Fall Cooking - How To Braise

Fall Cooking – How to Braise

As the evenings get cooler and the days begin to slowly get shorter, warm, hearty, comforting foods start to bring about good feelings. In the kitchen, it begins to be about the long and slow cooking. When eating seasonally, the cooking plays as big a role as the food itself.

Braising is a technique found in almost every cuisine. The basic method and meat cuts don’t vary too much across borders. What does change is the cook’s choice of aromatic vegetables, cooking liquids, and finishing garnishes.

Braising is a method of cooking foods (animal protein and vegetables alike) surrounded by a flavorful broth so tougher fibers or sinews become succulent and tender. The meat is browned before it’s simmered in broth and as the broth simmers, it exchanges flavors with the meat. The broth also reduces and thickens slightly, a process that transforms it into a richly flavored, satisfying sauce.

Follow this flexible, step-by-step method for fall-apart-tender meat with its own delicious sauce

Choose Your Cut

A good braise begins by choosing the right cut of meat. Opt for the tough but flavorful working parts of an animal. In four-legged animals, this means legs, shoulders, ribs, and even tails. In birds, it means thighs, legs, and wings. These cuts contain soft protein and fat, just as lean, tender meats do, but they also have sinew and connective tissue. This tissue contains collagen, which must cook to about 200°F before it will soften. When you braise meat in a gently simmering liquid, the collagen melts into gelatin, which then bastes the meat to produce an incredibly tender result. Braising would ruin a lean, naturally tender filet, but it is the perfect method for tough, collagen-rich and more budget friendly cuts like lamb shanks, beef short ribs, pork shoulder, and chicken legs. Cooking these cuts slowly not only makes soft and tender, but makes them taste better too. The longer you expose protein to heat, the more flavor you can produce. It can take two to three hours in simmering liquid for a lamb shank to reach an internal temperature of 200°F, creating a mouth-watering, deep flavor.

One Pot Only

Pick a pot or pan that will hold the meat and vegetables snugly. As opposed to when you brown meat or sauté vegetables, where the food needs lots of room in the pan to sear rather than steam, braising requires as little extra space as possible. A tight fit keeps the cooking nice and slow and regulates the reduction of the cooking liquid. Choose a cooking vessel with fairly high sides so it can hold enough liquid to surround (though not submerge) the meat. A large, deep cast-iron skillet, a Dutch oven or deep casserole will work well.

Browning Adds Flavor

Brown braises always start by searing the meat in fat until it becomes nicely browned on all sides. Unfortunately, this essential step is often rushed. To get the best flavor and texture out of this process:

  • Brown in small batches. Sear the meat in the same snug pot or pan that you have chosen for your braise, but, crowding the pan during this first step would inhibit good browning. Be sure to give the meat the room it needs by browning in batches.
  • Use the right heat. Choose the heat according to what else you are working on in the kitchen. Medium heat will caramelize your meat a little deeper resulting in a more richly flavored sauce. Medium high saves time but requires more attention to prevent burning. Avoid browning over high heat!
  • Be patient. Browning the meat can take from 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces of meat as well as the size of your pan. This is definitely the aspect of braising that requires the most attention, but the deeply flavored sauce is the perfect payoff!

Create A Flavor Base

Once the meat is browned, remove it from the pan. This is where you will now add aromatic vegetables, which are usually onions or leeks, carrots, and celery. Some braises call for the vegetables to cook until they have softened but not browned (known as ‘sweating’), and others might require you to brown them. Either way works, simply ensure that the vegetables have softened fully and released all of their sweet juices into the pan. These juices add another layer of flavor to the final dish.

This is the point where you can begin to get creative and create a braise you enjoy with the addition of more flavors. The field is wide open. Ingredients like herbs, spices, peppers, citrus, mushrooms, tomatoes, and garlic are all excellent choices.

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Choose Your Liquid

There is much flexibility when it comes to the cooking liquid. It can be water or stock or tomato sauce, or a combination. You could even try wine or vinegar as part of the cooking liquid, but think of these more as flavor boosters than as braising mediums. When using wine or vinegar, reduce them a little before adding other liquids.

You need to add enough liquid to surround but not submerge the meat. The liquid should just barely skim the meat’s surface. This liquid will reduce as you braise, concentrating the flavor of the sauce and letting the meat cook without poaching.

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Stovetop Or Oven

The goal is to allow the liquid to simmer slowly. Avoid allowing the temperature to rise and the liquid to begin boiling. This will cause the meat to cook too rapidly and dry out before it gets fully tender. In the oven, a temperature of 350°F usually gives a nice simmer. On the stovetop, medium heat works well.

Your liquid should bubble gently. Adjust your heat accordingly throughout the process. You can also use this opportunity to baste the meat and, if it looks like it might be drying out a little, turn it. Braising does. Not require constant supervision, but the best braise is the result of continued awareness.

Generally, the oven works best for most braises as it not only frees up the top of the stove for anything else you might be cooking or preparing but the oven gives the option of braising your dish uncovered. Although this may sound slightly unconventional, it allows the exposed meat to roast and brown. Covering the pan cooks the meat with steam, which speeds the process but produces less flavorful meat and sauce. If braising uncovered, be sure to turn the meat occasionally during cooking to ensure even browning and moist meat.

Your braised meat is done when tender enough to cut with a fork and it begins to pull away from the bone. Let the broth cool to room temperature before removing the meat from the pan. You can remove excess fat from the sauce using a gravy separator or simply skim off the fat with a spoon. Straining the sauce is not crucial (you can if you want), but do remove any herb stems, bay leaves, or other things you may not want to eat. Begin reducing the liquid until it becomes a little thicker and more viscous, transforming it from a broth to a sauce.

Wait A Day

You can serve your braised dish right away, but it really tastes better if made a day ahead. Be sure to refrigerate the meat in the sauce so it absorbs more flavor and you avoid drying it out. Freezing your dish is also an option.

When you are finally ready to serve your masterpiece, warm the meat in the sauce, basting it frequently, and let the sauce reduce a little more (enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon). You can serve the braise as it is or add more vegetables, herbs, or other ingredients to give a fresh lift to the flavor and add some garnish. You could consider adding more of the same vegetables that were cooked with the meat, or layer in flavor with other options such as braised artichokes or roasted tomatoes.

Now that you have the braising method down, your options are limitless when it comes to creating your own unique comfort foods to warm you up as the nights cool down. You can also become more familiar with these methods with Chef Pete as he guides you through his seasonal favorites in his cookbook, Paleo By Season.

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