In northern climates, inclement weather and short days force people away from their outdoor barbeques. Braising, stewing and roasting take over as the cooking methods of choice and hearty slow cooked dishes provide comfort on cold nights. The method tenderizes cuts of meat that are usually cheap and tough so it’s economical as well.
What is Braising?
Braising involves cooking meat or vegetables in a covered pot with a small amount of liquid at relatively low temperatures for a long period. Meat emerges tender and juicy with a rich sauce. It is a very forgiving method of cooking – unlike grilling, the cooking times are less exact and a braised dish won’t be ruined if it stays in the oven for an extra few minutes. While the cooking times for braised dishes may be long (usually two to three hours), the prep work is generally minimal and the oven or slow cooker will do the rest. The results are sure to wow guests and have them believe you’ve been slaving in the kitchen for hours!
Braising doesn’t require a lot of fancy gadgets, just a large non-reactive, ovenproof pot with a tight fitting lid. An enamelled cast iron pot with a minimum 5.5-quart capacity and a tight lid works best. These hefty pots retain heat well and can cook on the stovetop and then go into the oven. Enamelled cast iron pots are easy to clean and the coated interior won’t react with acidic ingredients such as tomatoes the way some metals can. These pots can be expensive, particularly famous brands such as Le Creuset and Staub. However, they are virtually indestructible and will last a lifetime. More affordable lines such as Lodge provide options for all budgets. There are also specially designed ‘braising pots’ on the market now that have small spikes on the underside of the lid to aid the braising process. However, a regular pot will work fine. If a lid doesn’t fit tightly, place a layer or two of foil over the top of the pot before putting the lid on. Once the lid is in place, crimp the foil around the edge of the lid to create a tighter seal and keep steam from escaping.
Another way to braise is to use a slow cooker (crock pot). Slow cookers have become very popular in recent years and are perfect for busy families who want to come home to a warm meal without fussing for hours. Models on the market today are very safe and can be left on for the entire day without getting too hot. Most are programmable and some models, such as the All-Clad Deluxe Slow Cooker, have a removable insert that allows for stovetop browning.
There are a few important steps to successful braising. The first is to prep all ingredients that will be needed. Most braises call for onions, garlic, herbs and some liquid such as stock and wine. Having everything chopped and measured (called ‘mis en place’) will simplify the process. Next, the meat or vegetables need to be browned on the stovetop. Make sure the surface of the food is dry and give them plenty of room in the pan. Don’t rush the browning process – it takes time to properly sear. Finally the other ingredients are added and the braise is covered and put in the oven or left on the stovetop to cook slowly.