Technique: Braising Turns Tougher Meats into Something Wonderful

Have you ever braised meat? Heard about it and wondered how it’s done? It can seem a little intimidating, can’t it? Honestly, once you learn the basics of braising you can transform even the toughest cut of meat into a tender masterpiece. Braising is just one of those very basic cooking techniques that you HAVE to know. It’s not really that hard - and you’ll be happy you know how.

What Exactly is Braising?

Braising is a method of cooking meat slowly in moist heat, usually with part of the food submerged in an aromatic liquid. (It’s most often used for tougher cuts of meat, but, yes, it can be used on vegetables also. But for now we’ll focus on braising meats.) Often a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven is used – the meat, vegetables and liquid are put into the Dutch oven, covered and then cooked over gentle, even, low heat for several hours. Just remember the phrase “low and slow”.

When it comes to meat, braising is a great way to bring tougher meats’ very rich flavors to the surface and will make the meat much more tender. And you know what? The tougher meats are often less expensive. So think of it as a way to also save a few bucks. Nice.

What Meats Do I Braise?

There are certain types and cuts of meats that lend themselves more to braising. Tougher cuts work best. Try these:

  • Bone-in beef short ribs
  • Chuck, round, or brisket
  • Pork shoulder
  • Lamb shoulder and shanks
  • Chicken thighs.

Why Does Braising Work Anyway?

Braising breaks down the tough connective tissue in meat to collagen. While it cooks low and slow, the moisture and heat build and the collagen dissolves into gelatin. Heat also contracts and coils the muscle fibers. While cooking, these fibers expel moisture and the meat becomes dry. Given even more time, these fibers relax and absorb the melted fat and melted gelatin. Next thing you know, you have a super braise. 

How is Braising Done?

Braised Beef Short Ribs

Braised Beef Short Ribs

  1. The first step is to brown or sear the food you are cooking. It can be cut into cubes, chunks or even small roasts. You make sure the surface is dry. Season it with some salt and pepper. Then you sear it on all sides in a Dutch oven (a deep, heavy-bottomed pot is the key) with 1-2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. A nice crusty sear is the secret to a tasty braise.
  2. Remove the meat from the pot, but leave behind the fat that has cooked out of it. Add some veggies and brown them. A common start is to use mirepoix (chopped onions, celery and carrots).
  3. Next you deglaze the pan by using some liquid. Often wine or stock is used for this. You scrub up the bits of fond left in the pan from the meat into the liquid. It becomes very flavorful. The veggies should get browned and soft.
  4. Now you put the meat back in the pot. Then add stock or water until it reaches about halfway up the meat.
  5. Bring the liquid to a boil and then immediately lower it to a low simmer. It is at this point that you add herbs and seasonings like bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, fennel, etc. There are tons of different recipes with combinations to use for different meats.   
  6. Cover the pot and either leave it simmering on the stovetop or in the oven (at 325ºF).
  7. Check on it occasionally. You want to keep the liquid at about that same level, so you might have to add more along the way. Sometimes people like to turn the meat periodically.
  8. The cook time will vary from about 90 minutes to about 3 hours - depending on the size and cut of meat you are using. How do you know when it’s done? It will be fork-tender. Once it hits that point, it’s done. Stop cooking so you don’t dry it out. Boom! You’re done!

Hey! What About All That Liquid?

OK, so now you’re left with awesomely tender meat - and a big pot of flavored liquid. Toss it? Well, you could. But why would you? How about putting it on the stovetop and reducing it down to a super-flavorful sauce? It won’t take very long. And, besides, it’s good for the meat to rest a little before you serve it.

As you can see the braise is a pretty simple, yet incredibly tasty technique to learn. It can certainly take a long time, but it’s really not very labor-intensive. Go get a less-expensive, tougher cut of meat and turn it into something wonderful! 

If you liked this post, you may also want to check these out:
* Let's Talk Brown Butter
* Technique: Easily Master the Julienne Cut
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