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How-To

Braising Meat So It's Meltingly Tender

Follow this flexible, step-by-step method for fall-apart-tender meat with its own rich sauce

Fine Cooking Issue 49
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I grew up eating my mother’s chicken cacciatore, meatballs in sauce, and beef stew. These dishes, like many home classics, are all braised. Of course, I didn’t think about that when I was a kid, or even when I began cooking in restaurants in the 1980s. Braising was out of style then. Fast cooking methods like grilling, juicing, frizzling, and fusing were getting all the attention. Modern haute cuisine had no place for gentle simmers, slow roasts, or other traditional relaxed cooking techniques.

Oh yeah?

I first realized how much I was missing by ignoring braising, the most grand of the old techniques, soon after I became the chef at Mondrian in New York City. I was working on creating a dish that built layers of texture and deep flavor. I wanted subtlety, not flash.

I wanted to cook a whole baby lamb. I knew immediately that I would roast the legs, loin, and rack. But I was initially at a loss as to what to do with the remaining tougher cuts of the animal. Then it struck me—the shanks and shoulders would be perfect braised. I served the roasted rack and the slowly simmered shanks together with a sauce made from the braising liquid. The dish was a hit, but more important, I had rediscovered braising. In menu after menu, first at Mondrian, then at Gramercy Tavern, and now at Craft, I seek meltingly tender renditions of once-overlooked cuts of meat like pork shoulder, lamb shanks, and beef ribs. These days, I’m so complete a devotee that I’ve created a special section of the menu just for braised meats.

What exactly is a braise?

Braising is a method of cooking meats (or fish or vegetables) surrounded by a flavorful broth so the-muscle (or vegetable fiber) becomes succulent and tender.

In this article, I’m focusing on what’s called brown braising: The meat is browned before it’s simmered in broth. As the broth simmers, it exchanges flavors with the meat. The broth also reduces and thickens slightly, a process that transforms it into a richly flavored, satisfying sauce.

Braising is a technique found in almost every cuisine. The basic method and meat cuts don’t vary too much across borders. What does change is the cook’s choice of aromatic vegetables, cooking liquids, and finishing garnishes.

The toughest cuts become the most tender when braised

A good braise begins by choosing the right cut of meat. I always reach for the tough but flavorful working parts of an animal. In four-legged animals, this means legs, shoulders, ribs, and even tails. In birds, it means thighs, legs, and wings. These cuts contain soft protein and fat, just as lean, tender meats do, but they also have sinew and connective tissue. This tissue contains collagen, which must cook to about 200°F before it will soften. When you braise meat in a gently simmering liquid, the collagen melts into gelatin, which then bastes the meat to produce a forkably tender result. Braising would ruin a lean, naturally tender sirloin, but it’s perfect for tough, collagen-rich cuts like lamb shanks, beef short ribs, pork shoulder, and chicken legs. Cooking tough cuts slowly not only makes them tender but also makes them taste better. The longer you expose protein to heat, the more flavor you can produce. It takes two to three hours in simmering liquid for a lamb shank to reach an internal temperature of 200°F, all the better for deep flavor.

One pan will do—a Dutch oven is perfect

Pick a pan that will hold the meat and vegetables snugly. Yes, I said snugly. When you brown meat or sauté vegetables, the food needs lots of room in the pan so it sears instead of steams. But when you’re braising, you want as little extra space as possible. A tight fit keeps the cooking nice and slow and regulates the reduction of the cooking liquid. The pan should also have fairly high sides so it can hold enough liquid to surround (though not submerge) the meat. At home, I like to braise in a large, deep cast-iron skillet. A Dutch oven or deep casserole will also work well.

For looks and flavor, don’t rush the browning

Brown braises always start by searing the meat in fat until it’s nicely browned on all sides. Unfortunately, this essential step is often rushed. You should always:

• Brown in small batches. You’ll sear the meat in the same snug pot or pan that you’re going to braise it in, but as I’ve just explained, crowding the pan during this first step would inhibit good browning.So be sure to give the meat the room it needs by browning in batches.

• Use medium or medium-high heat. Choose the heat according to what else you’re doing in the kitchen. Medium gives a slightly deeper caramelization and therefore a somewhat more richly flavored sauce. Medium high (never high) saves time but requires more attention to prevent burning.

• Have patience. Browning the meat will take 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces of-meat-and the size of your pan. This is definitely the aspect of braising that requires the most attention, but the payoff for doing it right is a deeply flavored sauce.

Sauté a flavor base of onions, carrots, and-celery

Once you’ve browned the meat, remove it from the pan so you can cook the aromatic vegetables, which are usually onions or leeks, carrots, and celery. Some braises call for the vegetables to cook until they’ve softened but haven’t browned, which is called sweating, and others might require you to brown them. Either way is fine, but make sure that the vegetables have softened fully and released all of their sweet juices into the pan. These juices add another layer of flavor to the final dish.

At this point, you can push the braise in whatever direction you want with the addition of more flavors. The field is wide open here, but the chart below will give you some ideas. Ingredients like herbs, spices, peppers, citrus, mushrooms, tomatoes, and garlic are all excellent choices.

Pick a liquid you like—it’s the backbone of your final sauce

You’ve also got some flexibility with the cooking liquid. It can be water or stock or tomato sauce, or a combination. Sometimes I use wine or vinegar as part of the cooking liquid, but I really consider these more as flavor boosters than as braising mediums (which is why they’re in the flavorings column in the chart). When I do use wine or vinegar, I like to reduce them somewhat before adding other liquids.

You need to add enough liquid to surround but not submerge the meat—it should just barely skim the meat’s surface. The liquid will reduce as you braise, concentrating the flavor of the sauce and letting the meat cook without poaching.

Braise in the oven or on the stovetop.

The goal is to allow the liquid to simmer slowly; don’t let it creep to a boil or the meat will cook too rapidly and dry out before it gets fully tender. In the oven, 350°F usually gives a nice simmer. On the stovetop, medium heat is usually about right. I prefer the oven for most braises. First, it frees the top of the stove for other projects. Second, I like to braise uncovered. This is a little unconventional, but I find it works very well. Covering the pan cooks the meat with steam, which speeds the process but produces less flavorful meat and sauce. Uncovered oven braising also allows the exposed meat to roast and brown. It does mean that you should turn the meat occasionally during cooking to ensure even browning and moist meat.

The liquid should bubble gently. If it’s too active, turn down the heat, and if it’s too quiet, turn it up. Also, use the opportunity to baste the meat and, if it looks like it’s getting dry, turn it. Braising doesn’t require constant supervision, but the best braise is the result of continued awareness.

The meat is done when it’s tender enough to cut with a fork and begins to pull away from the bone. Let the broth cool to room temperature and then remove the meat from the pan. You’ll need to defat the sauce, easily done with a gravy separator. If you don’t have one, skim off the fat with a spoon. At work, I strain the sauce for a more refined look, but at home, straining isn’t so critical (but do remove any herb stems, bay leaves, or other inedibles). An unstrained sauce will have a relaxed, rustic texture. Either way, reduce the liquid enough so that it’s a little viscous, transforming it from a broth to a sauce.

Braises are even better the next day

You can serve the braise right away, but I usually make it a day ahead. Be sure to refrigerate the meat in the sauce so it absorbs more flavor and doesn’t dry out. Freezing the braise is also an option.

When I’m ready to serve the dish, I warm the meat in the sauce, basting it frequently, and let the sauce reduce some more—enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. You can serve the braise as it is or add more garnishing vegetables, herbs, or other ingredients to give a fresh lift to the flavor. I might stir in nicely cut versions of the same vegetables that I cooked with the meat, or I might decide to layer in flavor with a more involved garnish, such as braised artichokes or roasted tomatoes.

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