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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: CC Buckley

Braising Is a Balm for the Burnt-Out Cook

updated Dec 7, 2020
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Forgive me, food gods, for I have sinned.

Over the years, there have been failures. Roast chickens have been over-roasted, the breast meat as dry as pemmican, and they have been under-roasted, pink at the bone. I have burned things, most notably a tarte tatin that I served to the editor who’d purchased my first cookbook (sorry, Mike!). I have under- and over-seasoned. In the company of others, I have overshot, attempting recipes so complicated I could hardly enjoy my guests.

But you know what has never let me down? A braise. 

At its most elemental, a braise is made by cooking something, be it meat, fish, or vegetables, in a heavy, covered pot with some flavorful liquid. The braise canon includes well-known dishes, like pot roast and coq au vin, as well as lesser-known examples, such as silky eggplant and olive oil-braised artichokes. In every case, braising renders the ingredients incredibly tender and deeply flavored.

The alchemy that occurs when low heat is applied to a piece of tough protein sitting in liquid is pretty magical. The technique melts collagen, a strong tissue that connects muscles, turning it into rich gelatin that gives the resulting sauce luscious texture, sheen, and body. This transformation only takes place once the internal temperature of the meat reaches 200 degrees F, at which point it’s well-done, but also succulent and fork-tender.  Yes! You can have it both ways! The best cuts of meat used for braising, then, are those with collagen to spare, working muscles, like shoulder, neck, and leg, which shine when cooked low and slow. In the case of vegetables, braising is equally transformative: bitter becomes sweet, coarse becomes silky, work-a-day vegetables such as cabbage, green beans, and tomatoes become something altogether new.

The most rewarding feature of braising is that it is very easy to master and very hard to screw up. The long cooking time and low cooking temperature gives the cook a generous buffer, a window rather than a moment of doneness. The labor-to-reward is right where I want it. There’s a little bit of hands-on labor, followed by a stretch of unattended cooking, during which time your home fills with great smells (and, if you’re doing it in the oven, warms it up, too) — something you do not get when you’re throwing together a salad. And unlike, say, cacio e pepe or a pan-roasted chicken breast, braises actually improve upon sitting (a theory I may also be applying to myself this long, hard winter). A braise made on a Sunday will taste even better on Tuesday, and you’ll feel exceptionally smug pulling it from the fridge days after you’ve made it, like you have a real trick up your sleeve. Braised meat also freezes well, so you can make a bigger-than-usual batch and put some away for later, and it travels well, so you could do a doorstep drop to a friend or neighbor in need of a pick-me-up. This year, that’s likely everyone you know.

Over the years there have been some cooking failures, for sure, but never when I braise.

Credit: Nancy Bundt

Think about braising like building a house: You can’t start with the roof, you’ve got to begin with the foundation. There is a formula to braising, but once you learn it braising becomes a choose-your-own adventure cooking opportunity, and you can riff a little (or a lot). 

So, the fundamentals: Most good braises begin with browning. This adds the first layer of flavor, the basement upon which the braise is built. Because braises must, by their nature, be cooked at a low temperature, the ingredients will never brown the way they would if they were roasted. So you must do that first, which helps not only with flavor but also with color and appearance of the finished braise (this is particularly important with meat braises, but less vital — or even optional — with vegetables). 

After the main ingredient is browned, the meat (or vegetables, if they’re large like cabbage) comes out and the aromatics are added to the pot, often cooked in the same fat that you used for browning. These might include chopped onions, shallots or leeks, slivers of garlic or coins of fresh ginger, minced lemongrass, dried spices, lengths of citrus peel or dried or fresh chilies. You can build a flavorful base with rendered bits of bacon or pancetta, using that fat to briefly sauté your other aromatics. You could add a bit of miso, minced anchovies, or tomato paste, or perhaps a sprig of rosemary or thyme. 

Once the aromatics have been cooked, the main ingredient is returned to the pot and the braising liquid is added. You might use stock as the braising liquid, or wine (or a combination), or coconut milk, or sherry, apple cider, milk, or tomato sauce. The choice of braising liquid will contribute enormously to the final flavor of the braise, as it’s this liquid that will conduct flavors from the aromatics and the main ingredient, creating the sauce for the finished braise. And while this liquid is essential to a braise, it should only come about a third of the way up the main ingredient (I always liken it to a large person in a small bathtub: knees and torso above the water); too much liquid and the flavor of the braise is diluted. 

After the braise has cooked for awhile, when the main ingredient is approaching tenderness, you can add additional ingredients that require a shorter cooking time, like vegetables, or ingredients that add another dimension of flavor, like dried fruit or olives. Once you’ve learned how to build a house, there are lots of different styles of house to build, and you should experiment, because braises are flexible and riffable, as well as comforting, both to make and to eat.

This unforgiving year has robbed a lot of us of a lot of what makes us feel good. But to gather your people around a meal cooked in a single pot is a wintry pleasure that I will not be denied. From now until conditions improve, or the leaves on the trees in my yard return, I plan to braise weekly, at least. I’ll coax both flavor and comfort from a time-honored technique that’s well-suited to the lives we are leading now, lives lived between video calls and homeschooling but, for most of us, mostly at home. Over the years there have been some cooking failures, to be sure, but never when I braise. Whenever I pull a pot from the oven, pull off the lid, and receive a steamy, aromatic “braise facial,” I feel my confidence — and my appetite — return.

Timeless Braising Recipes to Get You Started