Braising (from the French “braiser”) is a combination cooking method using both moist and dry heat; typically the food is first seared at a high temperature and then finished in a covered pot with a variable amount of liquid, resulting in a particular flavor. Braising of meat is often referred to as pot roasting, though some authors make a distinction between the two methods based on whether additional liquid is added.
Most braises follow the same basic steps. The food to be braised (meat, poultry, but also vegetables or mushrooms) is first seared to brown its surface and enhance its flavor (through a process known as the Maillard reaction). If the food will not produce enough liquid of its own, a small amount of cooking liquid that often includes an acidic element, such as tomatoes, beer, or wine, is added to the pot, often with stock. The dish is cooked covered at a very low simmer until the meat is fork tender. Often the cooking liquid is finished to create a sauce or gravy.
Sometimes foods with high water content (particularly vegetables) can be cooked in their own juices and no extra liquid is required.
A successful braise intermingles the flavours of the foods being cooked and the cooking liquid. This cooking method dissolves collagen from the meat into gelatin, to enrich and add body to the liquid. Braising is economical, as it allows the use of tough and inexpensive cuts, and efficient, as it often employs a single pot to cook an entire meal.
Long before cooks had ovens, they had braising. They would suspend a heavy, covered pot over a hearth fire or open grate in the kitchen and slowly cook, or braise, their food. Sometimes they stacked embers from the fire on the lid, to provide both upper and lower sources of heat. Inside, a little liquid formed a sauce, as meats and vegetables cooked. This method of cooking yields delicious dishes with considerable character, explaining why you can still find many fine recipes that call for braising.
Think carbonnade, pot roast, fricassee, stew, or daube. While all these dishes are variations on braising, most are more complex than those enjoyed by our ancestors. Though the success of their execution relies on similar principles: browning, moist heat, lengthy cooking in a closed vessel, and simmering temperatures.
A traditional braising pot holds heat well and has a tight-fitting lid. Ideally, it should be about the same size as the dish being prepared. Too much space between the ingredients and the lid allows steam to condense and drip from the lid’s underside onto the ingredients, diluting the rich sauce.
Most braises call for the tougher cuts of meats or poultry. In beef, this means cuts such as chuck, flank, brisket, rump, and round. These cuts come from areas of the animal that are continually exercised, which allows the muscle tissues to develop more flavor extractives as well as strength.
Usually, braising recipes begin by browning the meat in a little oil. If you’re using small pieces of meat, as in a stew, brown in batches, so the meat doesn’t steam. The temperature must be high enough to trigger the browning process. Contrary to popular opinion, browning, or searing, the surface does not seal in meat’s juices. It does, however, produce new and complex flavor compounds as the sugars and proteins in the meat react under high temperatures and the surface color deepens. This browning reaction is known as the Maillard reaction.
While collagen softens in moist heat, muscle fibers firm as their proteins unfold and form new linkages during cooking. (add link to this part of the “meat” section, please). Various proteins in meat fibers coagulate over a range of temperatures from 105 F/40 C to 195 F /90 C‹temperatures that are far below boiling point (212 °F/100 °C).
The higher the cooking temperature, the tougher the muscle fibers become, and the more they shrink in both length and width. It’s no wonder that stewing beef becomes incredibly chewy when cooked in a boiling broth! If you are accustomed to boiling your braises, try reducing the temperature to a gentle simmer and let us know if you notice a difference in tenderness.
To keep meat tender yet safe during braising, you must maintain an important balance. Cooking temperatures must be high enough to kill microorganisms, yet not so high that the meat toughens. Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the surrounding stock and keep it at a simmer of 180 F/82 C-190 °F/88 °C.