First We Wonder, Then We Braise

Braised Beef Short Ribs

37, day eleven.

I like sauteing as much as the next guy. I would never turn down a properly cooked and seasoned standing rib roast. I have spent hundreds of hours trying to perfect the delicate and misunderstood art that is oven-frying. But my favorite cooking method of all has to be the braise. A lot of people who know how to cook don’t know how to braise, or that it is easier and more rewarding than they realize.

Braising is what happens when you try to roast something and boil it all at the same time, only you don’t have enough liquid and you leave it in for too long. Does that make sense? It doesn’t? Let me start over.

Braising is cooking something, usually but not always meat, in liquid for a very long time. Pot roast is the classic example of a braised dish. Another classic example that everyone grew up with is mango-braised pork with mojo and kiwi-orange coulis. Or at least, it should be.

Why do I love braising so much? The liquid allows the item being cooked to maintain a constant high temperature without drying out. This let’s connective tissues dissolve, and all sorts of wonderful transformations to happen that are not achieved by any other cooking method.

Braising has a lot going for it.

Braising is Easy

Braising in its simplest form requires only a smidge more culinary skill than microwaving a hot pocket. If you use a slow cooker, it’s even more idiot proof. You just throw your meat into the slow cooker, add some liquid, and turn it on. The hot pocket on the other hand requires you to open the box, pull out the pocket, wrestle with the plastic packaging, figure out the crisping sleeve, and bung it in the microwave. There’s no way to tell if it’s done other than to take a bite, and find out whether you are chewing through partially frozen pastry and meatballs, or releasing cheese-flavored magma into your unsuspecting mouth.

I used to eat a lot of hot pockets.

Advanced braising requires a few more steps, but they’re easy. We’ll get to those in a minute.

Braising is Cheap

The whole point of braising is to transform tough, borderline inedible ingredients into succulent meals. The cheap cuts of meat – pork butt, beef chuck, chicken thighs – are not only acceptable for braising, they are preferable to their more expensive cousins. It would be a waste to braise a tenderloin. That’s okay. You can keep your tenderloin. My chipotle-honey braised seven bone roast and I are doing just fine over here by ourselves.

Braising is Delicious

I can certainly appreciate a good steak. The problem with steak, and roasted chicken, and pork chops, and anything cooking using a dry-heat cooking method is that it is difficult to get flavors deeply into them. Sure, you can coat them with a spice rub, but then you are only flavoring the surface. Or you could marinade them. Marinades are great, but why not just cook directly in the marinade? That’s basically what braising is all about. The liquid that serves as the cooking medium in a braise can be as flavorful as you want. Because of the long cooking time, that flavor will infuse deeply into the item being braised. At the same time, the connective tissues break down and render the resulting product succulent and satisfying. The word unctuous applies.

Braising is Fast

Braising is not fast. That last point was a lie. I apologize.

Proper braising takes hours from start to finish. HOWEVER, very little of that time requires you, the cook, to do anything. If you are using a slow cooker, you don’t even need to be in the same building for most of it. The actual hands-on time involved is minimal.

Braising is Idiot Proof

You cannot overcook a braise. Even if you left your pot roast in the slow cooker for ten extra hours (and kept turning the cooker back on), it would not be ruined as long as there was still liquid in the pot. It might fall apart more than you planned. Instead of delicious pot roast, you would have delicious shredded beef. Nothing wrong with that.

I often cook braises in a roasting pan in the oven. Several times I have misjudged the liquid and heat levels, and opened my oven to find that all the liquid was gone and my braise was dry and crusty. I added more liquid, stirred it up, and continued the braise. In every single one of those occasions, it turned out great. I have never lost a braise. On one occasion it turned out better than I originally planned, as the liquid cooked down to a syrup and the syrup caramelized, releasing rich and savory flavors that would not otherwise have been there. I now sometimes let the liquid cook off on purpose to achieve this effect.

When it comes to seasoning braised meat, it is hard to go wrong. I have thrown all sorts of spices and random ingredients into the braising pot, and it has never turned out bad. Once I put nearly every dried herb and spice I had into the pot just to see what would happen. The shredded pork that resulted was strange, but also complex and delicious. During braising the flavorful liquid penetrates the meat, and at the same time the meat releases juices and flavorful compounds into the liquid. It has the effect of merging all the flavors together and softening. The results are almost always fantastic.

The most common mistake people make when braising is they do not let it cook long enough. I worked in a restaurant that was well-known for its corned beef. Customers asked me over and over why our corned beef was so tender and satisfying. Many of them had attempted it at home, and it was never this good. “Leave it in another hour,” I told them. The same goes for pot roast, ginger-soy braised beef short ribs, bourbon-braised chicken thighs, or anything else you are braising. As long as there is enough liquid in the pot, longer braising is better braising.

The following recipe is intended to be a master recipe for braised meat. It creates a complex-tasting dish that is flavorful and distinctive but still useful for a wide variety of applications. I’ve made it into tacos and burritos, stir fried with it, slathered it in bbq sauce for pulled pork sandwiches, and tossed it with pasta and frozen peas for a quick dinner, just to name a few. The seasonings can be modified to suit the application. It is also dead easy. There is very little prep work, and if you skip the searing step there is no prep work at all. You can make a big batch and use it throughout the week in a variety of meals, or make an even bigger batch and freeze.

Braised Meat: The Master Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 3-4 lbs pork, beef, or lamb. Pick whatever is cheap. The more connective tissue the better. It’s easier if there is no bone, but a bone is fine. Good examples include pork butt, lamb shoulder, beef chuck roast, and brisket.
  • Enough stock or broth to cover the meat ¾ of the way up in the pot. Water will do fine if you don’t have broth, and a mix of chicken and beef broth is great for pork or lamb.
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbs tomato paste, or 1 tbs chopped canned chipotle in adobo if you want it spicy
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed, or 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 t dried thyme
  • 1 t dried oregano
  • 1 t dried basil
  • ½ t black pepper
  • ½ t allspice
  • ½ t curry powder
  • 1 pinch dried ginger
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt
  • oil for searing
  1. Fill your pot half way up with stock or water. Add soy sauce and all dry ingredients. Taste to check for salt-level. It should taste quite salty but not overpowering. Add salt if necessary.
  2. Cut the meat into large chunks. If you are feeling lazy, or hurried, or you don’t want to have to wash your knife and your cutting board, you can skip to step 5. It won’t be as good, but it’ll still be amazing.
  3. Heat two tablespoons of oil over medium high heat in a large frying pan. Add the meat, in batches if necessary to avoid crowding. If you crowd it, you won’t get a good sear. Cook until well browned on all sides.
  4. Put the meat into the cook pot with the liquid. Pour off the oil and get rid of it. Put the pan back over medium high heat. Add a quarter cup of water to the pan, and stir it up until all of the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Pour it into the cook pot with the meat.
  5. Make sure there is enough liquid to come at least ¾ up the side of the meat. If you need more, add a little more stock or water. If adding water, add a pinch of salt to keep the salt-level balanced.
  6. If you are using a slow cooker, turn it on. You’re done! Put it on for as long as it’ll go, usually 6 hours or high or 10 hours on low, depending on how long from now you want it to be done.
  7. If you are not using a slow cooker, put the pot in the oven at 300 degrees, covered. Cook for 3-4 hours, covered. Check it ever hour and make sure there is enough liquid, adding water if necessary. The meat is done when it is very tender. It should come apart easily when pulled with a fork or your fingers, if you are a professional cook and have burnt them so many times you can no longer feel heat or pain, your fingers. I do not recommend this.
  8. The cooking liquid can serve as a jus to eat right along with the meat. If you are feeling a little more ambitious, you can turn the liquid into a gravy. Taste to make sure it is not overwhelmingly salty. If it is, add water until the salt level is just right. Then thicken it in a pot over high heat with a mixture of water and cornstarch. Alternatively, you can cool the liquid and use it to braise something else later. The second braise will be even better than the first.

The spices and seasonings can be altered as you like to taste. As I said, it’s hard to go wrong. I chose the above mixture for a few reasons. First of all, it is delicious. Second, it has a complicated flavor that goes well in a variety of applications. Third, it is kind of weird, and if you follow it you will realized how much room there is for experimentation.

There it is. The braise. My favorite of all cooking methods. Braised foods taste like they took all day to make, because they do. But they are surprisingly little work, and the flavors and textures are completely worth it.

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2 thoughts on “First We Wonder, Then We Braise

  1. smartz13 says:

    hi-friggin-larious.

  2. Pretty! This has been an extremely wonderful article. Thank you for providing these details.

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