I learned to cook in France during the German occupation, a time when food and gas shortages forced many households to return to cooking on the hearth. On the rare occasion when my mother made beef stew, she used a thick old copper pot called a braisière (or brazier), which sported two lids, one deep and concave, the second more decorative. She filled the pot with seared meat, aromatics, stock, and wine, and fitted the concave lid inside so it rested just a hair above the ingredients in the pot. The pot was then nestled into a bank of smoldering coals, known as braises, and the concave lid was filled with more coals (later on, when we had a gas stove, we filled the lid with boiling water). Then the second lid was set on top.
In the moist atmosphere of the brazier, the seared meat would soon lose its inner juices to the stock and wine. But as the cooking continued, the meat juices, stock, and wine slowly penetrated back into the fibers of the meat. Beef that had been so braised always had a shiny and very moist appearance when sliced.
When I started to cook in my own home in the U.S., my attempts to produce such a rich braise were frustrating: I got tough, stringy meat and a thin, watery sauce. I finally figured out that the only way to get a good braise was to modify my modern stewing pot to make it act more like the old brazier of my childhood. To do this, you need the following items:
A heavy so-called stewing pot or cocotte, made of enameled cast iron, heavy stainless steel, or another heavy nonreactive metal. What is important is the heavy material, not the shape of the pot, which can be round, oval, or oblong. This recipe serves a crowd, so if the pot isn’t at least 7 quarts, divide the braise between two smaller pots.
Heavy-duty aluminum foil to make an inverted lid for the pot (see the photos below for how-tos). If you don’t have heavy-duty foil, use two sheets of regular foil. While the braising takes place in a 325°F oven, the upside-down foil lid will catch any condensation that might squeeze between the pot sides and the foil, thus preventing it from diluting your good sauce.
Parchment cut to fit inside the braising pot. The parchment will be set directly on the surface of the braise, below the aluminum foil, and will prevent the acid in the wine from reacting with the foil.