Common Braising Mistakes & How to Avoid Them
Braising is a moist heat cooking method that is very forgiving. Like I always say, “You could braise an old leather baseball glove in beef stock and it would taste good with enough time.”
A braise can be done on the stove-top or in the oven. Some of the most soul-satisfying and comforting dishes are produced by braising: pot roast, coq au vin, cassoulet, osso bucco, Beef Stroganoff, among many others.
Braised dishes bring to mind frosty winter days, and for good reason. In colder weather, fires were stoked all day long, allowing pots of tough meats and/or vegetables to be cooked in a little liquid for a very long period of time in the gentle heat at the edge of the hearth.
These pots were tightly lidded, ensuring that moisture and flavors were trapped in the pot instead of evaporated away. No other cooking method that I can think of can take a tough, almost inedible, piece of meat and turn it into a tender, warming bowl of goodness and love.
One of the best things about braising is the walk-away-and-forget-it-for-hours nature of the cooking method. You can put a braise on the stove or in the oven and then be about the rest of your day while dinner cooks merrily away.
Braising is a combination cooking method; combining the dry-heat method of searing with the moist heat of a long and gentle simmer in liquid. Braising is magic when it comes to tough pieces of meat with a lot of connective tissue.
The moist, slow heat allows that connective tissue to slowly melt, leaving tender meat and a gelatin-rich sauce. As almost foolproof a way to cook as braising is, there are some common mistakes. Let’s look at each mistake and learn how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: No Depth of Flavor
When you take a bite of pot roast or beef bourguignon, you expect it to have a very complex flavor. This time, you are disappointed. The flavor is a little thin and two-dimensional.
You think back over all the steps you took, and then you realize that you didn’t brown the meat first. You thought you’d save some time by just going straight into the liquid, but now your dish, while tasty enough, is lacking in the depth of flavor that is characteristic of braises.
You also realize that you used water for your braising liquid and wonder if that could be part of the problem as well.
The Fix, Part 1: Brown Your Meat
While you can get away without browning your meat to save a bit of time, technically braising is a combination cooking method: sear + covered simmer. So, it can be argued that, if you skip the sear, you aren’t truly braising.
Aside from that technicality, if you don’t brown the meat first, you are missing out on serious flavor. The chemical reactions that take place when meat browns, collectively referred to as the Maillard Reaction, create a layer of flavor that adds depth and hints of caramel to the meat.
This flavor base is then transferred to the simmer. To fully realize the flavor potential of the Maillard reaction, sear the meat all over and then deglaze your pan with a cold flavorful liquid, scraping up the browned bits (fond).
Then, use this liquid as part of your braising liquid. You will not be sorry that you did - what it takes up in time, it more than makes up for in flavor and “Wow Factor.”
The Fix, Part 2: Don’t Use Water for Braising
Water is known as the universal solvent. As such, water will certainly suffice to draw out flavors in the meat and break down the connective tissues.
Water has no unique flavor of its own. So, while it is possible to braise in water, it’s a much better idea to use a liquid that has a flavor of its own to bring to the party. If it weren’t so important, chefs wouldn’t spend literally hours (or have their cooks spend hours) making stock.
Braises are often aided by an acidic element in the liquid, so good choices are wine, tomato juice, beef or chicken stock, beer or any harmonious combination of two or more of these liquids. I generally advise balancing wine or beer with a stock to keep the flavors well rounded.
Back to the boring pot roast: Wouldn’t it have tasted so much better if you braised in beef stock and wine? Or stock and tomato juice?
Or even stock and cream of mushroom soup? A braise is supposed to be complex, so never pass up an opportunity to add extra flavor!
Mistake #2: I Can’t Even Bite Into This!
You spent top dollar for tenderloin at the Fresh Market. “What a great meat to make beef bourguignon,” you thought.
Now, it’s four hours later, it smells heavenly, but you can barely cut into the meat. Congratulations, you have managed to turn one of the most tender cuts of beef in the world into an inedible, gray puck.
The Fix: Use the Right Cut of Meat
Save your expensive, tender cuts of meat for a quick sauté, grill or a roast. The beauty of a braise is that you can take the cheapest, toughest and grisliest cuts of meat and, with low, slow, moist cooking, transform them into achingly tender and flavorful fare.
This is the true genius of the French - taking the “trash” and turning it into gold. What other culture could take organ meats and elevate them so they are de rigueur at State Dinners?
But that’s another book. Good idea - Kitchen Trash to Culinary Treasure. The cuts of meat you want for braising are tough old hens (if you can find any), lamb or veal shanks, oxtail, short ribs, blade or chuck roasts and brisket.
Mistake #3a: I’m Using the Right Cut, but the Meat is Still Tough
You’ve browned your meat, you’re using the right cut and flavorful liquid, and your meat is still tough. It’s four hours later. It smells good, but the meat is still gristly.
Mistake #3b: My Braising Liquid is Gone!
You’ve browned your meat, you’re using the right cut and flavorful liquid. It’s four hours later, you open the lid, and your liquid is gone. All that’s left is scorched goo on the bottom of the pan where the liquid used to be.
The Fix: Braise at the Right Temperature
Poaching is another moist heat cooking method that you might confuse with braising. Poaching is best used for tender, delicate foods, such as eggs, tender fruits, fish fillets or chicken breasts.
The idea behind poaching is that it is almost impossible to overcook the delicate food because the temperature of your cooking liquid, ideally, should never exceed 185°F. With poaching, the cooking liquid might be bubbling gently around the edges of the pan, but there should be no bubbles breaking the surface.
You should just see gentle convection—herbs or spices slowly rising and falling in the hot liquid. This sounds great, and it works brilliantly for delicate foods.
Unfortunately, the ideal food for braising is far from delicate. The collagen in tough cuts of meat will not break down into luscious gelatin until it reaches around 205°F.
Hence, the temperature of your braising liquid should be at least that. You can braise on the stove-top on low heat—the liquid should be at a gentle simmer. In the oven, set the temperature for 250-300°F.
It will take longer to braise at these lower temperatures, but the trick is, if you heat up the proteins in the meat too quickly, they will coagulate quickly and seize up, squeezing out all the moisture and gelatin.
It is best to reach the proper temperature slowly, allowing the meat to “ease into the braise.” In this way, the proteins will coagulate slowly, allowing the collagen to dissolve gently into gelatin.
Just as trying to braise at too low a temperature will not go well, trying to braise at too high a temperature has its own set of problems. Braising at 350 degrees or higher means that your braising liquid boils fairly rapidly.
Not only will the meat proteins seize up and dry out in this harsh environment, but you run the risk of all of your liquid evaporating. Braising at the correct temperature with a tight-fitting lid will help guard against this.
One last note: it is imperative that you cool your braises in the cooking liquid. If you remove your delicious, moist braised meat from the braising liquid right after you take it out of the oven/off the stove and then put it in the refrigerator, I guarantee that you will end up with tough, gray meat once it has cooled.
The reason for this is that all of the moisture and gelatin that you have coaxed out of the meat are now in the braising liquid. If you let the meat and liquid cool together, some of that moisture and gelatin will find its way back into the meat.
If you cool the meat without the liquid, the moisture and gelatin will never find their way back into the meat. Once the meat has cooled in the liquid, you can separate them. If you’ve cooled the meat alone,though…well, you’ve been warned.