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The Amazing Braise

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The Amazing Braise

Of all the time-tested techniques in a home cook’s arsenal, none is quite as magical as the braise. Rooted in the word for a fire’s dying embers, a braise is a simple and primally comforting way to transform inexpensive seasonal ingredients into a deeply satisfying meal. Braising fills the house with an aromatic promise of hearty comfort. And best of all, it’s a way of cooking that requires almost no effort from the cook.

Braising for beginners

When you think of cold-season comfort foods with timeless appeal and classic flavour, most of them are braises: beef stew, pot roast, chicken cacciatore, coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon. There’s just something about these slow-simmered dishes that we can’t resist. What is it? How does braising turn the cheapest cuts of meat and the humblest of vegetables into such meltingly delicious dishes?

Low, moist heat

Braising means cooking in liquid at a low temperature, in a moist environment. It’s like poaching, except that we speak of braising tougher foods and of poaching more tender ones. Braising is a longer process, while poaching tends to be quick. And you almost always use a lid for braising, to keep liquid from evaporating too quickly. The cuts of meat best suited for braising are quite tough when cooked quickly, because they have a lot of connective tissue in them: beef chuck, pork shoulder, lamb or veal shanks. These are among the best bargains in the butcher aisle. The low, slow heat of braising melts the collagen in this connective tissue into gelatin, which gives the braising liquid luscious body. The ideal temperature for braising is 300 to 325°F. Higher temperatures than this can cause meat to toughen. A cast iron Dutch oven is ideal for braising, but any large, heavy pot with a lid will do.

Layered flavour

The first step in a braised meat dish is to sear the meat on all sides. This important initial step builds a foundation of flavour by using high heat to break down some of the protein strands on the meat’s surface, and mix them with natural sugars in the meat. This chemical process is called the Maillard reaction. Taking a few extra minutes to patiently brown your meat is crucial. A second layer of flavour comes from lightly browning vegetables as well. Remove the meat from the pot before adding onion, leek, garlic, shallot, celery, carrot, turnip, potato, parsnip… Any combination of these will add a layer of sweet earthiness to the final dish. Allow them to soften and caramelize slightly before adding your braising liquid.

Stock options

Water makes a perfectly good (if neutral) braising liquid. A slightly better option is veal, chicken, or beef stock, or a mix of stock and wine, but almost any liquid will do very well. The classic Carbonnade à la flamande is a beef stew that’s braised in beer. Maiale al latte is a succulent Italian dish of pork braised in milk. ‘Redeye’ lamb shanks are braised in stock and coffee. The Tuscans braise cannellini beans in rainwater. There are recipes for pulled pork that use ginger ale or cola as braising liquids. In general, you need enough liquid to half-submerge the meat. Bring it to a simmer, add the meat back to the pot, and here you have a basic braise. Add some herbs, season with salt and pepper, and it’s ready for the oven.

The luxury of time

Three and a half pounds of meat should braise for about three and a half hours. Less than this, and the collagen in the connective tissue may not have time to break down completely.

The longer you braise, the more things break down – onions can disappear completely into the sauce, and meat will eventually fall right off the bones, if there are any. You’ll find recipes for legs of lamb braised for seven hours, and pork belly braised for twelve. Aside from checking the level of braising liquid from time to time (it does evaporate, even with a lid), once it’s in the oven there’s really nothing left to do except to set the table in a leisurely manner, catch a quick nap, and watch how naturally the smell from the kitchen draws everyone together for dinner.

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