by Eric Wharton
My Recipe Book, constantly being added to
|Braising is a time-honored process when cooking meats. It's so much easier than you might think, with most of it being a hands-off process that turns meat deliciously tender. It can be used for any kind of meat, from poultry to pork, shanks to short ribs. Tough cuts of meat wouldn’t taste great cooked over the high heat of the grill, but they become juicy and tender after being braised.
Braise is a French word that means "hot charcoal," referring to how meats were one time cooked patiently over hot coals. Covered pots would be suspended over hearth fires or open grates to slowly cook meats and vegetables, along with liquids that yielded an appetizing sauce.
The process is simple and applicable to any meat or vegetable: dry heat browning, followed by long cooking with moist heat in a closed vessel. Tougher cuts of meats or poultry are ideally suited for braising. These are continually exercised, which along with strength, allow the muscle tissues to develop more flavors that can be extracted.
Brown the Meat. Braising begins by browning meat in a neutral cooking oil. The temperature must be high enough to brown meat, but not too high. Contrary to popular opinion, searing the meat is not done to seal in meat's juices, but to produce new flavors as the sugars and proteins in the meat react under high temperatures. This also deepens the surface color and is known as the Maillard reaction.
This chemical reaction is named after French chemist Louis Camille Maillard, who first described it in 1912 while trying to synthesize proteins. Meats, cookies, biscuits, breads, toasted marshmallows, and many other foods undergo this reaction. It can produce hundreds of different flavor compounds depending on the chemical constituents in the food, the temperature, the cooking time, and the presence of air.
Continuing to brown the meat results in caramelization as the temperature rises—the sugars actually melt, which is a different process. The final breakdown of sugars occurs at high temperatures, called pyrolysis, which leads to burning. This can be discouraged by heating at a lower temperatures, though burnt sugars are the desired result in some cooked foods.
Add Aromatic Ingredients. Take out the meat and set it aside, removing all but a small portion of the fat (about a tablespoon). At this point, add chopped onions, carrots, celery, garlic, or other vegetable ingredients to be browned as desired. Cook for about 5 minutes until they soften and become lightly golden brown. Then, add dried or fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, red pepper flakes, and fennel seeds for an additional minute. You can also add other flavorings, like Worcestershire sauce, mustard, or soy sauce.
Deglaze the Pan. Add 1/4 cup of a liquid (wine, beer, stock, broth, or water). The liquid should immediately start to bubble and steam when it hits the hot pan. This is called deglazing. Scrape the bottom of the pan to release all sediments from the bottom of the pan.
Add Liquid. Place the meat back into the pan and add just enough liquid to come halfway to three-quarters of the way up the meat. Stewing submerges the food in liquid, like for a soup. Stews also generally call for the meat to be cut into small, uniform-sized pieces, whereas braised meat can be left whole in its original form.
Liquid is essential for braising because the tougher cuts of meat—like chuck, flank, brisket, rump, and round—have greater amounts of collagen than tender cuts. Collagen is a connective tissue that helps hold the muscle fibers in meat together. Cooking methods that use dry heat, such as oven-roasting, don't allow the internal temperature of the meat to become high enough to break down collagen. If the meat is left in the oven long enough to break them down, then the outer portions of the meat become overcooked, dry, and tough.
When cooked in the presence of moisture, collagen dissolves into gelatin, which allows the meat fibers to separate more easily. This is the essence of tenderizing tough cuts of meat. The presence of this dissolved gelatin is what causes the broth, or sauces made from it, to set during cooling.
Cook the Braised Meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer and cover. You can braise on the stovetop over a low flame or transfer it to a covered dish in an oven heated to 325°F. Turn the meat over every 30 to 45 minute, checking to see if it’s done and adding any extra liquid if necessary.
In order to keep meat tender yet safe during braising, cooking temperatures must be high enough to kill microorganisms, yet not so high that the meat toughens. While collagen softens in moist heat, muscle fibers can become more firm as they shrink in both length and width during cooking.
The higher the cooking temperature, the tougher the muscle fibers become. Proteins in meat fibers harden over a range of temperatures, but can occur as low as 105ºF, which is far below the boiling point of water. Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the surrounding stock and keep it at a simmer of 180-190ºF (82-88°C).
Cooking times depend on the size and cut of meat, but it's tender when it can be pierced with a fork. That may take only 45 minutes with chicken, but as long as 3 hours for pork, lamb, or beef. Braising at low temperatures can never be done in a hurry. Patience during cooking will be rewarded with deep flavors, heady aromas, and meat so tender it falls apart.
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