Everything You Need to Know About Braising Meat
Braising meat is a simple cooking technique that yields some of the heartiest, coziest meals you can imagine.
The only way to feed yourself through the cold winter months is by perfecting the art of the braise. It’s pretty easy to get caught in a dinner rut at this time of year, but with the power of a good braise, you won’t get tired of the food that you’re cooking. While it might come off as an intimidating technique, braising is actually a simple, straightforward method that home cooks can riff on endlessly. Don’t let the lengthy cooking times on braised recipes scare you off — it’s mostly inactive, and it will only make your kitchen smell delightful. This stuff isn’t rocket science — once you’ve mastered the basic sequence of steps, you can get crazy (and braisy!) and start to experiment with different meats, veggies, liquids, and aromatics. But if you’re just getting started, a good recipe is always a smart idea. Well, are you ready to braise or what?! Here’s everything that you need to know before you set out to cook your first braise.
Braised Meat Recipes to Try:
Choose Your Meat
The beauty of a braise is that it can transform the toughest cuts of meat, with a flavor-packed braising liquid and a few hours in the oven, into the most tender, succulent dish. Contrary to what you might think, you don’t need to buy the most expensive cut. In fact, the cheaper, tougher cuts are much more ideal. Save your rib-eyes, pork chops, and lamb chops for searing or grilling, and opt for heartier cuts like beef chuck, pork shoulder, lamb shoulder, short ribs, and chicken thighs. Bone-in cuts are always better because the marrow in the bones will release during cooking and make for a more flavorful braising liquid. Staring at the meat counter and you’re not sure? Ask the butcher — they’ll likely be able to point you in the right direction.
Brown the Meat
The first step of any braise is to heat a neutral oil (vegetable, canola, or grapeseed) in a heavy-bottomed pot, ideally an enameled cast iron (even heat distribution, baby!). Pat your meat dry with a paper towel, and season it generously with salt, pepper, and any other dry spices that you like. Once the oil is barely smoking, gently lower in the meat and sear on all sides until it is a deep golden-brown. Make sure that the meat is undisturbed (this is how you achieve really nice caramelization) and that there is space between the pieces of meat if you are searing multiple small cuts (versus one large pork butt, for example). You might need to work in batches in order to properly sear all the meat, as crowding the pan will create more steam around the meat than you want. Once seared, remove all of the meat to a plate.
Related: The Best Dutch Ovens to Buy In 2020
Sweat the Aromatics
Once the meat has been seared, you’re now left with a hot Dutch oven full of residual fat. Sounds like a flavor party to me! From here, you want to start incorporating your vegetables and aromatics. Any sort of allium (onions, shallots, leeks) and garlic is an absolute must, but from there, you can get creative with what else you add. Try to “sweat” the onions, which means to saute them until they’re soft and translucent, but not charred. If you burn the onions or garlic, the whole dish will taste bitter, so you’re honestly better off starting over. (But that won’t happen to you because you’re a soon-to-be braising champ). Carrots, celery, mushrooms, and fennel are always great additions as well. You can also add some woody herbs at this point, such as thyme, sage, rosemary, or oregano. If you want to toss in a few spoonfuls of tomato paste, go for it. Now would also be a great time to add in some hot peppers or chili flakes, if you want to crank up the spiciness a bit.
Deglaze and Add Your Braising Liquid
If you thought we had a flavor party before, now we definitely have one once all the veggies have started to cook. From here, you’ll want to loosen up all the browned bits on the bottom of the pan (because that’s where a lot of flavor is hiding) by deglazing the pan. It sounds fancy, but you can deglaze a pan with any liquid — wine, beer, vinegar, stock, or even water are all great ways to unlock the tasty bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan. After you pour your deglazing liquid in, use a wooden spoon to scrape up the bits (it’s actually really fun, I promise). At this point, you can add your seared meat back into the pan.
Next comes the braising liquid. Always try to match your stock with the protein that you’re cooking; so if you’re making a beef dish, use beef stock. That said, chicken stock is pretty much universal. You can braise in whatever combinations of liquids that you like: red wine, balsamic vinegar, apple cider, or even milk. Just make sure that whatever it is that you’re braising is only partially submerged (if it’s fully submerged, you’re technically stewing... which is slightly different). At this point, you can also throw in some more aromatics to flavor the liquid, such as bay leaves, star anise, cinnamon sticks, or cardamom pods. If you want to add a vegetable such as kale or potatoes, wait until you have about 30-45 minutes left of braising time to add them.
Time to Braise
At this point, it’s time to take your hands off and let time do it’s thing. Bring your braising liquid to a boil on the stove top, then reduce it to a simmer and cover it. If you can, transfer the covered Dutch oven to a 300°F oven, for evenly distributed, consistent heat. Alternatively, you can continue cooking your braise on low heat on the stove top, but stove tops are prone to uneven cooking.
The trickiest part of a braise is understanding when it’s done. You are not cooking to a specific internal temperature the way you might be when you’re grilling or searing meats. Instead, you know your braise is done when the meat is fork tender. If it looks like it’s ready to fall off the bone, then congratulations. You, my friend, just successfully braised your first dish.
The Final Touches
From here, you can simply enjoy your braise (maybe serve it over some mashed potatoes, creamy polenta, or pasta). Season with a few pinches of salt, a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar, and maybe a handful of fresh parsley or cilantro and you’re good to go. If you want to turn that braising liquid into a more concentrated sauce, remove the meat and any veggies, then turn your stovetop heat back to high to reduce the sauce. Try to skim off any fat that gathers at the top. You can always thicken the braising liquid by adding a slurry (cornstarch or flour mixed with water or stock) or beurre manie (an equal parts mixture of flour and butter). However you choose to finish it off, there’s no way around the fact that you just created a hearty, flavor-packed dish that will help you trudge through the dark, cold days of the winter.