Long before cooks had ovens, they had braising. They would suspend a heavy,
covered pot over a hearth fire or open grate in the kitchen and slowly cook, or
braise, their food. Sometimes they stacked embers from the fire on the lid, to
provide both upper and lower sources of heat. Inside, a little liquid formed a
sauce, as meats and vegetables cooked. This method of cooking yields delicious
dishes with considerable character, explaining why you can still find many fine
recipes that call for braising.
Think carbonnade, pot roast, fricassee, stew, or daube. While all these
dishes are variations on braising, most are more complex than those enjoyed by
our ancestors. Though the success of their execution relies on similar
principles: browning, moist heat, lengthy cooking in a closed vessel, and
A traditional braising pot holds heat well and has a tight-fitting lid.
Ideally, it should be about the same size as the dish being prepared. Too much
space between the ingredients and the lid allows steam to condense and drip from
the lid's underside onto the ingredients, diluting the rich sauce.
Most braises call for the tougher cuts of meats or poultry. In beef, this
means cuts such as chuck, flank, brisket, rump, and round. These cuts come from
areas of the animal that are continually exercised, which allows the muscle
tissues to develop more flavor extractives as well as strength.
Usually, braising recipes begin by browning the meat in a little oil. If
you're using small pieces of meat, as in a stew, brown in batches, so the meat
doesn't steam. The temperature must be high enough to trigger the browning
process. Contrary to popular opinion, browning, or searing, the surface does not
seal in meat's juices. It does, however, produce new and complex flavor compounds
as the sugars and proteins in the meat react under high temperatures and the
surface color deepens. This browning reaction is known as the Maillard reaction.
Aromatic vegetables such as carrots and onions can also be browned. After
browning the meat, just add a little corn syrup or brown sugar to the remaining
oil, and you'll trigger a different type of browning reaction called
caramelization. In caramelizing, sugar melts, then decomposes at high
temperatures (over 338 °F/170 °C) and is transformed to a complicated mixture of new
compounds with "burnt sugar" flavors. These too, add considerably to the richness
of the finished dish.
Liquid, such as wine, beer, stock, or broth, is also essential for braising
because less tender meats have greater amounts of collagen than tender ones.
Collagen, a connective tissue, helps hold the muscle fibers in meat together.
When cooked in the presence of moisture, collagen dissolves into gelatin, which
allows the meat fibers to separate more easily. This is the essence of
tenderizing tough cuts of meat. Note how the dissolved gelatin causes the broth
to set as it cools.
While collagen softens in moist heat, muscle fibers firm as their proteins
unfold and form new linkages during cooking. (add link to this part of the "meat"
section, please). Various proteins in meat fibers coagulate over a range of
temperatures from 105 F/40 C to 195 F /90 C‹temperatures that are far below
boiling point (212 °F/100 °C).
The higher the cooking temperature, the tougher the muscle fibers become, and
the more they shrink in both length and width. It's no wonder that stewing beef
becomes incredibly chewy when cooked in a boiling broth! If you are accustomed to
boiling your braises, try reducing the temperature to a gentle simmer and let us
know if you notice a difference in tenderness.
To keep meat tender yet safe during braising, you must maintain an important
balance. Cooking temperatures must be high enough to kill microorganisms, yet not
so high that the meat toughens. Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the
surrounding stock and keep it at a simmer of 180 F/82 C-190 °F/88 °C.
Braising at low temperatures can never be done in a hurry. But those who are
patient will be amply rewarded with a memorable amalgam of rich, deep flavors;
heady, enticing aromas; and meat so tender it almost falls apart. Indeed, each
succulent forkful reconfirms the ancient wisdom of braising.
Anne and Sue