This is the One Cooking Technique to Master This Winter
As winter fully takes hold, many of us have leaned into our recently built new culinary skills. From sourdough bread to macarons, homemade pizza, or serious stir fry, a lot of folks have been going deep on some cooking projects that now feel like a well-exercised muscle, ready to serve us for the rest of our lives. Which means it's time for the next skill to add to the repertoire and if there is one cooking practice that is ideal for winter, it is braising.
What is braising?
Braising on its surface is simply the act of cooking slowly in liquid. Fundamentally designed for cheaper cuts of meat that need cooking for a long time at lower temperatures to fully melt collagen and render fat to make them tender, it is a style of cooking that lends itself to winter. Having your oven or stovetop or slow cooker on for hours is a welcome warmth in the winter kitchen, and cozy smells are always welcome to perfume your home when it is blustery outside.
Why braising is such a good cooking technique
Braising is an easy and forgiving style of cooking, making it perfect for busy folks who don't have time or bandwidth for fussy dishes that need a lot of attention. Once your braise is finished to your desired texture, it can be held on warm in your slow cooker or in a low oven for literally hours without any negative effects.
Best meats for braising
For a basic braise, you want a protein that has good marbling, and may contain some collagen. The best meats (and cuts) for braising are:
- Pork shoulder
- Beef brisket
- Short ribs
- Shanks (including lamb and pork)
- Dark meat poultry (chicken legs and thighs, or goose)
What else to have in your pantry for braising
You'll want some aromatics like onions, carrots, celery, or garlic, but ginger and peppers also work well. Your liquid can be anything, really: water, stock, beer, wine, even fruit juices (and any combination therein that works for you). Seasoning and flavoring agents can be salt and pepper, bay leaf, or other fresh or dried herbs or spices. Additional vegetables (optional) can turn a braise into a one-pot meal like pot roast cooked with potatoes and carrots and onion.
How to build a braise
Building a braise is pretty easy. Here are the steps:
- Season your protein well, then brown on high heat in a heavy-bottomed pot to a pretty deep caramelization.
- Remove and drain off excess fat, leaving a tablespoon or two behind.
- Chop your aromatics then caramelize them in the remaining fat at medium heat, adding a small amount of your liquid. If you are using some alcohol, this is the place to use it to best advantage, using a wooden spoon or spatula to loosen the brown bits on the bottom of your pot into the liquid and reduce it by at least half.
- Add your browned meat back to the pot, and then add more liquid to come almost all the way to the top of your meat but leaving about a quarter to half-inch of the meat poking up out of the surface of the liquid. (The difference between a braise and a poach or boil is submersion, so be sure the majority of your protein surface has some air.)
- Add in your seasoning agents, being sure to taste the liquid to be sure it is well-seasoned with salt and pepper.
- Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce your heat to low and cover. You can also cover and put into a low oven (200-250 degrees) or transfer to a slow cooker on low.
- Depending on your choice of meat, your braise can take as little as 90 minutes (for chicken legs) or as long as six to eight hours for a whole pork shoulder. You want to go by feel and not time: The meat should be fork tender. If you want to add vegetables, add them right away for faster braises like chicken, and midway through for longer ones.
- Once cooked, remove the meat from the broth, along with any inedible items like bay leaves, lemongrass stalks, bouquet garnis bundles, then taste and adjust the gravy for seasoning. If you want your sauce thicker, reduce on the stovetop over high heat to your desired texture, or feel free to thicken with a cornstarch slurry (equal parts cornstarch and water/broth).
- Put the meat back into the finished sauce and serve with something to sop up juices like pasta, polenta, rice, mashed potatoes, or crusty bread. If you want to get fancy, garnish with fresh herbs or citrus zest, and something crispy like toasted breadcrumbs or fried shallots.
Great braise recipes
Here are a few of my favorite braises to get you started if you don't want to wing it! But don't be afraid to build your technique by experimenting this winter with this basic guide. Soon, you'll be a pandemic braising pro!