Leave a crisp fall afternoon behind and come home to a kitchen perfumed by the aromas of short ribs braising in red wine. And now imagine that these short ribs somehow manage to taste as heavenly as their aromas promise!
Well, they can - and it's not even that difficult to braise – transforming otherwise tough cuts of meat into tender, succulent and oh-so-flavorful classics. Braises are easy to do well, but, as anyone who has suffered through a dry and tasteless pot roast can attest...they are too often done badly.
So here are a few easy tips and tricks that will apply to pretty much any braised dish. Follow these tips and see how much better your next braised dish turns out!
Le Creuset - Works as good as it looks
How to Braise - Daniel Boulud
6 steps to a perfect braise
1 Use the Right Pot
A good braising dish is:
- Oven and stovetop safe. Using a pot that can be transferred from the stovetop to the oven lets you brown the meat on the surface that will eventually hold the braising juices. It just adds another level of flavor complexity.
- Has a heavy base and thick sides. Hefting that pot around pays off when the mass of those walls and base temper heat fluctuations and deliver a consistent even-low heat to the meat inside.
- Ideally it has a tight fitting lid as well, but you can always fashion one if it doesn't – see below.
- Just big enough to hold the meat snuggly inside. Braising works a lot of its magic through the constant basting of light steam as it condenses off the lid above and down onto the meat. A too-big braising dish means a lot of that potential basting just never hits the meat.
2 Brown the Meat WELL!!
Once inside the braising dish with liquid, the meat will never get exposed to anywhere close to the kind of temperatures needed to create a browned flavorful exterior.
Imagine two pieces of meat – one gray and cooked, and the other richly browned and cooked. The second is far more appetizing, and if you don’t brown it well at the outset – it's never going to happen!
Browning the meat creates a complex array of flavors and spending the time to brown the meat well and properly prior to adding the liquid is one of the single biggest steps to braising success.
Brown the meat over medium heat (Don't crank the heat) and turn it occasionally until all surface areas are deeply browned. If your braise calls for many pieces of meat – fry the meat in batches.
Do this step well and see how much better your braise tastes.
3 Don’t Add Too Much Water
A braise differs from a stew in the amount of water used. When you braise meat you add only enough liquid (water or wine or beer or cider…or whatever your recipe calls for) to go up to about 1/3 the height of the meat in the braise. Do not cover the meat in liquid!
You can always add more liquid later if you need to – but a watery braise cannot be saved.
4 Create a Tight Seal
Braising works as the simmering liquid steams up and condenses on the lid – only to fall back and baste over the meat – and as it does all of this it flavors both meat and sauce incredibly.
Braising does none of this if the lid poorly seals the top, and all that steam is lost!
The quickest way to a dry and flavorless braise is a poorly fitted lid. If your braising pot does not create a good seal, you can improve things by:
- Using a layer of parchment paper under the lid
- Using tightly fitted aluminum foil lid instead
- Mix together flour and water to create a thick paste and smear this on around the edges of the lid. This will bake a "bread-like" seal onto the lid.
5 Don't Let Things Get Too Hot
Braising works very well when the liquid in the braising dish simmers very gently. This gentle simmering allows the meat to cook very slowly and transforms tough connective tissues that otherwise make meat tough and chewy into soft and melted gelatin.
If the liquid boils instead of simmers things go downhill in a hurry. This is why braised dishes are often done in the oven instead of on the stovetop – to allow for a lower and more consistent heat level.
Make sure to check the braise once or twice to make sure the liquid isn't boiling.
6 Reduce the Liquid After if Needed
One dish cooking! A braise is a meat, often some vegetables and a ready made sauce all in one – a couldn’t be easier way to get dinner on the table. A braised sauce tends to be rich and unctuous and full of flavor – and the braising liquid should never ever get discarded.
If your braising liquid is too thin, remove the meat, hold it warm and boil the sauce down to the desired consistency.
Braised Lamb Shank Video Demonstration Recipe
That's it, and although this may seem like a lot to take in all at once, braising is really a very easy cooking method, and once you get the fundamentals down you will delight friends and family with some very good meals, at minimal effort on your part.
Happy braising and here's to a season of coming out of the cold to food that smells like heaven – and tastes even better!
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John D Lee (author) on August 10, 2011:
Yeah, a slow gentle simmer is pretty important. Hope you have better luck next time!
Sara on May 23, 2011:
Thanks for some great tips, especially the one about browning the meat first - I'm definitely going to try it.
I agree, there's nothing better than coming home on a cold day, knowing dinner is well on its way to being cooked and that smell! Makes my mouth water just thinking about it :o)
I'm actually not a very good cook but braised meat is one of the few things I can do and the meat becomes so tender even my children love it.
I think your tip for browning it will make it even better.