Braising is a cooking technique that involves long, slow simmering of a meat or vegetable in a cooking liquid. It varies from poaching in that the braising liquid does not cover the main ingredient.
You can braise on the stove top or in the oven, and a heavyweight enameled pan is the ideal vessel for braising, though a crock-pot or cast-iron pot works equally well. The benefit of using a heavy pot is that you get heat transfer from within the walls of the pot, and thus the cooking liquid gets heated from all sides. I also prefer a nice enameled cast-iron pan because it’s the original, non-stick, super easy-to-clean cookware!
Braising is generally used to slow-cook tougher cuts of meat, but it’s also used to give vegetables an even, slow-cooked texture. When braising tougher cuts of meat, one of the benefits of braising is that the slow, steady cooking allows for the breakdown of connective tissues in the meat. This not only makes for finished dishes that are tender, but also allows the cooking liquid to become richly flavored.
Even though cooking tougher cuts of meat may have been the original intent behind braising, any cut or type of meat can be braised.
In a true braise, a piece of meat is cooked with broth and sometime vegetables at a bare simmer. A braising pan has a lid that sits above the rim of the pan, allowing for some steam to escape and preventing the build-up of pressure in the pot so that you don’t end up steaming your dish.
5 Tips for Perfect Braising
1) If possible, sear each piece of meat to be braised until nicely browned. This does not “seal in the juices” as many people claim, but rather the high heat allows for the caramelization of sugars to take place (known as the Maillard reaction), which adds complex flavors, characteristic of cooked meats, to develop.
2 ) Deglaze your pan. Those brown bits stuck to the bottom of your pan are sort of like natural bullion cubes, packed full of rich flavor. By adding some liquid to your pot -- preferably, but not necessarily, wine -- you can scrape all of the debris clear of the bottom of the pot, adding flavor to your cooking liquid while also removing deposits that would have burned during the cooking process.
3) Add your cooking liquid until your meat is about halfway covered. Braising is a cooking method that combines dry and wet cooking. This is not poaching.
4) Do not fully cover or seal your pot with its lid. Again, this is to allow for both wet and dry cooking to take place. Keeping the lid on means you’ll be steaming your meat.
5) Always cool your braised meat in its cooking liquid. The secret to braising is cooking a particular cut of meat until the fibers of muscle have completely relaxed. At that point the fibers begin to re-absorb liquid that has been expelled during the cooking process. That same cooking process has also converted the connective tissues in the meat into a gelatinous liquid. This rich, succulent cooking liquid is what gets re-absorbed into the meat. If the meat is cooled in its braising liquid, it will continue to absorb and retain this liquid. If the meat is removed from its braising liquid and allowed to cool, the warm liquid will drain from the meat, leaving you with dry meat.