As we continue our journey on different cooking methods, braising is one of the best ways to produce tender, juicy and delicious inexpensive tough cuts of meats. What Is Braising? Braising is a cooking technique in which the protein is seared, or browned in fat, and then simmered in liquid on low heat in a covered pot. The best equipment to use would be a crock pot, pressure cooker or Dutch oven. Braising is often used as a way to cook less expensive, tough cuts of meat. The result is tender and flavorful. Yet another plus of cooking with this method is that you also get delicious broth, sauce or gravy. It is one pot cooking at its finest. There is not much to cleaning up and anything leftover can be reheated or frozen and reheated for later. This method of cooking is great for tough cuts of meat like chuck steak, bottom round, short ribs, Osso Bucco, shoulder roast, Lamb shanks, and 7-bone roast. You can braise just about any meat, fish or vegetable you want and be as creative as you like with seasoning, but there are some ingredients that are better for braising and some you want to cook using other techniques like grilling, poaching or roasting.
Braising is a simple technique used by some of the finest restaurants in the world. Its not labor intensive and allows you time to do other things.
Low and slow is the motto for braising. Just like in smoking a brisket, low heat, and longer cooking time, results in the best flavor and tenderized meat. But you do it in a liquid.
The science behind braising is simple.
What makes tough, leathery meat tender? It is done by cooking the meat slow, moist and covered over low heat for a lengthy time. This process breaks down the tough connective tissue in meat to collagen. Through time, the moisture and heat build and the collagen dissolves into gelatin. Heat also contracts and coils the muscle fibers. Over time, these fibers expel moisture, and the meat becomes dry. Given even more time, these fibers relax and absorb the melted fat and melted gelatin. So the meat loses moisture, than gains moisture from the natural juices and fat from the meat. So braising meat is about breaking down tough connective tissue and changing it into collagen by applying moist heat for a period of time depending on what you are cooking. With more time and heat, the collagen breaks down and dissolves into gelatin. What is happening to the muscle fiber while this connective tissue is breaking down (collagen is melting) The fibers start to contract, coil and expel moisture. In effect, the heat is drying out the meat like squeezing a sponge. As the process continues and the meat breaks down, you end up with very tender but very dry meat. The good news is that the muscle fibers have had enough, and they begin to relax. When this happens, they begin to absorb back some of the moisture which just happens to be the melted fat and gelatin giving the meat a wonderful texture and flavor. And do not forget you have all this wonderful liquid made up of melted fat, gelatin and whatever cooking liquid you started with. And this is why braised meat taste so incredible when done right.
So how do we braise meat?
In a large pan, on medium high heat, add a little fat or oil, liberally season the meat with salt and pepper, and sear the meat on both sides. Remove and place in the crock pot or Dutch oven. Deglaze the pan with stock, wine, or water and scrape the bottom of the pan to get all those little goodies. Add to the meat and then add the liquid. The recommended ratio is 3/4 cup of liquid to each pound of meat. Add your aromatics, (onion, carrots, celery, garlic, seasoning) Adding tomatoes adds a great depth of flavor (optional) If using a crock pot, set it on low, and cook for 8 to 10 hours for a 3 lb. chuck roast, or on Hi for 4 to 6 hours. Use the finished liquid to make a gravy or as a sauce.
Whole chicken and pork roast can benefit from braising, as they will also absorb the flavors of the braising liquid, but wont require long cooking times. Be creative with your seasoning. Try using soy sauce, pears, pineapple, or fresh herbs when braising pork or chicken. Do not braise fish or light seafood and they will break down to fast. They require poaching, which is different than braising. We will touch on poaching in another article.