There is a definite chill in the air and the days are slowly getting shorter. It is at this time of year when warm, hearty, comforting foods start to bring about good feeling. 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.
Both stewing and braising can make tougher, tastier and less expensive cuts that require a little extra coaxing like shanks, brisket, chunk, and round tender enough to eat with your spoon. Who knew these foods had a soft side?
Vegetables should not be left out of the pot either and also benefit from braising and stewing. As with meat, vegetables can include everything from hearty roots to winter squash, bitter winter greens to mushrooms and celery (depending on what is locally harvested in the fall in your area). They grow tender and enriched with flavor from braising or stewing.
Both braising and stewing require a good deal of time over a low heat, yet they are quite different in other ways. What sets them apart is all in the liquid! They both require moisture and heat to cook the food. The amount of liquid is what distinguishes these two methods.
Whether animal or vegetable (or a combination of the two), the miracle of braising only happens when the food is partially submerged in the cooking liquid. The minute it becomes fully covered, your dish becomes a stew. Low heat is another crucial element. The gradual cooking of meat in a hot, moisture-heavy environment gives all the extra bits, the connective tissues, gelatin, and collagen, the chance to slowly melt into the liquid, enriching the sauce. The meat in turn absorbs any of the seasoning in the braising liquid. Bring your braise or stew to a boil for too long and your meat will be tough, dry and unappetizing.
Similar to braising, a stew calls for slow cooking and low temperatures. Stews require full submersion in the cooking liquid as compared to a braise where the least amount of liquid required is added. Stewing also generally calls for the meat or vegetables to be cut into uniform pieces for even cooking. The result is a broth-gravy hybrid that is just as desirable and delicious as the meat or vegetable itself.
Soups are often confused with stews but to be truly technical, the difference is in the intent. Stewing is a method of cooking the solids (specifically, a slow, moist-heat method). When you make a meat stew, you are stewing the meat, which says nothing about what liquid you choose to stew it in. When making a chicken soup (or a stock or broth which is the base of the chicken soup) then your objective is essentially to make chicken-flavoured liquid, extracting the flavour of the solids into the liquid. If some flavourful solids remain, then that is great, yet incidental as opposed to intentional.
Practically, some flavour extraction is going to happen with a stew too, it just so happens that the main focus is to cook the meat/veggies however this is a very broad interpretation and can be largely attributed to and dependent on culture.
As an added bonus to making your braised and stewed dishes, the low-and-slow cooking time is largely hands-off, making your kitchen warm and great-smelling. There is no need to follow a special, complicated recipe to braise successfully. This cooking technique is all about mastering the basics, then putting your own personal signature on them. This is how…
- Meat Matters
Budget conscious shoppers, this is for you! Cheaper, tougher cuts of meat make the best braises. In fact, you would never use pricier, cuts that benefit from quick-cooking (like chops and streaks). The combination of a low oven temperature and moist heat turns the chewy sinew, connective tissue and muscle in these less pricey cuts into unctuous, gelatinous broth and tender meat. A few of the best cuts to braise include bone-in beef short ribs, chuck, round, or brisket, pork shoulder or Boston butt, lamb shoulder and shanks, and chicken thighs. If you can choose bone-in meat, definitely do as it will impart better flavor to the braising liquid and sauce. You can also use the bones later to make a stock or bone broth for your next braise.
- Brown is Best
The first step to a successful braise is to brown the meat. No matter what cut you have chosen and no matter what you are flavoring your braise with, the finished dish will be so much more delicious if you sear it first. Heat a heavy pot or Dutch oven on the stovetop and add your well-seasoned meat to it with a little fat (coconut oil, ghee, lard or bacon fat). Brown the meat on every side adding as much color as possible until the meat should be deeply golden all over. Once you have achieved that perfect hue, remove the meat from the pan so you can ‘deglaze’. This involves lifting the caramelized ‘brown bits’ that have stuck to the bottom of the pan with a splash of liquid and a wooden spoon. You can use just about any liquid you happen to have on hand including wine, vinegar, vermouth, bone broth or even water. Those little browned bits add an intense depth and richness to the braising liquid, making the finished dish even more flavorful.
- Find Your Flavor
Using the right cut of meat and browning it well are both important steps to building your braise. Choosing your flavor profile is the next step in making the perfect dish. Experiment and think beyond the traditional red wine, carrots, and bay leaf. When it comes to adding spices, herbs, vegetables, and fruits you are limited only by your tastes and imagination. You may wish to take the braise in an Indian direction, with cumin and turmeric or using some seasonal fall flavors, like apple brandy and cider vinegar or taking a Mediterranean approach with fennel and orange. No matter which direction you choose, you will definitely need something from the onion family (like leeks, shallots or onions) to add a deep, earthy note that rounds things out. Once these have sweated (or sautéed lightly) add your meat back in and just enough liquid to just cover. You can use alcohol (wine works well here), stock or bone broth or a combination of both. You can even braise using coconut milk.
Don’t be shy about adding a lot of flavor.
- Set It and Forget It
Once your meat has been browned, your aromatics added and your liquid poured over, cover your pot, with a tightly-fitting lid and cook it in the oven at a low temperature. Aim for a steady 325 degrees. You can cook it at a lower temperature however it will take a little longer. The stovetop works well too, although there tends to be hot spots on burners, which could potentially cook your meat unevenly. Plan on braising the meat for between 2 ½ - 3 hours, depending on the size of the cut. A braise doesn’t does not require cooking to a specific temperature. You will know your dish is done once it becomes fork-tender and either falling from the bone or easily sliced. Your meal is almost ready to serve.
- Reduce and Enjoy
All that great flavor you have developed in your braising liquid is not going to go to waste. Reducing the liquid into a sauce will take the meat from good to extraordinary. To do this, remove the meat from the liquid and set aside. Strain out the solids if you prefer and heat the liquid at a lively simmer. Once it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, pour the sauce over the meat and finish with some roughly chopped herbs. Braises can be heavy and a little brown, and a little parsley, dill, or cilantro can really lighten things up.
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.