Thursday, September 13, 2012

Back to Basics Part 3: Braising

This week we will continue on our journey of demystifying the six basic cooking techniques that form the foundation of classical French cooking.  Remember, understanding these basic techniques, that are really much more simple than professional chefs would have you believe, will help you in so many ways.  Primarily, you will be able to look in your fridge and cook what you have available even if you don’t have the perfect recipe.  Secondarily, understanding the basic techniques will help you decipher recipes much better, allowing you to change them according to your needs or figure out when they might not work the way you expected.  Today, we will discover the satisfying (and house-warming!) method of braising.

The braising method is what is known as a “combination” cooking method, meaning that you use both dry and moist heat to cook your food.  Many lesser recipes might call for you to skip the oh-so-important step of searing your food (the “dry heat” part of the equation) prior to cooking it in liquid.  That, however, is a sad mistake as you miss out on the enhancing flavor, color and texture that will be attributed to your dish through the Maillard Reaction when you brown your meat first. After searing, it’s time to finish cooking your food in a savory moist environment.

One of the best selling points of using the braising method is that it is perfect for less tender cuts of meat (think chuck, brisket, shank or round), which also tend to be less expensive.  It’s also one of those methods that, because it’s “low and slow” can be prepped ahead and cooked for a long amount of time, helping you to avoid the “a la minute” rush (cooking things at the last minute) right before dinner time.  However, if you do want to cook naturally tender cuts of meats in your flavorful sauce, go right ahead.  Just shorten your cooking time.  Finally, once your main dish is complete, your sauce requires no additional effort as you simply use the liquid in which you cooked your meat, and you can even choose to cook your “sides” (like potatoes or other root vegetables) right in with your meat for a one pot meal.

 Here’s the basic braising procedure:

1.       Dry your meat. Season well and sear in fat (vegetable oil, olive oil, or other rendered fat) over medium high heat in a large, heavy bottomed pot such as a Dutch oven. Remove meat from pot once it has a nice, golden brown crust on all sides.
Short Ribs ready for searing
and Diced Mirepoix
    2.      Add mirepoix (classical French combination of 2 parts onion, 1 part celery and 1 part carrots) and other desired aromatics to pot.  Use the mirepoix and a wooden spoon to deglaze the fond (flavorful browned bits) from the bottom of the pan.  If using dried herbs, add these now too and cook them with the aromatics until the vegetables are soft and slightly caramelized. You can also add tomato paste at this point but allow it to cook until it is sweet-smelling and not acidic anymore.

3.      Put your meat back into the pot along with any hearty vegetables you would like and add your desired liquid to ¾ of the way up your meat. You can use water, stock or broth, reduced stock, brown sauce, tomato sauce, etc. (or a combination) and you can add wine, beer, etc.  The possibilities are endless.  Bring your liquid to a boil then reduce to a simmer.  Add flavor enhancers such as bay leaves, thyme sprigs, parsley stems, etc. if desired.

4.      Cover your pot and place in a 325°F/162°C oven.  Your liquid should maintain a gentle simmer (about 180°F/80°C) throughout the cooking to dissolve collagen in the meat into gelatin, making it very tender.  Turn your meat every 15-20 minutes to promote even cooking. Add your more tender vegetables towards the end of the cooking process so they can cook through but don’t fall apart. Cook your meat until it is fork tender and/or falling off the bone.

5.      Once your meat is finished, check your sauce.  If you would like it to be thicker, you can add a previously prepared roux or a pure starch such as cornstarch or arrowroot and allow it to simmer a bit longer on the stovetop.  (Sauce thickened with roux must simmer longer than sauce thickened with pure starch in order to eliminate the “flour” taste.)

6.      Remove bay leaves and herb stems, skim off any fat from your sauce and serve with your meat and vegetables.  Garnish with fresh herbs if desired.

·         If you are braising smaller portions of meat, sear in batches in order to maintain the heat in the pan.
·         “Stewing” is very similar to braising except you are using bite-sized pieces of meat.  Generally, stews are cooking entirely on the top of the stove as they take much less time than braising.  You also generally will cover your meat completely with liquid when stewing.
·         Don’t burn your fond!  (I believe I’ve said this before…) If while you’re browning your meat or caramelizing your mirepoix you notice the fond burning, turn down your heat.
·         If you’re not sure whether your meat is “fork tender” or not, cook it a little longer because when it’s tender, you’ll know it’s really tender.