pork shoulder, lamb shanks, or fall off the bone short ribs cooked in their own juices for a few hours. Let’s explore this vital technique and all the ways to use it.
What Culinary Problem is this Method Solving?
Braising is the best way to coax as much flavor and tenderness out of tough cuts of meat as possible. It enhances the flavor of the food, and it improves the texture of what is cooked, too.
What is Braising?
Braising comes from the French verb braiser. It is a technique that uses both dry heat cooking and moist heat cooking. First, the food is usually seared at a high temperature to brown it and give it a nice crust, then a small amount of liquid is added and the temperature is turned down low, to cook for a longer amount of time. Once the initial browning occurs, thanks to the Maillard reaction, the food’s flavor is intensified. When liquid is added, all that heat, moisture and cooking time breaks down the connective tissues into gelatin and softens muscle fiber for an incredibly moist and tender dish.
What is the Difference Between Braising and Stewing?
The primary difference between a braise and a stew is whether or not the protein is submerged in liquid. Braising usually uses whole, larger cuts of meat and the least amount of added liquid, while stews require food to be cut into uniform pieces and completely submerged in liquid. Sometimes these terms can be used interchangeably in the kitchen, though.
When what you’re cooking features a rich broth or gravy that’s just as important as the main ingredient, you may consider stewing as a technique. But if you’re making a larger pot roast or short ribs, or even a big batch of bitter green vegetables, a braise may be the way to go.
What is the Difference Between Braising and Slow Cooking?
While there really isn’t much difference between braising and slow cooking when you are simmering the food in the liquid. However, you cannot brown in a slow cooker as you can in a dutch oven, that requires a separate step. Some contemporary slow cooker’s or Crock-Pot can run quite hot. If not careful the heat can toughen the protein fibers of meats, resulting in a dry and chewy meal. The goal is to keep the internal temperature of the meat at around 210ºF for at least an hour to ensure the connective tissue and fat melts down.
Different Braising Methods
- Stove Top Method– Braising on the stove is a fine way of starting out, but using one burner, especially for a larger pot, can be difficult; it’s harder to regulate the temperature and depending on how hot your stove runs, you may need to check the liquid levels frequently to make sure there’s no burning or hot spots. You may be able to step away for a few minutes, but not all that long because of the quick evaporation of the liquid.
- Oven Braising– Once you add all your ingredients and you’re ready to step away from things for a bit, consider an oven braise. The internal heat of the oven is a wonderful way to get consistent heating with little fluctuation. Checking a large pot in the oven can be tricky, though, and can be heavy to lift out when you need to do so.
- Slow Cooker- Keep the lid on to maintain a consistently hot and moist environment. Opening the lid multiple times causes the heat to leave, requiring extra time to come up to temperature. Crock-Pot’s run about 209ºF at its simmering point, perfect for braising. The braising liquid should be about halfway up the meat.
The Braising Technique
The first part of a successful braise is browning the meat. Browning uses the famous Maillard reaction to swiftly and effectively caramelize the sugars in the food to give what you’re cooking a richer, deeper flavor. Once your pot is heated, add an oil or fat (butter, lard, etc) and add your seasoned meat to the pot. The trick here is to get the meat deeply browned on the surface.
Once you’ve browned the meat, most likely you’ll have to remove it from the pot to add other ingredients that will make up the rest of the dish. This might be the time to add onions, leeks, garlic, fruits, vegetables, or other aromatics into the fat that’s in the bottom of the pot. Adding any of these ensures the flavors will be complex and delicious come dinner time.
How Much Liquid to Use
How much liquid you add depends on how you plan to serve it—add more if you want a more soupy, stew-like meal, less if you want a more concentrated sauce. This can be broth, beer, wine, vinegar, tomato juice, or even water, but be careful that you don’t add too much.
The liquid helps deglaze the bottom of the pot. Once deglazed, you can add the browned meat back in, careful that the level of the liquid doesn’t rise over the meat. You still want all that meat to rise above the liquid you’ve added.
Once you’ve reintroduced the meat into the vegetables and liquid, get the whole mixture back to just boiling, when large bubbles break through the surface of the liquid rapidly, then turn the heat down to a gentle simmer, at the lowest temperature on the stove.
Why Bring to a Boil and Then Simmer?
Making sure the food you’re cooking gets up to boiling before turning the heat back down is a great way to visually determine where you’re on the spectrum of moist heat cooking. Don’t let the braise boil too long, though, or what you end up with may ultimately be too tough.
What is the Braising Temperature?
If you’re doing the braise on the stove, use the lowest setting you can. If you’re using the oven, set the temperature somewhere between 250 and 325 degrees, depending on the recipe you’re using. Once you get the hang of braising, though, you can probably set your own temperature without a recipe.
Flip the Meat?
Because you’ve browned the meat in the first step, turning or flipping the meat isn’t really necessary.
How to Make a Sauce From the Braising Liquid
If your liquid is too thin and you’d like to thicken it, simply continue to simmer the liquid on the stovetop after you’ve removed the meat to evaporate the liquid and further concentrate the flavors. Some cooks add a little slurry of cornstarch and water, or flour and water, to the liquid, making sure to stir thoroughly in between small additions to the pot.
Whisk the liquid while cooking to cook the flour and get rid of any raw taste the flour imparts. To make a full-fledged gravy, first, make a roux, then whisk some braising liquid into the roux until a smooth consistency is formed and it thickens. Season to taste.
If you like, you can braise vegetables along with a cut of meat, which gives the whole dish more flavor, or they can be braised all by themselves for a deep, rich flavor. Unlike meat, vegetables naturally don’t have any collagen, but slow cooking will help the tougher plant fibers become tender. Harder root vegetables like turnips, winter squashes, and bitter greens like kale and chard are perfect for braising.
Vegetables don’t need as much time as a roast or pork shoulder, but depending on their density, check for tenderness after about 30 minutes. Greens will braise much faster than a turnip, so keep that in mind, as well.
Chicken and capons, especially thighs and legs, can be made in coq au vin, a delicious French dish using lots of red wine. The braising liquid is divine poured over mashed potatoes. Braise the chicken until its internal temperature reaches 195 degrees. There’s no need to cook chicken for hours, like a large cut of meat or pork.
Braising Beef, Pork, and Lamb
Most tough cuts of meat may be lean, but they contain lots of collagen which breaks down in the cooking liquid and helps meld all the flavors together. Tougher, larger cuts of meat are transformed by braising into mouthwateringly tender meals. Make pulled pork from a pork butt, a Sunday pot roast, or braised lamb shanks from cuts that wouldn’t be as delicious cooked any other way. Bone-in meats are good, too, because the bones impart more flavor into the dish.
A general guide for braising meats is about an hour per pound, so this could translate into 1 to 5 hours, potentially. You may want to check your pot at the 2-hour mark—if a fork can be inserted into the roast with ease, you might want to pull it out of the oven early. Of course, this also depends on what temperature you’re cooking at.
Benefits of Braising
- Time: If you have the time, braising food low and slow in the oven or on the stove makes the end-result all worthwhile. Most of the time it takes is hands-off, so that’s a plus.
- Cost: With braising, you can make economical cuts of meat taste like a million dollars. Braising is a great way to cook on a budget, too, especially if you’re doing meal prep for the week.
- Taste: Braising allows all the flavors in the pot to slowly meld together with the meat’s broken down collagen, resulting in a gelatinous broth with unparalleled taste.
- Texture: Fork-tender meats and vegetables are a sure thing when they’re slowly braised with a little liquid.
- Nutrition: This cooking technique has the option to cook protein and vegetables all in one pot for a balanced meal. It’s also easy to adjust the thickening agents to comply with diets like Whole30 or Paleo.
Tools for Braising
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