Ever since I got a gas grill, conveniently located just outside my kitchen, I have been putting it to good use in the first step of braising. Instead of browning my meat on the stove, I grill it. Here's why!
Braising: A Refresher
First of all, what is braising? A quick refresher. Braising is a method of slow cooking meat and vegetables. First the food is browned, usually in a bit of hot oil, to develop caramelization and flavor. Then the food is placed with a little liquid in a covered dish and cooked for some time with low heat. (An easy way to remember braising's steps: Hot, fast and dry, then low, slow, and wet!)
The initial searing and browing develops flavor which is then deeply distributed during the slow cooking. The slow cooking also breaks down connective tissue and fat in meat, making it a great way to cook tougher, less expensive cuts of meat.
Why Grill Before Braising
So, now that we've had that recap, let's talk about that initial browning step. When browning meat for a braise, you want to really brown it or even char it. The more blackened bits, the more flavor later on. I don't worry much about burning meat during the first step of braising; I want as much deep, dark flavor as possible. It's only a bit of surface area that is getting cooked, after all; it will be mixed in with the much greater bulk of the moist, braised meat later.
And when going for that smoky, chargrilled taste, what's better than the grill? I have here a 5-pound pork butt, which as I write is in the oven, melting into carnitas. I cut the meat into a few pieces and grilled each of them for about 8 minutes on each side, developing that dark chargilled crust. I know that this will give me fantastic carnitas, with all those little crusty bits and edges that I love in really good carnitas.
I probably wouldn't build a charcoal fire just to brown my meat for this recipe, but the convenience of a gas grill is too easy to pass up. The other advantage, of course, to grilling my meat instead of browning it on the stove is that there is often one less pan to wash!
I do this now fairly regularly; I even grilled my Thanksgiving turkey legs and thighs before slow cooking them in the Crock-Pot. It's quick, easy, and gives the best smoky taste to a braise.
Craving carnitas now? (My kitchen smells soooo good — garlic and pork fat wafting through!) Here's a recipe for you:
• Slow Cookers to the Rescue! Heatwave Carnitas - Sara Kate's famous carnitas
(Image: Faith Durand)