Cooking School Day 18: Braise
- Today’s Topic: Braising
- The Goal: 20 lessons, 20 days to become a better cook at home
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For meat that quite literally falls apart under your fork and melts in your mouth, there’s no better cooking method than braising. But meaty cuts of beef, lamb, and pork don’t get all the braising love — we can also make fantastic, flavorful braises with fish, chicken, and vegetables all by themselves.
What is a braise, exactly? How is it different from a roast or a soup? That’s the topic of today’s lesson, and by the end of it, you’ll be more than ready to try one for yourself.
Day 18 Lesson: Braise
What is braising? Braising is another moist-heat cooking method, along with boiling and simmering and steaming. Food is partially submerged in liquid and then cooked in a covered dish at very low heat. (Technically, if the food is totally submerged, the dish is considered a stew!) “Low and slow” is the name of the game with a braise — low heat, slow cooking. During cooking, tough cuts of meat become completely tender, hard vegetables soften, and the flavors of all the ingredients mingle into one complete dish.
Braising Meats: Braising is our go-to way of transforming tough cuts, like big roasts and shanks, into meat so tender that it slips easily off the bone. These tough cuts don’t typically have much fat, but they have a lot of a connective tissue called collagen. This collagen is initially very chewy, but at low temperatures and given some time, it will gradually dissolve into gelatin. Gelatin makes the meat taste incredibly juicy and succulent. And since there’s no longer any connective tissue holding the muscle fibers together, the meat will fall apart with just a fork — that’s what recipes mean by “fork tender.”
Braising Vegetables: Vegetables can be braised along with a cut of meat, giving the whole dish more flavor, or they can be braised all on their own. Vegetables don’t have any collagen, but slow cooking will help tough plant fibers soften. Pay close attention when braising vegetable: they become mushy if over-cooked. Hard root vegetables, winter squashes, and hardy greens like kale and chard are particularly well-suited to braising.
Building Flavor in a Braise: As much as braising is about low, slow cooking, it’s also about building flavors. This often starts by sautéing the vegetables and searing the meat before adding the liquid to the pot. Both of these steps add rich, caramelized flavors to the dish, which can only be developed at high heat — not the low heat of a braise. Many braises are also generously seasoned with herbs and spices. For yet another layer of flavor, wine, beer, cider, or alcohol can be added along with the braising liquid. Even the braising liquid itself plays a role! While you can braise with just water, the dish is much better if you use stock. If you’ve been saving homemade stock in your freezer, now is the time to use it.
Braising in a Dutch Oven or Heavy Pot: Braising requires a heavy pot with a lid — this kind of pot helps maintain an even cooking temperature and prevents moisture from escaping. A Dutch oven is expressly designed for braising, but you can also use any heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. You can braise in an oven between 250°F and 325°F, or you can braise on a burner over the lowest heat. Either way, you want to see just the barest simmer in the liquid — a few bubbles and lots of steam means you’re doing it right.
Braising in a Slow Cooker: A slow cooker is really an ideal piece of equipment for braising. It’s a fully enclosed environment that cooks foods at a very steady temperature — just under boiling — for extended periods of time. The temperature is slightly lower than we can manage in an oven or on the stovetop, so cooking times are a little longer. The upside is a braise that cooks while we’re away at work and is ready by the time we get home.
When is a braise done? A braise is done when it’s done! It can’t be rushed and there are no short-cuts. We’re also not cooking the meat to a specific temperature like we do when cooking steaks or roasting chicken — we’re cooking the meat until it falls off the bone and is easily pulled apart with a fork. If you stop cooking as soon as the meat reaches the correct cooking temperature, it will still be chewy and hard to eat; it takes longer for that collagen to break down. This process can take several hours for large cuts of meat; smaller cuts or meat that has been cut into smaller pieces will take a bit less time. Vegetable braises are done as soon as the vegetables are as tender as you like them.
Braises are perfect make-ahead dishes since they actually taste better the next day. And since everything’s usually well-cooked, the food’s texture doesn’t change much as it sits. Letting braises sit overnight gives them even more time for the flavors to mingle, mellow out, and absorb evenly into every bite of the dish.
Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnschool on Instagram or Twitter.
Study: Read up on your braising science! Here are a few handy posts that explain more about braising meats, best cuts for braising, and how to choose a pot:
Practice: Braise a vegetable that you normally cook quickly! You’ll get a feel for the braising process, but unlike braised meats that take hours to cook, you can braise vegetables while you cook dinner. Pick one of these and go for it:
Improve: If you have some extra time, try your hand at braising a larger cut of meat, like pork shoulder or pot roast. These take a few hours, but your reward is both a delicious dinner and plenty of leftovers for the week to come.
The Kitchn Cookbook & Braising
The Cooking School was inspired by our new book, The Kitchn Cookbook— and there’s plenty in the book to help your Cooking School experience.
Today’s tip: See page 114 for tips and ideas for adapting braised dishes to the slow cooker.
5 Recipes to Practice Braising
The Kitchn’s Cooking School
The Kitchn’s Cooking School is 20 days, 20 lessons to become a better cook at home. Every day we’ll tackle an essential cooking topic and explain what you should know. Each lesson has three different homework options, so you can choose the one that teaches you what you need. Whether you want to refresh your skills or start from scratch, come to school with us!
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