I’m a huge fan of braising. This simple cooking technique makes a great winter meal because it favors hearty foods naturally available in the winter like root vegetables and warmer, richer flavors. It’s also a great way to cook a tough or less expensive piece of meat.
The braising technique relies on cooking over low heat (usually either on the stovetop or in the oven – although sometimes in a crockpot) in a sealed container with moisture. Braising works really well for tough cuts of beef such as stew meat, chuck roast, game meats, or pot roast.
When you braise, you break down the collagen in the meat and the fat melts through it, making it more tender and flavorful. While many people think braises are stringy, they don’t have to be. Coq au Vin is a braise, as is Osso Bucco, and Boeuf Bourguignon. If you use enough moisture and select the right cut of meat, your braise will be fork tender and not at all stringy.
Here’s what I really like about braising: it allows you to develop flavors, and if you know how to do it you can create any number of dishes simply and easily.
Ready to create a braise? The steps are simple.
- Select your meat. Don’t use an expensive, naturally tender cut like a rib-eye or filet mignon. This method does not work well for those meats. Instead, choose something that is less tender and, frankly, cheaper. I like chuck roast, bottom round, and brisket. You can choose similar cuts of pork, as well.
- Select your aromatics and herbs. What flavors would you like in your braise? I recommend starting out with a basic mirepoix – a dice of one carrot, one celery stalk and one half onion. To that you can add just about any herb. Some of my favorites with beef are garlic, thyme, rosemary or tarragon.
- Select any vegetables you might like. Beyond the basic mirepoix, would you like carrot chunks, parsnips, tomatoes, mushrooms, or others? Root vegetables work well in braises.
- Select your braising liquid. I usually use about half chicken stock and half wine or beer. Other add ins to braising liquid may include citrus or other juices (I once braised a pork roast in pomegranate and orange juices with chicken stock and some cayenne. It was fantastic!), or a hard liquor such as whiskey or rum (use sparingly.) You can also use something acidic, such as vinegar, but balance it with stock.
Once you have your basic flavors, make your braise.
- Season your meat with salt and pepper.
- In a large pot, use some kind of fat (I’m a fan of cooking a little bacon to toss into the braise for flavor and searing the meat in the bacon fat) to sear the meat on all sides. Leave the meat in contact with the pan to caramelize it for several minutes on each side before moving it.
- Remove the meat from the pot and set it aside.
- Using the same oil, add your aromatics (except garlic). Allow them contact with the hot pan for several minutes without stirring in order to caramelize and add more flavor. Stir and brown aromatics. If you are adding garlic, toss it in for the last 30 seconds in this step, just until it releases its scent.
- For more flavor, add a tablespoon of tomato paste if you want and allow it to brown with the aromatics. This will deepen the flavor without giving it a tomato taste.
- Leave the aromatics in the pot and add a few tablespoons of flour. The flour will thicken your final product. Stir the flour with the oil until it is a tan color. This will remove the raw flour flavor and add an additional depth to your dish.
- Add your alcoholic beverage (or vinegar) to the pot, using your wooden spoon to scrape up all of the brown bits (called fond) on the bottom of the pot.
- Add the stock and stir to combine. Total liquid should go about half way up a roast.
- Return the meat to the pot and add any vegetables and herbs.
- Bring the pan to a simmer, and cover tightly.
- Either leave the tightly covered pot on the stovetop over low heat or in a 300-350 oven. Braising time will vary depending on the cut of meat you are cooking. For chicken, it may take just an hour. For small cuts of beef chopped up, it takes around two to 2-1/2 hours. For a full roast, it may take as long as six hours. Look at a recipe for something similar to your braise to estimate a cooking time and temperature.
- When the meat is cooked, remove the lid and turn up flame on the stove. Remove the meat and simmer liquids to reduce. Taste for seasoning and adjust.
- Serve with a starchy side covered in your braising liquids. Good sides include rice, polenta, mashed potatoes, spätzle, and herbed egg noodles.
Easy, right? Here are a few combination suggestions.
- Beef short ribs and bacon with red onions and thyme, braised in Guinness Stout and chicken stock. Serve with smashed red potatoes.
- Chunks of beef roast with bacon, mushrooms and pearl onions, braised in red wine and chicken stock. I like thyme to season this one. Serve with egg noodles or spätzle.
- Whole chicken pieces with bacon and pearl onions, braised in white wine and chicken stock with tarragon. Serve with rice or egg noodles.
- Pot roast and root vegetables seasoned with rosemary and garlic, and braised in beef stock and red wine.
- Veal shanks braised with mirepoix, sliced carrots, garlic, and chopped tomatoes in white wine, juice of an orange, and chicken stock (osso bucco). Season after cooking by stirring in a chopped combination of parsley, garlic, and lemon/orange zest (gremolata). Serve with egg noodles.