Every year when temps begin to change from the long hot days of summer to shorter cooler days and much cooler nights, my mind starts thinking of slow cooked dishes. The dishes I am referring to are mostly known as braises. Braising (from the French “braiser”) is a combination cooking method using both moist and dry heat; typically the food is first seared at a high temperature and then finished in a covered pot with a variable amount of liquid, resulting in a particular flavor. Braising of meat is often referred to as pot roasting, though some authors make a distinction between the two methods based on whether additional liquid is added. I find the process of building the braise very enjoyable. This is when the real work that goes into the dish is done.
Start by deciding what your outcome should be. Choose a protein you would like to work with. Chicken thighs that are bone-in, skin on, duck legs, shanks, oxtail, and lamb's neck are all great options of cuts. One great thing about braising is that most often than not, less expensive cuts of animals are the star. They tend to be tougher cuts that have lots of connective tissue & muscle fiber that have collagen which will gelatinize when slowly cooked. This adds a particular richness and thickness to the braise that a leaner cut would never yield. What flavor profile or cultural dish are you thinking of? Select a seasoning or spice mix that is appropriate for the dish along with some aromatics like celery, carrots, onions & garlic to name a few. Sturdy herbs can help such as rosemary, thyme, oregano & bay depending on the focus of the dish. If you have a complimentary stock or broth like chicken, for a chicken dish or, beef for a beef dish you will want to use this to add more intensity and complexity to the dish. Salt is very important. I find more often than not, if I season the meat before browning, and add a little to the aromatics before sweating them, the end result is usually just right not requiring any additional salt. The slow cooktime will intensify the seasoning along with the flavor so, be mindful of that when adding salt in the beginning. Also, I like to incorporate some form of acidity such as lemon, vinegar, or wine. Acidity not only adds flavor but, provides complexity and balance. Another form of acidity is tomato product. Preserved or canned tomato sauce, pulp or chunks are good, as is a little tomato paste which will aid in thickening the braise. Tomato will however influence the appearance as well as the flavor of the finished dish.
If you haven't discovered by now, there are numerous steps involved in the "building" of the braise. Gathering, trimming the meat if necessary, or even breaking down a whole animal if you are skilled at butchery. Seasoning & browning the meat often referred to as searing. Here you create what is known as the "maillard reaction," a form of nonenzymatic browning. It results from a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat. Not to get too technical and geeky here, but basically when you sear or brown the meat you are working with, several things occur that will enhance the outcome of the dish. Rendering some of the fat that will help to flavor the braise, browning of the meat creates texture and another layer of flavor. Residue from the browned meat will collect on the bottom of the pan while searing. It can be scraped off with a wooden spoon along with the assisitance of a little liquid or acid, this is called "de-glazing," which will add yet another "layer" of flavor. I emphasize the term "layer," because braising is about building many layers of flavor. This is part of the magical process of slow cooked meats and vegetables in liquid that yield a soulfully satisfying rich, complex and delicous dish. I remember Sunday Suppers at my grandmothers house when I was little. She used a terrifying thing known as a "pressure cooker," to cook these slow comforting dishes like chicken & dumplings, pot roast & lamb stew. I found solice and comfort in those tasty delights which is probably why I am so fond of them today. Since, pressure cookers have come along way. They have embraced modern technology in that they have digital timers, multiple functions and safer cleaner designs.
After browning of the meat, remove from the pan and add your cut aromatics to the pan, season lightly and stir. Allow for the vegetables to sweat or release water, it is not a bad thing to have some browning here too. Extra browning of the vegetables yet again, creates another layer of flavor. Once the vegetables have begun to soften and brown a little, if you are using tomato paste, add here and stir to coat the vegetables. I like to allow more time here to allow the paste to caramelize a little here stirring every couple of minutes. Guess what? Right! another layer of flavor. Now, deglaze with wine or a splash of vinegar, stir and let evaporate for a minute or so before adding your meat back to the pot. Now add enough liquid whatever you are using, stock or water or tomato product, until it reaches about 2/3 the way up from the top of the meat. DO NOT fully cover the meat with liquid! Turn up heat, and just when the liquid begins to boil, cut the heat down to very low, cover and walk away. If you are using the oven method, you will then transfer the covered pot from the stove to the oven now.
Even with a time saving device like a pressure cooker, there really are no shortcuts to braising. All of the work is really in the beginning of building the braise. Once the braise is built, you will either cover and set the timer, or using a heavy bottomed cooking vessel such as a dutch oven or roasting dish, finish on top of the stove on very very low heat. I prefer a low oven of 300 degrees vs. on top of the stove. The later will usually take 3-4 hours depending on the size of the cut you are working with. Low & slow is the way to go here.
Once you determine the meat is done, this is usually done by testing with the tip of the knife to see how easily the meat separates from the bone or if the knife easily penetrates the meat. Visual cues such as bone protruding from muscle are also present. Now, let rest covered for 10-15 minutes without additional heat or cooking. Depending on the protein, there is usually a layer of fat that will accumulate on the surface of the braise. Using a ladle or a large spoon, skim away the excess until you reach the braise. Taste the braise to see if seasoning is correct or you might need to adjust. Does it need more salt? More acid? Fresh herbs can enhance a finished braise if you choose. If I use soft herbs like parsley or basil it would be at this stage, or chopped and sprinkled as a garnish to the plated dish.
I can't think of a better, more comforting and soul satisfying dish on a cool fall or even a cold winter night than a delicious braise. While the ingredients of summer are wonderful, featured with as little interference from the cook as possible, it is the "real cooking" process of braising that gets my juices flowing!