A dear friend and fellow blogger, Tasha from an Imperfect Girl, stopped by the other night and I immediately dragged her into the kitchen to taste the sauce from the braised short ribs I had made. She thought it was delicious and was interested in how I made it. I started rambling and she suggested I write about it, (hmmm excellent play my friend). Since I have less time lately to develop recipes I thought it was a great way to still share what happens in my kitchen. So here it is, a post lovingly dedicated to the art and science of the braise.
Braising involves a few cooking principles, (and a good pot), to break down the connective tissue of tougher meats and to impart massive flavour. Crock pot/slow cooking is probably the most familiar form but Moroccan Tagines and Pressure Cooking are based on the same ideas. I’m going to focus on braising in a Dutch oven. I think it’s underutilized as a cooking technique and one that can create meals that are pure magic.
Using a good Dutch oven is key, the lid seals in the moisture and the thick walls maintain and conduct the heat to properly braise in the oven. In my cooking fantasies, (yes I truly do day dream about cooking), this means the beautiful colours of Le Cresuet. They are the pinnacle of kitchenware but their braising pan alone runs between $300-400. Since I have a much humbler budget, I have happily settled for the vintage one I scored and the Kirkland version my stepmom got me at Costco. The reason these pots rock is the enameled cast iron which doesn’t have the drawbacks of traditional cast iron. They are both super conductive but non-enameled cast iron can rust, requires a long process of seasoning and can impart a metallic flavour especially if you cook acidic foods like tomatoes. Plus, you get this gorgeous looking dish that happily sits on your table burbling its contents lovingly.
What to Braise
Meats that will be the most successful for braising are the parts of the body that get the most exercise or have the most connective tissue. These are cuts like short ribs, shanks, briskets, and the legs and thighs of a chicken. I’m sure you could braise a fish, they are terribly active…
Browning the Meat
Braising starts with browning the meat you are going to cook. Technically it’s called the Maillard reaction and in my food chemistry class I actually learned to draw the equation. For non-dorky people, brown food tastes better and it makes sugars and amino acids into something new and more flavourful. Plus the crusty lovely bits that get stuck to the bottom of the pan make the sauce more delicious. Start with getting the pan nice and hot on the stove top and add a generous splash of a good oil with a high smoke point such as canola or grapeseed. Season your meat generously with salt and pepper and optionally dredge in flour (for discussion on why click here). Don’t crowd the pot or your meat will steam instead of browning which is just kinda gross. Give it lots of room and allow it to naturally release rather than scraping your meat from the bottom. It will let go on its own most of the time and will be much happier for your hands off approach. Don’t worry if some sticks, this will just help flavour your dish. Remove the meat and move onto the vegetable portion.
The base of the most flavourful sauces is mirepoix, (I love a good cooking term to feel all smart and stuff), which is generally a combination of onion, celery and carrot. It took me years to realize just how critical these veggies, (hmmm they’re called aromatics), truly are. They add another level of flavour to sauces and I will never leave them out again. The general ratio is 2:1:1 of onions to carrot and celery. You can however play a little with what you use. I’ve used leeks in place of onion and Spanish and Latin cooking often replaces the carrot with red bell pepper. Garlic is added after the vegetables have cooked for a bit because of its tendency to easily burn and taste bitter. I like to add a chopped tomato once all the other vegetables are ready. It adds acidity and I never remember to buy the tomato paste that some recipes call for. The vegetables are added to the pan once the meat has been removed and the pot has another splash of oil added. They are caringly sauteed, developing more of that lovely golden brown colour. The next step is building your braising liquid which will eventually serve as your sauce. Usually recipes call for the vegetables to be strained out at the end and the sauce reduced further. I leave mine in (rebel yell!), I like vegetables in what I eat and I find the sauce and veggies alone can still be an amazing meal over pasta or on potatoes.
The addition of flour to thicken the final sauce can be a little controversial, (seriously people get upset about these things). Chefs and foodies may argue that reducing is the only true way to thicken a sauce. For the home cook I think flour is perfectly acceptable. However, if I’m paying thirty bucks for a plate of short ribs they damn well better have reduced that sauce on its own. I add a rough tbsp of flour with the tomato so that the juice from the vegetables helps to cook the flour before adding the liquids.
What you braise your food in imparts flavour and helps break down the meat. Typically this means a combination of stock and wine (for acid) with some lovely herbs and spices floating around for flavour. Rosemary, Oregano, Thyme, a Bay leaf, plus some peppercorns are my go to. Most recipes recommend a bouquet garni, which means tying a bundle of herbs with string or wrapping them in cheese cloth so they can be removed. However, if you’re like me and can’t find the string and never buy cheese cloth I haven’t found it’s that big of a deal to pick them out. Once the flour has had a chance to cook for a minute or two return your meat to the pot and add your wine and stock. The meat should not be fully covered; instead it should be poking out of the top, about 2/3rds immersed. I use about half a bottle of wine and a tetra pack (just under a litre) of chicken or beef stock depending on what I’m cooking.
Cooking Time and Temperature
Most recipes I’ve seen call for a 350F oven so that’s what I stick with. However, cooking time varies depending on what you are cooking and its size. Chicken is quicker, usually 1.5 to 3 hours whereas beef needs from 2.5 to 5 hours for a large cut. This is not really a weeknight, just got home from work meal. Think of it as the perfect fall/winter meal. Where the aromas of what you are slowly cooking fill the air with deliciousness and dinner itself feels like the best mom hug ever.
Here are two braising recipes I love. Both served as the starting point for stunning suppers. I served the chicken over egg noddles and the short ribs over garlic mashed potatoes with sautéed Kale.
Melissa d’Arabian’s Chicken in Mustard
Bon Appetit’s Braised Red Wine Short Ribs
Both serve as an awesome starting place and I promise will make a meal that your family will fall in love with. If you ever need to apologize to your spouse or have in-laws to win over I strongly suggest the short ribs.
As always fill me in on what you think about my post, cooking, braising or anything really.
References: Because I’m not superwoman and you might wanna read more