The Art of Braising - a Simple Cooking Technique with Huge Outcomes
What Is Braising?
Braising is a cooking technique in which the main ingredient is seared, or browned in fat, and then simmered in liquid on low heat in a covered pot. The best equipment to use would be a crock pot, pressure cooker or Dutch oven.
LeCrueset makes a range of enameled pots and pans that are good for either the stove or the oven. They work well too.
Whether you choose to use the oven or the top of the stove, you will be pleased with the results. Braising is often used as a way to cook less expensive, tough cuts of meat.
The end result is tender and flavorful. Other than great taste and economy, there are other reasons to cook this way.
After searing the meat, the remainder of the cooking time (until sauce/gravy preparation) does not require much attention. Once the heat is reduced, you can go about cooking other things, do some chores or take a break. This is also a plus when entertaining: you have more time for your guests.
Yet another plus of cooking with this method is that the meat tastes great and you also get delicious broth, sauce or gravy. It’s one pot cooking at it’s finest. There isn’t much to cleaning up and anything leftover can be reheated or frozen and reheated for later.
This method of cooking is great for tough cuts of meat but also works well with chicken, fish and/or vegetables. You can braise in a crock pot, pressure cooker, large saute pan or the most often used cooking vessel for braises, a Dutch oven.
Some popular dishes you may have heard of that use a braising technique are osso buco, pot roast, braised veal & lamb shanks and braised cabbage.
You can braise just about any meat, fish or vegetable you want and be as creative as you like with seasoning, but there are some ingredients that are better for braising and some you want to cook using other techniques like grilling or roasting.
9 Simple Steps to Great Braised Meat
There are 9 basic steps to braising meat:
1. Season the main ingredient with salt and pepper.
2. Heat a few tablespoons of oil and/or butter in a heavy pan or Dutch oven.
3. Saute meat or vegetables in the pan on medium-high heat until the meat browns.
4. Deglace the pan by pouring broth, beef stock, wine or juice and scrape any pieces of meat that are stuck to the pan and stir.
5. Add cooking liquid (water, stock, wine, juice or some combination) to the half-way point of the main ingredient.
6. Cover and place the meat on the middle of a rack in an oven that has been pre-heated to 300° - 350° Fahrenheit.
7. Cook until completely tender. This can range from 1 hour to 6 hours, depending on what you are cooking.
8. Remove the pan from the oven and strain the meat and vegetables out of the liquid.
9. Remove the excess fat floating in the liquid, and then reduce the sauce to desired thickness by cooking it down over low heat until it thickens. Or, make gravy by adding a mix of equal parts fat and flour (a roux).
The Science of Braising?
If you’re curious about how cooking in this fashion makes tough, leathery meat tender, it’s done by cooking the meat slow, moist and covered over low heat for a lengthy time. This process breaks down the tough connective tissue in meat to collagen.
Through time, the moisture and heat build and the collagen dissolves into gelatin. Heat also contracts and coils the muscle fibers.
Over time, these fibers expel moisture and the meat becomes dry. Given even more time, these fibers relax and absorb the melted fat and melted gelatin.
As for the vegetables, braising breaks down the cellulose in them and stretches the starches. The long and short of this is that everything becomes very tender.
Without getting to specific, the meat that we eat is muscle and made up of muscle fibers and connective tissue. The muscle fibers are the long thin strands we can actually see and think of as meat.
The connective tissue is the thin, translucent film that you sometimes ask the butcher to remove and helps hold the bundles of muscle fiber together. Connective tissue is made up of mostly collagen, a very strong protein that breaks down if enough heat is applied to it.
So braising meat is about breaking down tough connective tissue and changing it into collagen by applying moist heat for a period of time depending on what you are cooking. With more time and heat, the collagen breaks down and dissolves into gelatin.
It takes a temperature of about 140 degrees F. to break down the collagen into gelatin.
What happening to the muscle fiber while this connective tissue is breaking down (collagen is melting)? The fibers start to contract, coil and expel moisture.
In effect, the heat is drying out the meat like squeezing a sponge. As the process continues and the meat breaks down, you end up with very tender but very dry meat.
The good news is at some point, the muscle fibers have had enough and they begin to relax. When this happens, they begin to absorb back some of the moisture which just happens to be the melted fat and gelatin giving the meat a wonderful texture and flavor.
And don't forget you have all this wonderful liquid made up of melted fat, gelatin and whatever cooking liquid you started with.
And this is why braised meat tastes so incredible when cooked properly.
What Ingredients Are Best For Braising?
When it comes to meats, you want to stick with the tougher, less tender cuts that come from an animals more exercised muscles. These cuts tend to have more connective tissue that breaks down making the meat tender and flavorful.
A lean cut from the loin area is a waste to braise. The meat is already tender and has little fat or connective tissue.
Some good cuts of meat for braising include:
The best cuts of chicken, in my opinion, are the legs and thighs although lots of people like to raise a whole chicken. You also want to be sure to use chicken on the bone with skin so you get all the fat and connective tissue.
There's really no reason to braise boneless, skinless chicken breasts. You are better off sauteing or grill them.
Although you can braise just about any fish you like, I think large, firm fish are the way to go. Shark, swordfish are worthy of a braise but tender filets like tilapia or even cod will just fall apart on you. If you do braise a more tender cut like flounder, be sure to shorten the braising time.
Fruits & Vegetables
Again you want to stay with the hardier varieties. Squash, sweet potatoes, leeks, parsnips, carrots, beets, cabbage and onions are great braised alone or along with meat and chicken.
In the fall and winter, I like to braise meat with firm pears and apples but in the summer, I might braise chicken with pineapple.
Braised Vegetables - the science is the same expect the moist heat breaks down the vegetable's cellulose and expands its starches. The fibers soften giving the vegetables an incredible texture and flavor depending on the cooking liquid you are using.
When braising meats with vegetables, you may want to keep in mind that the vegetables will cook much quicker than the meat. You might want to wait until the last hour or two of cooking to add them so that they aren’t over cooked.