Basic Cooking Technique: Braising

In this day and age, microwave ovens, and heat-n-eat frozen foods give us the convenience of a [somewhat] healthy, [not very] tasty meal ready in minutes. Supermarket freezer sections are stocked with tempting-looking insta-meals, and on blogs everywhere you can read about how to take shortcuts to make cooking easier and faster. But does that make it better?

Methinks no.

Yes, we live in a fast-forward world. In my alter ego as a Web developer, I am to share in the blame of our accelerated lifestyles by enabling the instant gratification hyperwarp drive that is the Internet. However, some things haven’t changed. Physics, for instance. It takes the same amount of time to cook beef as it did a generation ago, but now we have less time in which to do it. So we sacrifice things like flavor, nutrition, and quality for the expediency of a quick meal cooked between carpool and yoga. And don’t think that in other freezers in my house [meaning not my catering one] you can’t find frozen hamburger patties, frozen chicken nuggets, even frozen french fries (c’mon, it’s a potato stick). It’s everywhere. Sigh.

Okay, I’ve made my point. Now let’s reintroduce ourselves to a standard cooking technique that reminds us the old, delicious way that food used to be. And we’ll even put some modern techno-wizardry to good use.

Braising is the cooking technique by which a food is cooked over a low heat for a long time either partially or completely submerged in a liquid. This is classified as moist heat cooking. And this is where the glory of the readily available kosher parts of the animal come into their own.

The chuck cuts of beef – #2, #3, #5, #7, #8, #9, #10, are too tough for a quick flip on the grill. They need time to cook so they become tender. They’re also leaner muscles, which means they’ll dry out unless they have something to keep them moist. Braising, therefore, becomes the cooking method of choice. So let’s look at what goes into braising a piece of meat into deliciousness.

The Meat

You’re looking for a piece of meat that’s fairly uniform in size. I know that’s asking too much for the frozen balls of meat we usually get here, but do your best. Thinner pieces of meat that are cooked too long will get stringy. Which is fine if you want ropa vieja or some Southern pulled beef dish, but not if you’re looking to serve a nice, big piece of meat.

If you want to go slightly more expensive for a huge return on oh-my-goodness, look in the freezer section for בשר ראש “bassar rosh”, which is beef cheeks, or at least very close to them. The connective tissue melts into gelatin that is so decadently soft, succulent… dare I say unctuous?

The Moisture

Stock and wine are the usual liquids that are used for braising. Beer, cider, and cola are more modern takes on braising liquids. You get points for inventiveness, but just make sure it’s edible.

You’ll need to use enough liquid so that the meat stays moist throughout the cooking process, which means that you’ll also need to use the right size pot. Something low and wide will accommodate a larger piece of meat with enough room for aromatics in the pan. Make sure it has a cover that keeps the moisture in while the meat is cooking.

The Method

While there are numerous variations on a theme, braising typically consists of:

  1. Brown the meat – get a pan nice and hot, sear the meat on the outside with a little fat, then remove from the pan.braising1
  2. Add the aromatics – vegetables, herbs, spices and the rest of the supporting cast go into the pan.braising3
  3. Set the pan – deglaze with the braising liquid, return the meat, cover and cook.braising2

You don’t have to brown the meat if you like it grey, you don’t have to add aromatics, but the dish will lack depth, etc. I sometimes do the aromatics first, to give the fond a little more body. You can marinate the meat first, roast the vegetables first to concentrate their flavor, use a mix of oils. You can be as sophisticated or as simple as you like.

The Modernization

So how do you treat your family to a delicious meal that took hours to cook, without running the risk of scorching a nice piece of meat while you’re out and about for the day? Chances are you already figured it out, but just in case you’re still blanking… the slow cooker.

Did you hear the asimon drop?

It’s not just for Shabbat. I mean, the slow cooker wasn’t invented for Shabbat, right?. Well, actually, it was, but that’s a different post. Non-Jewish cooks co-opted the device for slow-cooking all sorts of meals. Do you want to make Julia’s Boeuf Bourguignon (v.I, p.315)? Follow the instructions (sans bacon), then instead of the oven, throw it in the slow cooker’s ceramic dish and set it to low.

And when you come home from your crazy day, the delicious smell of dinner cooking will be there to greet you.

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