Why Braising Is the Culinary Technique You Should Be Using
In its truest form, braising is a beautiful marriage of opposites: A quick, high-heat sear meets a low and gentle simmer in liquid, so your star ingredient always finishes tender and steeped in flavor. It's also a marriage of convenience, since the whole affair happens in a single pot or pan.
The Five Simple Steps
There are five simple steps to braising: sear, sauté, deglaze, simmer, and reduce. To sear, you'll brown your main protein or vegetables in a hot pan with a little fat, such as olive oil. Meat develops a deep, golden crust; the sugars in vegetables caramelize. Remove seared ingredients. Next comes the sauté. Toss in aromatics like herbs, spices, and vegetables (such as bay leaves, thyme, onion, celery, garlic, ginger) to cook in the drippings.
Now it's time deglaze. Add liquid to loosen and dissolve the rich, savory bits, known as "fond" in French cuisine. The seared hero returns to the pan with enough liquid to partly submerge it and continues to cook, partially covered, in the oven or on the stove—this is what's considered the simmer stage. Last but not least, it's time to reduce: The main element is removed, and the liquid cooks into a rich, concentrated sauce. Cream, tempered eggs, or flour can be used to thicken the gravy.
Stove or Oven?
The cooking method you'll use depends on the recipe. In general, we braise lighter proteins like fish on the stovetop and large, longer-cooking hunks of meat in the oven. On the stovetop, monitor the temperature to avoid over-reducing and burning your entrée, and if you notice hot spots, rotate your pot a few times during cooking. In the oven, hot air evenly surrounds a pot, so there's no need to babysit. If you're a slow-, pressure-, or multicooker convert, consult the manufacturer's instructions for the best braising practices.
To rescue each and every flavor-packed morsel from the bottom, pour a small amount of liquid (a cup or less) into the hot pan—wine, broth, and water are all fair game. As the liquid steams and bubbles, use a wooden or sturdy silicone spoon or spatula to scrape and stir, lifting the bits so they can dissolve into pure umami bliss.
The Right Ratio
In braising, solid and liquid elements absorb notes from each other. (It's osmosis!) So pay attention to your pairings to avoid flavor clashes, or canceling out a delicate ingredient with a dominant one. Water is neutral, wine brings acidity, and broth gives a sauce body. If you're using stock or broth, choose low-sodium, since the salt gets more concentrated as the liquid reduces.
Braised dishes are even better the next day, or the day after that. Store meat or vegetables in their cooking liquid (cool them down before refrigerating) to continue the flavor exchange and keep everything moist. Rewarm over low heat on the stove top or in a 350-degree oven.
Top Gear for Braising
If you want to up your braising game, it's time to invest in the right tools. First and foremost, you'll need a heavy-bottomed pot or a straight-sided skillet; either should have a tight-fitting lid and enough surface area for food to fit comfortably in a single layer. It's also important to invest in a great pair of tongs. They act like an extension of your hand, grabbing and turning meat and vegetables when you're browning them, and stirring sauce in locked position.