Braising is transformative: it turns tougher, cheaper cuts of meat into richly flavorful dishes that rival their more expensive protein brethren. But unlike stewing, which is toss-in-a-pot simple, braising requires a few extra steps, a balance of searing and simultaneous steaming/simmering, before mealtime payoff.
Even some of the masters have had issues with braising. Julia Child’s famous Boeuf Bourguignon calls for cooking at 325°F, perhaps a smidge too high to elicit true fork-tenderness. But the fact is braising needn’t be arduous, or complicated; there are many ways to cut the time involved and the techniques required. So however classically French it may sound (and it is), don’t let braising intimidate. Here are a few steps to get you braising in no time, metaphorically speaking.
Braising image via Shutterstock
Step 1: Do Your Homework
Preparation is half the battle anytime you cook. This is especially true with braising, as the timing of ingredient additions affects the final dish. Prep your aromatics, chop your onions and garlic, and have everything else measured out so you can just dump it into the pot when called for.
But even before you pick up your knife, make sure you first pick the protein best suited to your time constraints. Braising vegetables almost never takes longer than 45 minutes, but meat can keep you “pot committed” for six or more hours if the cut is thick and tough. Have just an hour? A steaky fish or thinly sliced chicken is your best bet. Have a bit more time to kill? Oxtails or trimmed sirloin tips are good to go. For that giant rump roast or tough hanger steak, plan on several hours. (Oh, and make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature. That way, as you add them to the pot, they won’t lower the temperature and slow the already sluggish cooking time.)
Step 2: Sear Your Meat or Sauté Your Veggies
Browning major ingredients is an essential early step in braising, not just for that nice color, but for serious added flavor. Be they turnips or tournedos, caramelization helps infuse the whole dish with extra umami, the Japanese term for that ultra-savory enriching “fifth taste.” The Indian oxtail curry dish I’m preparing uses thinly sliced oxtails, seared first in just a little bit of oil until brown. Remember to season your meat or veggies before browning, but don’t go overboard, as you’ll be seasoning the braise throughout.
Step 3: Low and Slow Wins the Race
It’s been said so often to be a cliché’s cliché, but low heat and slow cooking is the key to any great braise. Once the meat or vegetables are seared, remove them from the pot and add your aromatics and any other vegetables you want to cook down before adding simmering liquid. Season again and cook (onions and garlic should be translucent, and carrots and celery should be soft) and then add back first the meat/vegetables and then the liquid. (As for what liquid to braise with, see the next step.)
Once everything is in the pot, cover it with a tight-fitting lid. In olden times, braising was often done using embers placed on top of the pot lid. Today, the best (and speediest) braises include this “below and above” cooking method, and (maybe) you can too. If your oven has heating coils on the top and bottom, you’re in luck. If the coils are only on the top or you have a convection oven, you can bring the liquid up to a boil on the stove and then cook the entire pot, lid and all, at 250°F.
Step 4: Don’t Drown in Liquid
Be sure not to overfill the pot. Liquid should rise no higher than two-thirds up the side of the protein. More than that will mean you’re making a stew, whereas braising relies upon both steam and liquid for cooking. Water serves perfectly well for most braises, as most of the flavor comes from what is being braised. Besides, you should be seasoning throughout whenever you add a new item and checking to make sure it is not too salty or dull.
If you have stock on hand or even some wine, that helps to enrich the braising liquid even more. Keep it warm to the side (room temp is fine, but warming it over a low flame is even better) and add the liquid in increments. Check on the braising liquid in the pot periodically and make sure it doesn’t reduce too far (more than halfway down the side of the meat). If it does, add a little extra liquid to keep the braise going strong.
Also remember that by seasoning, you’re bringing out natural liquids from the vegetables, so don’t overload the pot with liquid or you’ll drown out the flavor.
Step 5: Build Your Braise
As for what ingredients work together in a braise, not all braising items are created equal. You might want to (as we did for the oxtail curry) sauté onions separately so you get even more caramelization in the braise. This is also a good way to cut down on time (if you have multiple pots on hand). While you’re searing your protein, sweat your vegetables and heat up your stock.
Likewise, some items are best added almost at the very last minute. For the oxtail curry, we added fresh mint and masala peanuts a few minutes before pulling it off the heat. This way the herb retained its freshness and the nuts kept their crunch.
Step 6: Remove and Reduce
Another way to shorten the braising time—and create a rich and thick braising sauce—is to remove the meat from the braise. It’s hard to over-braise a meat if it’s at a very low temperature, but if you remove it as soon as it’s sufficiently tender, you can save valuable time. Check the meat every 20 minutes or so, and take it out once it’s tender (reserve to the side). Do the same if there are any vegetables that might get too mushy if left in the liquid. Then crank your stovetop heat to medium-low and simmer the braising liquid until it reduces. For those who live to wash dishes, you can transfer the braising liquid to a fresh sauté pan instead of the pot to reduce your cooking time further.
Step 7: Stir (Maybe) and Serve!
To serve, you can either place the meat on the plate and spoon over the reduced sauce, or just add the meat back into the braising liquid and stir it all together one last time to balance out the flavors. Some last minute herb sprinklings (we neglected this step, unfortunately) help gussy up the final product.