Braises are at their best when you follow some simple guidelines.
Braising is a godsend for the bleak months of winter. It's a fairly simple way of cooking and results in something super flavorful that tastes even better the next day. The best part is that it allows you to keep something delicious-smelling simmering in the oven all day as you go about your business. Osso bucco, boeuf bourguignon, and carnitas are all braises, and the list of what you can do with it is endless. You can braise them in the slow cooker or your Instant Pot if you don't have time to watch your oven, but there's something so satisfying about having a pot of stew or rabbit or shortribs slowly coming together on a cold winter day.
In general, braises are pretty forgiving, so you don't have to worry about watching the pot too vigilantly. But there are definitely mistakes you can make that won't give you the maximum benefit of all that simmering. These braising mistakes are easy to make, but just as easy to avoid.
You're Using the Wrong Cut Of Meat
The first thing to think about when you start braising is what kind of meat you're going to use. The best meat for braising is the kind that would make it a poor candidate for quick-cooking methods like grilling. You want something with plenty of connective tissue and fat. The idea is that over the long cooking time, all that tissue softens and becomes gelatinous, giving well-braised meat a juicy, tender flavor. You wouldn't use a filet mignon or a rib-eye for braising because the end result would be very tough and overcooked. Those cuts of meat lack the necessary tissue. The good news is that the meat you use for braising is often the far cheaper stuff, like oxtail, lamb shank, and pork shoulder. Save the expensive cuts for other applications. You can braise chicken, but the braising time is going to be much shorter than, say, short ribs.
You're Not Searing
Braising is a mixed-cooking method because it involves both doing something in a dry pan and then adding liquid to the pan. Searing the meat you're using before putting it in the liquid gives flavor to the meat. Seasoning the meat is important too, but you want to make sure not to salt your meat way in advance of searing it. That's because salt draws moisture to the surface of the meat, and if there's a lot of moisture, it's almost impossible to get a nice sear on your meat. Plus, there's a tasty bonus to searing the pieces of meat you're using, which is that you can also use the tasty browned bits left on the bottom of the pan you use to sear and add them to your braise too. All you do is remove any excess fat from searing and add a liquid—wine or stock or even just water—to the pan, bring it back up on the heat, and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Then you pour the whole thing into the pot with your seared meat, vegetables, and herbs.
You're Not Using Enough Liquid
Whatever liquid you're using to braise the meat will likely be the base of the sauce that the meat is served with. If you don't have enough liquid to begin with, you're going to have trouble making enough sauce. Don't be skimpy with it! You can use stock or wine or water or beer, but make sure that there's enough to submerge the pieces of meat you're using so you don't have to go sauce-less.
You're Not Bringing It to a Simmer First
If you're making a braise in an oven, the idea is to keep the momentum of cooking at approximately the same rate. If you just put your pot of liquid and meat into the oven without simmering it first, it will take so much longer to cook. The easiest way to ensure cooking is even and that it won't take two days to make your pot roast is to make sure the liquid comes to a simmer before you put it in the oven. Promise!
You're Not Checking Your Meat
Once the meat goes in the oven (with a cover on! remember the cover!) you don't have to fuss with it too much. Still, it's a good idea to check in every 20 to 30 minutes or so, so you can see how far along the braise is. Also most of the time the meat is going to float to the top, no matter how good a job submerging it in liquid you did, and you'll want to use tongs to gently turn it so that the top edge is again submerged in the liquid, otherwise one part of the meat is going to be much browner and more dried out than the other. And that would be a shame!
You're Not Letting the Meat Rest
The thing about braises is that they are absolutely better the next day and the day after that. We don't live in an ideal world, so it might not be possible to wait until tomorrow, but you can, at the least. make sure to let your meat rest before you serve it. The reason? Well, once you take the meat and sauce out of the oven, you're probably going to want to adjust the seasoning of the liquid it's in. Maybe a little more salt and pepper. Maybe you're going to do the whole French thing, where you take the meat out, strain the sauce so it's clear of vegetable detritus, and then reduce the sauce before nestling the meat back in it. Either way, you want the meat to absorb the sauce that you've adjusted for flavor so the meat tastes like that. It doesn't need to take forever, even 30 minutes will do it.