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In praise of the braise

(article, Kurt Michael Friese)

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This time of year always makes me yearn for the hearty, stick-to-your-ribs fare of my Yankee forebears, built around a big ol’ joint of meat cooked long and slow until the whole house fills with a luscious aroma.

To do this right isn't difficult, but you need to know the rules of a fundamental cooking technique: braising.

Simply defined, there are three basic ways to cook meat: 

# Dry heat (baking, sautéing, grilling, broiling) 
# Moist heat (steaming, poaching)
# Dry and moist heat combined (braising, stewing) 

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The fundamental difference between braising and stewing is that in braises, a large cut of meat is cooked, while in stews, the meat is cut into smaller pieces before cooking. Both braises and stews sear the meat first to seal it, and both add varying amounts of liquid before finishing the cooking process with low and slow heat.

The best cuts of meat for braising are those sometimes called the “tough cuts” — the muscles that get the most exercise on an animal, such as the shoulders, shanks, legs, and ribs. Because of its dual process (dry searing to start, wet bath to finish), braising helps lock in flavor while tenderizing the meat. The end results are rich and succulent, perfect for a warm winter’s meal by the fire. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Braised beef ribs with polenta."]

(Of course, more tender cuts of meat can also be braised; for these, you need less liquid, a lower temperature, and a shorter cooking time.)

Every traditional Western braise relies on the same three components, though the ingredients may vary slightly according to taste: the meat itself, the liquid, and the mirepoix (a combination of aromatic vegetables almost always consisting of two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery). Other ingredients may include mushrooms, leeks, tomatoes, potatoes, and garlic. 

As for tools, you'll need a large saucepan or casserole (preferably with a lid, although a little parchment and foil will do nicely in a pinch) big enough to do three things:

# Fit your chosen cut of meat,
# Leave enough room around the meat for all the other ingredients, and
# Be of a diameter to let your braising liquid come halfway up the sides of the meat. 

For the best braising results, I recommend starting on the stovetop and finishing in the oven — which means you'll also need your chosen pan to go safely from the stovetop to the oven (i.e., no plastic handles). In my ribs recipe, for example, I use a large steel casserole pan.

[%image veal float=right width=250 caption="A showpiece."] Finally, you’ll need a little oil in which to sear the meat and some salt, pepper, and aromatic herbs, plus some wine for the deglaze.

Read the recipe through at least once, to make sure you haven't overlooked anything. Assemble all your tools and ingredients. Measure, chop, and otherwise prep your ingredients. (Now you've got your mise en place, a French term meaning “everything in place;” it's typically shortened by professional cooks to just one word, "meez.")

The first step — searing the meat — is essential, and it's the step most likely to cause challenges. On the one hand, it’s easy to burn the meat; on the other hand, the temptation to keep turning and poking the meat (to keep it from burning) is nearly irresistible, and all that movement can result in a steamed surface when the goal is to caramelize. Once the meat has been carefully and evenly seared, remove it from the pot.

The second step — cooking the mirepoix — involves adding the mirepoix to the pot, sautéing it until lightly browned, and then deglazing it with an appropriate wine. ("Appropriate" means a wine you’d drink with that meat; if you're making pot roast, for example, you'd choose a bottle of syrah instead of Sauternes.) The deglaze lifts all the flavorful bits off the bottom of the pan and re-integrates them with the vegetables. 

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The third and final step — adding stock — just means placing the meat back atop the mirepoix, adding the right amount of stock, and placing the entire dish in the oven to finish cooking over low and slow heat. 

While a braised dish's total time can be hours, the actual hands-on time you spend with it is minimal, since the oven does most of the work. When you're almost done, step outside into the cold air and then come back inside; the rich, warm odors will make your home seem welcoming all over again.

p(bio). Chef [/author/mfkswolf "Kurt Michael Friese's"] new book is A Cook's Journey. He is also the co-owner of Devotay in Iowa City.


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