Like swallows returning to Capistrano in the spring, the arrival of cooler weather along the shore means cooks will be leaving their outside grills for the warmer confines of the kitchen. The cooler months are the perfect time to get in the kitchen and fine tune your culinary techniques. One particular technique will have your family and friends salivating in anticipation to be your test subject.
Braising, often confused with stewing, is the keystone of comfort foods techniques. Braises are the foods that fill your home with the aromas that tell visitors that love resides here.
When it comes to the difference between stewing and braising, size does matter. Stewing is done with small cubes of meat. Braising utilizes larger whole muscle cuts of meat. Stews can be cooked on the stove top braising uses low heat in the oven. Both techniques involve less tender cuts of meat such as the shoulder, brisket, shank or leg cuts. These less tender cuts offer two distinct advantages. Since they come from exercised muscles they have more flavors and being less tender they are also less expensive than the choice center cuts. More flavor for less money? Why isn’t everybody braising? The main drawback to braising is time. To make less tender cuts more tender requires three components – moisture, low heat and extended cooking times. This allows the connective tissue, called collagen to break down creating intense flavors and melt in your mouth.
The time factor tends to scare people away from braising and it shouldn’t. While some braises may take up to five hours to cook, it doesn’t mean you are shackled to the stove the whole time. Chefs like braises because it actually creates more free time to accomplish other tasks. After the initial browning stage and the braised item is in the oven, the cook’s main task is to let time, temperature and moisture do their magic. At home this means you can do chores, enjoy time with your family, watch football or search for the perfect wine to accompany your masterpiece. All braises can be made by following the same basic template.
- Brown the meat then remove.
- Caramelize vegetables.
- Deglaze the pan with wine.
- Add meat back to pot.
- Add aromatic seasonings.
- Add stock until item is three quarters covered.
- Cover pot, place in low oven and wait.
- As the flavors fill your home, it is okay to peek under the lid occasionally.
- When the meat is fork tender, remove to a warm place.
- Degrease the cooking liquid then bring to a simmer.
- Thicken the liquid into a sauce by whisking in roux or buerre manie.
- If your braised dish is loaded with vegetables you can puree with an immersion blender creating a natural thickening agent. This also releases all of the flavors absorbed during cooking back into the sauce.
Follow these steps and you can create a myriad of dishes by varying the ingredients. Remember the mantra taught to me by one of my favorite chefs: The ingredients may change but the technique remains the same.
Try this month’s recipes for Yankee Pot Roast and Cider-Braised Pork Shoulder. Until next month, Bon Appétit.
Braised Pork Shoulder
- 6 lb pork shoulder or butt, tied
- 5 apples, peeled, cored and wedged
- 3 onions, julienned
- 2 pints cider
- 2 qts beef stock
- 1 lb sauerkraut
- 2 tsp caraway seeds
- ¼ cup oil
- 6 oz slab bacon, diced
- 2 bay leaves
- Heat large Dutch oven over medium heat. Render bacon and remove, saving for later use.
- Add oil.
- Season pork liberally with salt and pepper.
- Brown in oil on all sides. Remove.
- Add onions and apples. Sweat until tender.
- Add caraway seeds, bay leaves and sauerkraut.
- Bring to simmer. Add pork and bacon back in. Add cider and stock.
- Cover. Place in 300º oven for 3 hours until pork is fork tender.
- Remove pork. Let rest 10 minutes.
- Slice. Arrange over apple, onions and sauerkraut. Ladle braising liquid over dish.
- Serve with spaetzle and Oktoberfest beer.
Yankee Pot Roast
- 1 5 lb chuck roast, tied and dredged in seasoned flour
- ¼ cup oil
- 2 onions, cut in half, then quartered
- 6 carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
- 4 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
- 6 stalks celery, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 1 rutabaga, peeled and cut into1 inch pieces
- 3 sprigs rosemary
- 4 cloves garlic
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 2 cups red wine
- 3 qts beef stock
- In Dutch oven brown chuck roast on all sides.
- Remove, add onions and garlic and brown.
- Add carrots, parsnips, rutabagas and celery. Lightly caramelize.
- Add herbs.
- Deglaze with red wine. Stir with wooden spoon gently scraping the pan.
- Add beef back in.
- Cover with stock. Put lid on pan and place in 275º degree oven for 4 hours.
- Remove lid. Inhale joyous fumes. Degrease cooking liquid.
- Remove beef to platter. Let rest 15 minutes then slice.
- Remove half the vegetables and arrange around sliced beef on platter.
- Using immersion blender, puree remaining vegetables in liquid. Reduce until thickened.
- Serve with beef, vegetables and Horseradish Mashed Potatoes.