Braising is to winter what grilling is to summer. Whether you’re feeding just yourself on a lazy Sunday at home or an entire crowd for a semi-fancy dinner party, it should be your go-to cooking method anytime it’s chilly outside. Braising is a pretty low maintenance way to cook, meaning you’ll have plenty of down time to devote to other things, and it somehow manages to make any combination of ingredients feel sophisticated.
You can find tons of great recipes for all sorts of meats, but there’s no need to limit yourself. It’s all about knowing a handful of steps that you can apply to a huge variety of meats and flavors. Master this seven-step method, and you’ll eat well all winter.
1. Choose the right cut
Braising is the best sort of kitchen alchemy, turning tough cuts of meat into something completely tender. Pork shoulder is a good example. If you were to simply cook it like a roast or slice it into steaks for the grill, you would end up with something inedibly chewy. This is because the connective tissue hasn’t had time to break down. When you cook that same piece of meat in a moist environment over a long period of time, these tough fibers eventually turn into gelatin. The resulting meat is incredibly tender and moist.
As good as this strategy is for tough cuts, it doesn’t do it for meats that are already tender. If you tried the same method with pork tenderloin, you’d just end up with something horrendously dry. Save your chops, tenderloins, and steaks for the grill.
So how do you know what types of cuts will work? Anything with a lot of collagen is what you’re looking for. This type of tissue is abundant in muscles that do a lot of work, think legs and shoulders. Typical choices include chicken legs, lamb shanks, beef chuck, and pork shoulder. If you’re ever in doubt, as your butcher.
2. Begin by browning
Though browning meat does nothing to seal in the juices, it’s a crucial step for building a flavorful dish. Browning protein leads to a chemical change called the Maillard reaction, which develops complex flavors. You could certainly skip this step, but your finished dish won’t have nearly as much depth. Searing also helps create a crust on the bottom of the pan that will help flavor the finished sauce, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. Need some inspiration? Check out some of Bon Appétit’s favorite braised dishes.
3. Build flavor with aromatics
After all of your meat is browned, use the same pot to cook vegetables and other ingredients that will help build flavor. A combination of onion, celery, and carrot, known as a mirepoix, is a pretty standard mix. You can vary ingredients in thousands of ways, though, which means you can easily adapt a braise to reflect any type of cuisine. Ginger, lemongrass, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, fennel, peppercorns, dried fruit, sprigs of sturdy herbs, garlic, chiles, and countless other ingredients can all go into the pot at this point.
When you add these flavors, make sure your heat isn’t too high. The goal is to cook the aromatics, not burn them. You may have to remove the pot from the burner to cool it off a little bit before proceeding. And keep in mind, some ingredients will take longer to cook than others. Start with sturdier vegetables or fruits, then add garlic and spices.
4. Deglaze the pot
Once you’ve allowed your chosen ingredients to do their thing, deglaze the pot with some sort of liquid. This step helps to remove all of the bits of food that have accumulated at the bottom of the pot. They add a surprising amount of flavor to the cooking liquid.
Simply using water will work, but anything with more flavor is a better choice. Chicken, beef, or vegetable stock are all good options. Many of our favorite dishes also use a bit of wine, beer, or another type of alcohol. If you’re going this route, deglaze the pot with the booze first, let it reduce, then add stock or water. This will help eliminate the raw alcohol taste.
Make sure you’re adding just enough liquid to come partially up the meat or you’ll end up with way too much liquid to reduce at the end of cooking. Serious Eats also pointed out going light on the liquid helps promote even more browning.
5. Take it low and slow
Once you add your meat back to the pot, just about all the work is done. Now you it just needs to simmer. Some recipes call for doing this on the stove, but the oven is a better bet because the heat tends to be steadier. Lower temperatures yield the best results, but they can also take an incredibly long time. For this reason, America’s Test Kitchen suggested a temperature of 325 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s low enough that your meat will be tender, but won’t take the entire day.
This is also a great opportunity to use a slow cooker. They’re designed to operate at a very low temperature, which extends the cooking time. Look for a model that automatically switches to a warming setting once the braise is finished.
Unlike roasting, there’s no golden temperature that guarantees your braise is ready. Instead of using a thermometer, test for tenderness with a fork or knife. Your chosen implement should easily slide into the meat. If you have to force it, the meat isn’t quite there.
6. Add something fresh finish
Depending on your tastes and the particular dish, you may or may not want to reduce the sauce. It’s often a good move because it intensifies the flavor, but it’s really your call. Whatever you decide to do, any braise can benefit from adding something fresh at the end. This can be a squeeze of lemon juice, a grating of zest, or chopped fresh herbs. It adds another layer to the dish and really wakes up the rich flavors.
7. Make a side to soak up the sauce
As delicious as the meat is, don’t forget about that sauce. It has just as much flavor, so serve your braise with something that will soak up all the deliciousness. Mashed potatoes, polenta, buttered noodles, and rice are all fantastic choices. You might also want to consider using bowls rather than plates.