Braising Can Take the Chill Out of Winter
By: Mark R. Vogel
I am not a winter person. But I must admit, there's nothing like a hearty winter meal followed by a good brandy or a hot cup of tea in front of the fireplace.
Historically man consumed rich and robust fare in winter to counter the cold and add some thermal padding. Culinary anthropology aside, I simply love spending a cold winter Saturday or Sunday preparing soul warming fare that fills the house with its embracing aroma.
It starts with a technique called braising. Braising refers to cooking food, often meat with vegetables, in a relatively small amount of liquid, at low heat for an extended period of time. If you cover the food completely with liquid it is then known as stewing.
The cuts of meat most suitable for braising are ones that are tough, (frequently used muscles), are attached to the bone, and have at least moderate amounts of fat. The best choices include the shank, chuck, brisket, and short ribs. Cuts from the round are tough and can be braised but their fat content is too low to produce the same quality.
Well exercised muscles contain more connective tissue which serves to hold the muscle fibers together. Surrounding the connective tissue is a protein called collagen.
Time, heat, and moisture breaks down the collagen into gelatin, the substance that brings body to stocks and decadently lavishes your palate.
However, as the proteins in muscle tissue cook, they tighten and squeeze out their moisture. This actually reduces their tenderness. However, the gelatin, as well as the fat in the meat, more than compensate for this loss of succulence.
A tender cut of meat with low fat, such as from the loin, would taste terrible if braised. It would lose all it's tenderness with little gelatin and fat to take up the slack.
Thus, braising can turn a tough piece of meat into a tender, fall off the bone, comfort food. I can think of no better example than the classic dish osso buco, made from veal shanks.
How to Braise Veal Shanks
- Season the shanks with salt and pepper and brown them in a large skillet with the olive oil, for about 5 minutes on each side.
- Place the shanks in a large ovenproof casserole dish with a tight fitting lid.
- In the same skillet you browned the shanks, sauté the vegetables for about 3-4 minutes adding more olive oil if necessary.
- Add the garlic and tomato paste and sauté for a few minutes more, being careful not to burn the paste or the garlic.
- Add the stock, wine, and herbs and bring to a boil.
- Pour everything over the shanks and place the casserole dish in a preheated 350° F oven for 1 hour and 45 minutes.
- Add salt and pepper to taste at the end.