Meat Braising 101
Is there anything more glorious than juicy, flavorful, buttery-tender braised meat? Who wouldn't want it atop mashed potatoes or pulled apart and served with buttered egg noodles? And who could resist it shredded and stuffed into a warm tortilla or stirred into homemade macaroni and cheese? Well, probably vegetarians. I have many recipes for them; this is not one of them.
Today I'm going to share a cooking method rather than a specific recipe. Most chefs and experienced cooks work this way, since once a method is mastered it can be used in nearly endless applications. This doesn't mean that you're out of luck if you lack the experience. Today I'm going to break down the process of braising meat into approachable steps with the goal of demystifying the process so you'll come away from this post with the knowledge and confidence to try it yourself.
First, what is braising? Braising is a combination cooking method. This means that it combines dry heat and moist heat. Beginning with a sear in fat (dry heat) achieves caramelization, which results in amazing flavor and texture. Proceeding with a long simmer in liquid (moist heat) gives you that tender, juicy product and imparts it with deep flavor.
I'll be explaining the basic steps of the method, then at the bottom I'll give several ideas for different ingredient combinations that can be applied to the same process so you can change it up to suit the flavor profile you're trying to achieve.
Let's get started, shall we?
Whether you choose beef, pork, or lamb, all of which will work beautifully here, the most important thing is the cut. Braising is a low and slow process, requiring ribbons of connective tissue and fat that will break down over time. Lean cuts are completely unsuitable for braising, as there is little fat or collagen to keep them moist. Save your loins, filets, and chops for faster, dry-heat methods. For this method, instead think shoulder, chuck, neck, and short rib. The above cut is a beautiful chuck roast of beef. Note the marbling that will later translate to flavor and tenderness.
Salt and pepper are the most important additions when cooking meat. No matter what other flavors you plan to add, don't skimp on the salt and pepper. Beyond that, think of the cuisine you're trying to capture and what spices really speak of that cuisine to you. I was going for a Mexican vibe here, so I turned to oregano, cayenne pepper, chili powder, coriander, and cumin. Again, though, at the end of the post I'll be recommending several other flavor combinations.
Sprinkle your spice blend all over the surface of the meat on all sides, then use your hands (the best kitchen tool!) to rub it into the meat. The result should look like your skin does after laying in the warm sand.
Searing is the process of cooking the surface of the meat in oil until a dark crust forms. This produces what is technically called the Maillard Reaction. Simply speaking, it's a chemical reaction that results in browned food, which to us omnivores is a totally desirable flavor. Can you slow-cook meat without searing it first? Absolutely. But you won't get the depth of flavor and contrast in texture that really makes your meat taste restaurant quality.
Heat a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat and coat the bottom with a thin layer of oil. When the oil is really hot, on the verge of smoking, add your meat in one layer. If you're cooking one large piece of meat, make sure one entire side touches the bottom of the pot; if it doesn't, you may need to cut it into two smaller pieces and sear one at a time. If you're using several small pieces, as would be the case with short ribs, make sure the pieces are not touching each other. Crowding the pieces will cause them to steam rather than sear, defeating the purpose of this step. Don't be afraid to do your searing in several batches. Sear the meat on all sides and don't rush it. It's going to take 4-6 minutes on each side. The goal is to get a nice crust all the way around. When you're done, remove the meat to a plate, leaving the drippings in the pan.
This is the point at which you begin layering flavors. Aromatics are vegetables and herbs that you add at the beginning of the cooking process. These vegetables are not the same as those you would add later to become main components of the finished dish, as you would vegetables in a stew. Aromatics will break down so much that they will either disappear into the liquid, be discarded, or become part of the sauce. Do not think of aromatics as a waste, however. They are so important to the flavor of the dish and you can utilize parts that might be discarded anyway, such as the woody ends of carrots or the skins of onions.
I used onion, garlic, jalapeño, cilantro stems, and some key limes that were going brown in my fruit drawer. Just as I suggested with the spices, use ingredients that evoke the cuisine you're after. When in doubt, turn to mirepoix, which is a combination of two parts onion to one part carrot and one part celery, and herbs with universal appeal, like parsley and thyme.
How finely you chop your aromatics depends on the result you're after. If you want them to melt away, chop them pretty finely. If you plan to discard them, keep them rather large so you can easily get them out. If your goal is to puree the liquid and aromatics for a thick, gravy-like sauce at the end, go for medium pieces. No matter the size, add your aromatics to the meat drippings in the pan and sauté on medium-high heat until you achieve some nice browning and the aromas begin to come out.
Your choice of the liquid(s) in which you'll braise your meat and aromatics depends again on the flavor profile you've chosen. A good rule of thumb is to use one part wine or beer to two parts stock. But you can also go for tomato sauce and water if you're looking for a subtle, acidic flavor. Red wine and dark beers work best for beef while white wine and lagers are great with pork. Meat stock that matches your animal is best, but chicken stock works well universally. Water is preferable to poor-quality stock. A splash of vinegar or citrus can add a welcome punch. My liquids of choice were Negra Modelo and beef stock.
When your aromatics are caramelized and fragrant and your pot is smoking, it's time to pour in your beer or wine if you're using it. Use a spoon to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot, a process called deglazing. Those browned bits equal flavor, people, so you want them in your braising liquid, not left stuck to the bottom of the pot to burn. Return your meat and any juices that have accumulated on the plate to the pot (right on top of those aromatics) and add your stock or water next. How much liquid you add depends on how much meat you have. You're braising, not boiling, so the meat should not be submerged. Too much liquid will dry out the meat (counterintuitive, I know) and dilute the flavors. The liquid should come two-thirds of the way to the top of the meat.
Put the lid on your pot or dutch oven. If you don't have an oven safe pot, transfer everything to a roasting pan and cover it tightly with foil. Put the whole thing in a 300 degree oven. How long you braise depends on the size and cut of your meat. After an hour, turn the meat over. Check it at two hours, but expect it to take three. It's done when the meat will easily pull apart with a fork.
Can you braise on the stove top? Sure. Just remember that burners have hot spots, so you'll have to check the meat regularly to make sure it isn't sticking or burning on the bottom. Keep the liquid at a very gentle simmer. Can you braise in a Crock Pot? Certainly. Sear and deglaze on the stovetop as described above, then transfer everything to the slow cooker and let it do its thing on low all day while you're busy with life and whatnot.
When the meat is tender, taste it with the braising liquid and adjust for seasoning. It may need another sprinkle of salt or possibly a squeeze of citrus. If you plan to serve your meat right away, pull it from the liquid and serve it up. This is what we did with our beef, as we savored it shredded and stuffed into homemade tortillas. I transferred the beef along with the super-soft onion slices and garlic cloves and a ladel of liquid to a bowl and shredded it all up together. But make sure to leave what's left over to cool in the braising liquid. This will keep it moist and let it absorb even more of that awesomeness. This makes braising the ideal make-ahead method, as the whole pot can sit in the fridge overnight and then be gently reheated on the stove after a removal of the fat on the surface.
If you plan to make a sauce out of your braising liquid, skim the fat and strain the solids out, then reduce the liquid on the stove to produce a "drizzle-able" jus. Or skim the fat, remove any inedibles like the whole key lime bodies I utilized, then puree the remaining liquid and solids to give you a thicker gravy.
As promised, here are a few more recommendations for excellent flavors and serving suggestions.
- The Meat: lamb or veal shank or beef chuck roast
- The Seasonings: salt, black pepper, dried oregano, ground fennel seed
- The Aromatics: onion, garlic, carrot, celery, tomato paste, anchovy, parsley, thyme
- The Liquids: red wine, beef stock, a glug of balsamic vinegar
- The Accompaniments: soft polenta, creamy mushroom risotto, or ricotta gnudi
- The Meat: beef short ribs or lamb necks
- The Seasonings: salt, black pepper, dried marjoram
- The Aromatics: onion, carrot, celery, parsley, rosemary, bay leaf
- The Liquids: red wine, beef stock
- The Accompaniments: mashed potatoes, créme fraiche and steamed baby green beans
- The Meat: pork shoulder
- The Seasonings: salt, cayenne pepper, gumbo filé, paprika
- The Aromatics: onion, celery, green bell pepper, garlic, thyme
- The Liquids: lager, chicken stock
- The Accompaniments: dirty rice and sautéed shrimp
- The Meat: lamb shoulder
- The Seasonings: salt, black pepper, za'atar, dried oregano
- The Aromatics: onion, garlic, lemons, chervil, parsley, marjoram, saffron
- The Liquids: red wine, lamb stock
- The Accompaniments: smoky eggplant dip and warm pita
- The Meat: pork shoulder
- The Seasonings: salt, cayenne pepper, paprika, chile powder, cumin, ground ginger, brown sugar
- The Aromatics: onion, garlic, tomato paste, parsley, apples
- The Liquids: lager, chicken stock, a splash of cider vinegar, a glug of molasses
- The Accompaniments: with cilantro coleslaw on a soft bun with baked beans
- The Meat: pork shoulder
- The Seasonings: salt, black pepper, turmeric
- The Aromatics: onion, garlic, lemongrass, ginger root, kaffir lime leaves
- The Liquids: rice wine, chicken stock, soy sauce, a splash of sesame oil, sambal
- The Accompaniments: sticky rice and pickled vegetables
- The Meat: beef chuck roast or pork shoulder
- The Seasonings: salt, black pepper
- The Aromatics: onion, carrot, celery, garlic, parsley, thyme, bay leaf
- The Liquids: stout, crushed tomatoes, chicken stock or water, a spoonful of dijon mustard
- The Accompaniments: served over buttered egg noodles with a dollop of sour cream, stirred into macaroni and cheese, broiled with melted cheese on thickly sliced bread... I could go on forever.