In this class, students learn the keys to an important cooking technique: braising. This page serves as a digest of what we cover in class.
Braising can transform even the chewiest, toughest, fattiest of cuts into fork-tender meat. In the simplest terms, this technique is actually a combination cooking method that involves browning food and then gently simmering it in liquid. (Stewing is a subset of braising and the term applies to dishes with small chunks of boneless meat.)
For the home cook, braised meat is a must. Full of flavor and less expensive, the meats we use to braise also demand little hands-on time to transform into delicious suppers with plenty of leftovers. In fact, most braises taste better the next day. With braises, while tonight and tomorrow’s dinners cook, you can finish up your days work outside of the kitchen.
Three Key Takeaways
The technique of braising can be distilled down to these three concepts. Apply them to any braise—whether you’re following a recipe or making it up as you go—and you’ll be happy with the results.
STEP ONE: CHOOSE TOUGH CUTS OF MEAT
Tough, chewy, fat-streaked cuts with abundant connective tissue work best for braising; as a general rule, if it’s tender, lean, and good for sautéing, don’t braise it. Almost any type of vegetables can be used in a braise as long as they’re added at the correct time and not allowed to overcook.
STEP TWO: BUILD FLAVOR WITH BROWNING AND AROMATICS
There are two ways to add considerable flavor to braises: brown the ingredients and add aromatics. When browning, caramelization forms on the meat, poultry, or vegetables and the bits (called fond) that develop on the bottom of the pot during the browning process contribute rich, savory flavor to the finished dish. After browning, the next step in braising is sautéing the aromatic vegetables. Sautéing the aromatics causes them to release some moisture, softens their textures, and mellows any harshness or raw flavor they may have.
STEP THREE: SIMMER GENTLY
In braising, the food being cooked is submerged only partway in liquid; it is not completely covered. Using a minimal amount of liquid results in a sauce with more concentrated flavor and a more luxurious consistency. For long-cooked braises (ones that require more than 1 hour of simmering), simmering is best accomplished in a 300-degree oven, not on the stovetop. On the stove, the pot is heated from the bottom and requires careful monitoring and burner adjustments. In the oven, however, the heat is steady and constant, and completely surrounds the pot so that maintaining a gentle simmer isn’t any more difficult than turning the oven dial. There’s also little risk of scorching the pot bottom.
Braising may be long on time, but it’s short on equipment. Here are the three tools you need to keep onhand when preparing a braise.
Large Dutch oven: This very useful piece of cookware has several aliases, including “casserole,” “French oven,” and even “stockpot.” No matter its name, a Dutch oven should be about twice as wide as it is tall, as a large surface area will allow for more food to be browned in a single batch. For most stewing and braising recipes, a 7- to 8-quart capacity is a good size. You may also use other cooking vessels for braising (such as a 12-inch skillet with a tight-fitting lid), but a Dutch oven’s capacity outweighs that of a any other braising pot or pan.
Wooden spoon: A wooden spoon is good for sautéing vegetables and scraping up browned bits from the bottom of the pot. It’s gentle enough to use on enamel-coated surfaces, if your Dutch oven happens to have one.
Tongs: Tongs are the tool of choice for turning meat or poultry during the browning stage. Avoid using a fork to flip over the pieces—the tines pierce holes in the flesh through which juices escape.
Apply these three steps when preparing a braise and you’ll turn out a tasty dish.
DRY INGREDIENTS AND BROWN IN BATCHES
Make sure to dry meat with paper towels so it can brown and season it lightly with salt and pepper. In a large pan or Dutch oven, you will be able to brown all the meat in two batches; if using a smaller vessel, divide the meat into three batches, making sure to leave room between each piece. Don’t let the brown specks (called fond) at the bottom of the pot burn. If you notice the fond starting to get too dark between batches, add a little water or broth to the pot, scrape up the fond, and then add this liquid to the bowl with the browned meat.
The pot should be covered with fond (those brown spots and specks). The goal is to build more flavor with sautéed aromatics, such as onion, carrots, celery, leek, and garlic. The aromatics should be cut quite fine so they melt into the sauce. Many recipes call for adding flavor-boosting ingredients like tomato paste at this point, and if you’re using flour to thicken the braise, it should be stirred into the sautéed aromatic vegetables before the liquid is added.
ADD LIQUID, COVER, AND COOK GENTLY
Using a minimal amount of liquid results in a sauce with more concentrated flavor and a more luxurious consistency. Gentle cooking helps break down the meat’s connective tissue and collagen, which lubricate and tenderize its fibers.
Start fine-tuning your braising skills at home with the recipes we prepared in class:
After perfecting the in-class recipes, continue practicing with these related recipes: