I LOVE all things braised — the meats melt in your mouth, and are so tender juicy and the flavor is incomparable. Molly Stevens, author of “All About Braising” (my go-to bible for this technique), says it’s what she does when she doesn’t want to cook! Put a few things together in a pot, into the oven for a few hours, and “Viola!” It’s dinner!
So what is this technique all about? Braising is the process of cooking with a small amount of liquid, typically some sort of acid, in a tightly covered pot. It may be quick or slow, brown or white.
quick- vs. slow-braising
There are two types of braising: slow-braising is most common, used for tough cuts of meat, benefiting from the long, slow cooking time. You may quick-braise more delicate foods, like fish, chicken breasts, fruits or vegetables. These foods have little to no connective tissue to break down, so no need for a lengthy period. Quick-braising makes the most sense being done on the cooktop, as it needs attention more frequently.
Slow-braising can be done in the oven, on top of the stove, in a slow cooker, or in a pressure cooker.
In a nutshell, here’s how it works:
Your meat choice contains muscle protein, collagen and connective tissue, fat, and water. The braising process uses heat and a moisture bath to change the properties of collagen and connective tissue to provide a fork-tender succulent entrée from what started as an inexpensive piece of meat.
As muscle proteins raise in temperature, things change. At 120°F the protein begins to shrink and firm up. It continues to firm as the temperature rises. As protein firms, it begins to squeeze out water, like wringing out a towel — too much water loss and your meat is dry. Muscle protein becomes completely firm at 170°F – we would normally call that OVERDONE because the protein fibers are very firm and have squeezed out too much water! But… This is usually a challenge, unless you are braising! The gentle simmer, 185-200°F, in the moist environment of the closed braising pot, bathes the meat in yumm-worthy juices. And the long cooking time involved breaks down the other proteins in the pot — collagen and connective tissue.
Braising is nearly idiot-proof. But patience is the key, don’t try to rush a recipe by turning up the heat; the meat will be tough and the flavors will fail to develop. Braising is also the ultimate plan ahead technique. Recipes can be made in advance; the flavor will only improve.
brown vs. white braising
This differentiation is simple! Has anything been browned, or not! In brown braising the item is first sautéed or seared to brown the outside. After the meat has browned, but not fully cooked through, liquid is added to partially cover, the heat is lowered, the pan is covered, and the cooking continued.
In white braising, there is NO browning of ingredients. There is sometimes a “sweating” of the vegetables (cooking vegetables until moisture is released, softening but not browning them). White braising is usually used for fish, sometimes for chicken and veal.
quick- vs. slow-braising
Slow-braising is generally used for less tender, cheaper cuts of meat. These cuts come from the working muscles of the animal, think pork shoulder or butt, beef round, beef stew meat, chicken thighs, turkey thighs. The harder a muscle works, the tougher the meat, but the more connective tissue and collagen present. Collagen and connective tissue are essential in producing tender, melt-in-your-mouth final results.
Whether you are brown or white braising, quick or slow, the braising liquid should always include an acid, such as vinegar, wine, or lemon juice, which helps to tenderize and break down connective tissue. Other ingredients are added for flavor.
rules of braising:
- Use less tender, less expensive cuts of meat. These have more connective tissue and collagen.
- Sweat the mirepoix, brown the meat if desired. Follow rules for sauté to brown the meat.
- Use only enough liquid it come up half to three-quarters on the meat.
- Acid is a vital ingredient in the braising liquid, as it helps to breakdown the proteins and tenderize connective tissue.
- The pot should be sized according to the piece of meat, to allow for very little “head space.”
- Braising is always accomplished COVERED, with the lid or foil as close to the surface of the meat as possible, to prevent moisture loss and to build up a slight pressure, forcing the liquid into the meat.
- DO NOT allow the braising liquid to get too hot. Braising liquid should be maintained at 185-200°F, far below the boiling point.
- Cook long enough to allow the meat to come to the proper temperature – 200-210°F.
- Allow the meat to stand 10 minutes before serving.
What do you want to braise? Here are a few ideas: