One of the things I like best about braising is that it reminds me of home, or, more to the point, of my mother’s cooking. When I smell the aroma of a rich vegetable braise simmering in the oven—something like my mother would make after a visit to our local farmers’ market—I’m back in my childhood, growing up in the French countryside. The beauty of a braise (my mother discovered this early on) is that it cooks itself while you do something else. Even better, when it’s done, it delivers unforgettably deep, rich flavor and meltingly tender texture.
You’re probably familiar with the technique of braising meat (think pot roast), but what you might not know is that braising—browning first, adding a cooking liquid, and then covering the pot and simmering— is also a great way to cook vegetables. As you’d guess, root vegetables take especially well to braising because they’re firm enough to hold their shape and texture without getting mushy. By browning the vegetables first, you get some of that sweet caramelized flavor that you do from sautéing. But then, by simmering the vegetables in a little bit of flavorful liquid, you get a deeper, richer flavor and a velvety texture.
One of my favorite pots for braising is an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. This type of pot is heavy enough to brown the vegetables nicely and provide even, constant heat, and its heavy lid provides a good seal when the vegetables go in the oven. For these recipes, which serve four, use a pot no larger than 9 inches in diameter so that the vegetables are snugly packed. You’ll get the most concentrated flavor that way.
The first step to a flavorful braise is browning aromatics like onions or shallots. You can use a variety of fats to do this. The recipes here call for butter, olive oil, pancetta, or a combination, but I also love using duck fat. Your next layer of flavor comes from adding the vegetables and browning them.
Just before the pot goes in the oven, add another layer of flavor—the braising liquid. The liquid can vary, too. I most often use broth, tomato juice, water, wine, or a combination. Add just enough to the pot to create steam during the covered portion of cooking. (Adding more would mean you’d have too much liquid at the end of cooking, and you’d have to boil it down.) Seasonings like a bouquet garni (a bundle of bay leaf, thyme, and parsley stems), citrus zest, and other herbs add flavor and aroma to the braising liquid. During braising, the vegetables give up their own liquid, which in turn infuses the braising liquid with more flavor. This is exactly what you’re looking for, and it’s what braising delivers so well: a delicious blend of layered flavors.