Exploring techniques: Braising
25 February 2019
Braising is its own special kind of magic. You take a cheaper, tougher cut of meat and you let it braise gently, bubbling away for several hours. And at the end, you have a thing transformed. All that sinew and connective tissue that would have made eating so difficult and unfulfilling has melted into a rich flavourful jus to go along with what’s become tender-as-you-like meat.
In some ways, it’s a hangover from years not so long ago - we forget very quickly how recently such years were, to be honest - when poverty forced you to buy cheaper cuts because that was how you thrived and fed a family within your means.
Now, the cuts are still a bit cheaper than the most prized parts, but it’s all become a bit more special. High end restaurants serve braised oxtail to demonstrate their nose-to-tail credentials, because the high end of food has now become the bit that references that past in a respectful way, while the relative poor of today feed on pasties, chicken nuggets and a host of other cheap foods that obscure the origin of their proteins through processing.
Braising has some simple rules. Learn them, and you suddenly find you don’t really need much from recipes at all. Because it’s almost always the same process. It breaks down like this:
- Brown the meat thoroughly in very hot oil. That browning helps to create flavour.
- Remove the meat from the pan, reduce the heat a little, and then fry mirepoix vegetables in the same pan until browned. These are the aromatic vegetables - onion, carrot, celery. You use them to add flavour when making stock, and here they’re fulfilling the same role for the eventual sauce.
- Deglaze the pan with an alcohol. The alcohol of choice might vary, depending on which meat you’re using. Red wine for the classic red meats. Maybe cider for pork. Make sure you scrape in all the brown bits on the pan, which is also all about the flavour. Boil off the alcohol in whatever you added.
- Add the meat back into the pan and add stock and braise. Generally, the meat isn’t fully submerged in the liquid, although there are some examples where it starts of that way. Braising means bringing the liquid back up to the boil, then lightly covering the pan with a cartouche (baking parchment with a small hole - to retain some liquid but to allow some to gradually evaporate away) and putting it into a low temperature oven (I generally do 130ºC in my rather aggressive fan oven, but it’s really to keep the liquid at a gentle simmer) and leaving it there for a long time. The exact time depends on the meat you’re braising.
- Optional stage five, depending on whether it’s needed, would be to remove the meat when it’s finished and reduce the braising liquid down. You may not need to do that, but if you do it’s all about intensifying flavour as well as creating an attractive thick sauce consistency.
You take any of the tougher cuts of meat and follow the above steps, you will end up with a pretty fabulous end result. I had a ‘braising week’, where I scoured every book I had and the internet as well for wisdom about the technique, and I braised, and braised, and then braised some more.
Some useful rules of thumb.
Lean or tender cuts of meat should be patted dry before searing, so that they can get some good colour on them quickly. However, fattier cuts should be dusted in flour before searing, so the flour becomes the vehicle for developing a nice crust.
When it comes to the stock, chicken stock is pretty universal, but it’s good if you can match the stock to the meat. Top end chefs sometimes do half and half with veal stock. Fine, but unless you live in a major city, it’s very hit-and-miss whether you can get veal stock, or even the veal bones to make your own. I make some interesting demands of my local butcher, but they draw the line at veal bones.
The purpose of the alcohol is generally to provide an acidic element. This helps with the cooking of the meat, but also provides balance and flavour for the sauce. It doesn’t strictly have to be alcohol. Tomatoes are also used to provide the acidic element, as are things like balsamic vinegar. Think of it like an equation with component parts that serve a function, rather than a recipe that has exact components.
Incidentally, you may choose to marinade your meat before cooking. That’s a fine thing to do, but if you marinade in the wine, you need to boil the alcohol off first, before you marinade it, and allow it to cool down. If you don’t, the alcohol will begin the process of cooking the meat and, as a result, it won’t penetrate far into the flesh to flavour it.
Of course, you can add additional flavours to the vegetables to influence the final outcome depending on the effect you want. Citrus zest will give you a subtle hit. Mushrooms will add earthiness. Ginger for a little gentle heat.
And, on the same principle, when you taste the reduced sauce, you have to judge whether it needs anything to give it that final balance. You may well have a richly meaty jus, but a touch of vinegar or lemon juice would just cut through the richness to make it spectacular. It may need additional salt or pepper. Or mellow it slightly with cream or crème fraîche.
So that all sounds easy? Can it go wrong? Sure. You do need to know a little bit about the science. When you’re braising, the meat fibres contract, expelling moisture. Which is why if you cook something the wrong way you often get really dry meat. But when the braising meat is fully cooked, it begins to relax, and to reabsorb the juices from the braising liquid, along with the melted fat and the gelatine which is why braised meat often tastes so good. But it does mean you have to give it the right length of time. If it’s undercooked, it will be dry and not tender. And once it’s cooked you want to leave it in the juices for a few minutes.
Likewise, you have to make sure you reach the right temperature. The collagen doesn’t break down until the temperature reaches 96ªC. If you go too low - ie. not even a simmer - then it won’t work. Hence why 130ºC is a good temperature.
One of my favourite things to braise is beef short ribs, marinated in the red wine (remembering, as mentioned above, to boil off the alcohol first). But oxtail is also great, as is a nice lamb shank.
It doesn’t have to be meat. You can braise vegetables, for instance leeks. Even lettuce. Obviously, the mechanics of the process are somewhat different, and the cooking times are considerable shorter.
But for standard meat, all you need is the knowledge of the formula (you might want to look up expected cooking times for the different cuts of meat you would be working with) and you've taken the steps you need to be cooking delicious recipe-free meals.