The Transformative Power of Braising Vegetables
When you think of braising, what comes to mind? For most people, it’s a big Dutch oven filled with something hearty like meaty short ribs, fork-tender pot roast, or supple lamb shanks. At least that’s what it used to conjure for me — that is, until I discovered the world of braised vegetables. Certainly I still treasure classic meat-based braises, but what really gets my creative juices (and appetite) flowing is using this time-honored technique to add variety and complexity to my vegetable cooking repertoire.
The principles used to braise vegetables rely on the same used in any traditional braise: gentle cooking with a bit of liquid in a covered pot until everything is tender, infused with flavor, and bathed in a savory sauce. Where vegetable braises step ahead of meat-based braises is in their flexibility of timing and in the exciting variety of tastes and textures they present. For instance, you’d ruin a good pot roast if you were to cut it into smaller chunks and try to speed up the cooking, but vegetables are far more forgiving, thanks to the absence of tough connective tissue. The vegetable kingdom also offers so much more diversity than the animal kingdom, and once you get the technique down, there’s no end to what you can create.
If you have a lot of experience braising meat and poultry, you will notice a key distinction when you start to look at braised vegetable recipes. Many skip (or abbreviate) the initial sear (or browning) typically associated with braising, and the reasons are two-fold. Most importantly, vegetables don’t brown as readily as meat (due to their lower protein content), which means taking time to sear them runs the risk of cooking them all the way through before the braise even begins — eliminating the opportunity for the magical flavor exchange and sauce development that characterizes braising. Secondly, browning is intended to deepen the flavor and color of a dish, and vegetables are often best left lighter and brighter. In the instances where you do want a caramelized note in a vegetable braise, the options are to either quickly brown just a bit at the start or to carefully brown after braising, as in the braise-and-glaze technique outlined below.
At its most basic, a vegetable braise relies on three to four key elements: the vegetables, some liquid, seasonings, and often a bit of fat. Your job as a cook is to consider how each element contributes to the whole and to manipulate these elements to achieve the results you’re after.
Choose Sturdy, Full-Flavored Vegetables
While you can braise most any vegetable, a good place to start is with the sturdy, full-flavored vegetables, including carrots, parsnips, onions, turnips, rutabagas, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, fennel, leeks, potatoes, cauliflower, endive, and hearty greens. That said, I’ve also made brilliant dishes using green beans, scallions, artichokes, and celery. The vegetables that don’t hold up as well are super juicy, tender vegetables, like summer squash and tomatoes.
To prep vegetables for the braising pot, I like larger chunks. Big pieces cook more slowly, which means they have more time to absorb flavors. Whatever size you choose, aim for uniformity so that everything cooks at the same rate. If you’re combining vegetables, chop tougher-textured ones a bit smaller than tender ones so everything will be done at the same time.
Use Simple, Lighter Liquids
For the cleanest, lightest taste — one that will let the flavor of more delicate vegetables shine through — choose water. For a deeper, more savory result — and one that can stand up to more assertive vegetables — go with chicken or vegetable broth. You can also add complexity to your vegetable dishes by augmenting the broth with more flavorful liquids, including wine, cider, beer, fruit juice, canned tomato, coconut milk, or cream. Assertive accents like vinegar, soy sauce, and fish sauce add tremendous flavor (and a good shot of umami), but are best used sparingly so they don’t dominate. Building a braise is a balancing act, and you don’t want any single element to overtake the others.
Whatever the liquid, add enough to come about one-third of the way up the sides of the vegetables. This provides enough to soften the vegetables and to yield in a concentrated sauce. Dense, dry vegetables like carrots or cabbages may need a bit more liquid than tender varieties like endive or onions. The best practice is to peek under the lid during braising and, if the pan appears to be drying out, add a bit more liquid. If there’s too much, wait until the end of cooking to remove the lid and boil off any excess.
A Little Seasoning Goes a Long Way
Some of my favorite vegetable braises rely on nothing more than a sprinkling of salt and pepper and perhaps a bay leaf tucked into the pot. Other times, I punch up the flavor by sautéing a combination of zestier seasonings in oil or butter to create an aromatic base, a type of sofrito, that will permeate the entire dish. Classic choices for a flavor base are members of the onion family (garlic, shallot, leek, scallion), fresh or dried chiles, fresh ginger, lemongrass, ground spices, or fresh and dried herbs.
Fat Is Optional (but Highly Recommended)
Fat is not required to make a vegetable braise, but even a few drops of tasty fat (think: butter, olive oil, ghee, bacon drippings, or duck fat) add tremendous depth and richness to an otherwise simple dish. The standard way to incorporate fat is to use it to sauté the above mentioned seasonings at the beginning of the braise (this can bring in some of those tasty caramelized flavor notes, too, if you like). For a bolder take, fry up some bacon, sausage, or pancetta, and use it — and its rendered fat — to flavor the dish. You can also just drizzle a few drops of butter or oil over the vegetables before covering the pot and setting it to braise.
Stovetop or oven? Vegetable braising can happen in the oven or on top of the stove. The advantage of using the oven (set around 325°F) is that you don’t have to worry as much about the liquid evaporating; the downside is that it takes a little longer. Whichever method you choose, remember that the liquid should simmer and not boil. A gentle heat and an extended cooking time results in the best flavor and texture. With braised vegetables, doneness is somewhat a matter of personal taste, but tender is what you’re after. Depending on the vegetables and the size of the pieces, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to over two hours.
Braised vegetables are better the next day. Many cooks know that braised meat is better the next day (or the day after that), and the same is true of vegetables. Braising your vegetables a day ahead will improve their taste and texture. All the flavor exchange that happens inside the braising pot continues as the vegetables cool and then get reheated for serving. Add any finishing touches (with the exception of fresh herbs or crunchy breadcrumbs) when you make the braise, then cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to three days. Reheat gently before serving.
3 Ways to Braise Vegetables
Here are three basic methods for creating memorable vegetable braises.
The simplest approach. Arrange the vegetables in tight single layer in a baking dish, gratin, or shallow braising pan, pour in the liquid, add seasonings, and a drizzle of fat. Cover tightly and cook over a medium-low burner or in a low oven (around 325°) until tender, anywhere from 1/2 to 2 hours depending on the vegetables. If you want a bit of caramelization, remove the lid at the end, and place the dish under the broiler until brown. This is every bit as easy as it sounds, but it works every time.
The two-step. For a vegetable braise with more complexity, start by sautéing the aromatic seasonings in a heavy skillet or shallow braising pan until fragrant. Add the vegetables, turning to coat in the aromatics. You can let the vegetables brown a bit at this point to add another layer of flavor, but take care not to cook them through. Add the liquid, bring to a simmer, cover, and braise in a low oven (around 325°) or over a low burner until tender, again 1/2 to 2 hours.
The braise-and-glaze. A favorite way to finish a vegetable braise is to remove the lid at the very end and place the pan over a medium-high burner to concentrate any remaining liquid into a savory glaze that coats the vegetables. To take advantage of the natural sweetness in many vegetables, let the glaze caramelize slightly, shaking the pan so that the glaze doesn’t scorch. You can also help things along by adding a pinch of sugar or a splash of heavy cream; or give the dish a more nuanced sweetness by adding a bit of balsamic or pomegranate or date molasses. This is also an opportunity to add other finishing touches, like a shower of fresh herbs, a squeeze of citrus, a dollop of mustard, or a handful of crunchy toasted breadcrumbs or nuts.
Ready to try braised vegetables? These recipes will get you started.
Molly Stevens fell head-over-heels for braised vegetables as she was writing “All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking” (WW Norton 2004), the first chapter of which is all about vegetables.