The Art of Braising - a Simple Cooking Technique with Huge Outcomes
Let's look at the 9 essential steps to braising anything and then at the braising technique in more detail.
9 Simple Steps to Great Braised Meat
There are nine 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. Deglaze the pan by pouring broth, beef stock, wine, or juice, scrape any pieces of meat stuck to the pan, and stir.
5. Add cooking liquid (water, stock, wine, juice, or some combination) to the halfway point of the main ingredient.
6. Cover and place the meat on the middle of a rack in an oven preheated oven to 300° - 350° Fahrenheit.
7. Cook until completely tender. This can range from 1 to 6 hours, depending on your cooking.
8. Remove the pan from the oven and strain the meat and vegetables from the liquid.
9. Remove the excess fat floating in the liquid, and then reduce the sauce to the 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).
What Is Braising?
Braising is a cooking method that involves first searing the food at a high temperature, then slowly cooking it in liquid over low heat. This method is often used for tougher cuts of meat, as the long cooking time helps to break down the connective tissue and make the meat tender and flavorful.
Braising can be done on the stovetop or in the oven, and the type of liquid used can vary depending on the recipe and the desired flavor.
The first step in braising is to sear the food. This is typically done by heating a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, then adding a small amount of oil or fat. Once the oil is hot, the food is added to the pot and allowed to cook until a nice brown crust develops. This step helps lock in the moisture and flavors of the food and creates a flavorful base for the braising liquid.
After searing, the food is removed from the pot and set aside. The pot is then deglazed by adding a liquid, such as wine or broth, and scraping the bottom to loosen any bits of food that may have stuck to the bottom. This creates a flavorful base for the braising liquid, which is added to the pot along with any vegetables or other ingredients.
The food is then returned to the pot, which is covered and placed in the oven or on the stovetop. The braising liquid should come about halfway up the side of the food and be heated until it comes to a simmer. The pot is then covered and allowed to cook slowly over low heat for several hours until the food is tender and easily falls apart.
Makes Its Own Sauce
During the braising process, the liquid in the pot will reduce and thicken, creating a rich and flavorful sauce. This sauce can be served with braised food or used to make gravy or other sauce to serve with the dish.
One of the benefits of braising is that it allows the cook to use tougher, less expensive cuts of meat. These cuts typically have a lot of connective tissue, making them tough and chewy if cooked using a different method. However, the long, slow cooking process of braising breaks down this connective tissue, making the meat tender and flavorful.
Another benefit of braising is that it is a versatile cooking method that can be used with various ingredients. In addition to meat, braising can be used to cook vegetables, fish, and even fruits. The type of liquid used in the braising process can also be varied to create different flavors, such as using the broth for a savory dish or cider for a sweet and tangy flavor.
Overall, braising is a simple but effective cooking method that can be used to create tender and flavorful dishes. By searing the food and slowly cooking it in liquid over low heat, braising allows the cook to create dishes with rich, complex flavors that will impress.
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 its finest. There is little to clean up; anything leftover can be reheated or frozen and reheated for later.
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 braising techniques 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 some ingredients are better for braising, and some you want to cook using other techniques like grilling or roasting.
The Science of Braising?
If you're curious about how cooking in this fashion makes tough, the leathery meat tender is done by simmering the meat moistly and covering it over low heat for a lengthy time. This process breaks down the tough connective tissue in meat to collagen.
The moisture and heat build through time, 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. After more time, these fibers relax and absorb the melted fat and 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 too specific, the meat we eat is a muscle made up of muscle fibers and connective tissue. The muscle fibers are the long thin strands we can 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 mostly collagen, a potent protein that breaks down with enough heat.
So braising meat is about breaking down tough connective tissue and changing it into collagen by applying moist heat for some 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 happens to the muscle fiber while this connective tissue breaks down (collagen is melting)? The fibers start to contract, coil, and expel moisture.
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 dry meat.
The good news is that the muscle fibers have had enough at some point and begin to relax. When this happens, they absorb back some moisture, the melted fat, and gelatin, giving the meat a wonderful texture and flavor.
And remember, 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 appropriately cooked.
What Ingredients Are Best For Braising?
You want to stick with the tougher, less tender cuts from an animal's more exercised muscles when it comes to meats. 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 are the legs and thighs, although many people like to raise a whole chicken. You also want to use chicken on the bone with skin so you get all the fat and connective tissue.
There's no reason to braise boneless, skinless chicken breasts. You are better off sauteing or grilling them.
Although you can braise about any fish you like, large, firm fish is the way to go. Sharks and swordfish are worthy of a braise, but tender filets like tilapia or cod will 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 with meat and chicken.
I like to braise meat with firm pears and apples in the fall and winter, but I might braise chicken with pineapple in the summer.
Braised Vegetables - the science is the same, except the moist heat breaks down the vegetable's cellulose and expands its starches. As a result, the fibers soften, giving the vegetables an incredible texture and flavor depending on your cooking liquid.
When braising meats with vegetables, you may want to remember that the vegetables will cook much quicker than the meat. Therefore, you should wait until the last hour or two of cooking to add them so they aren't overcooked.
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