Tips for hearty, delicious braising

braised meat

Braising — carefully browning meat in fat, then cooking it "low and slow" in a small amount of liquid — can coax tenderness and flavor from even the toughest cut.

It's a favorite technique of local chef and author Becky Selengut. She's taught many a PCC Cooks class about braising, which she says originated out of necessity for those who couldn't afford the tender cuts: pork tenderloin, filet mignon and the like. But, in an ironic twist, it's those tougher cuts of meat — with names like shoulder, shank, butt and short ribs — that often reward the patient cook with incredible flavor.

"Personally, filet mignon never made much sense to me," says Selengut. "It's just buttery texture-wise. I'll take a cut of pork butt, or trotters, even. Pork tenderloin does nothing for me.

"Some of the best dishes in the world come out of the cultures from people who have had to really struggle, because you're forced to be really creative."

Selengut browns meat, then deglazes the pan with liquid, then roasts it. She works backwards with vegetables, cooking them in liquid, then caramelizing them either in a pan on the stove or beneath the broiler. Browning the vegetables last helps them preserve their color.

The most important step in braising? Taking care (and time) to thoroughly sear the meat to help develop flavor during the marathon of simmering that awaits. That low-and-slow cooking breaks down the collagen in tougher cuts, making the meat fork tender.

Best candidates for braising

  • Cuts of beef, pork and lamb that hail from the shoulders, sides and back of the animal. Look for names like "shoulder," "butt," "brisket" and "shank."
  • Don't be shy: When in doubt, ask your butcher for advice.
  • Sturdy vegetables that caramelize well, such as fennel bulb, onions, kohlrabi, endive and root vegetables such as rutabaga and turnips.

What else to have on hand

  • Handy liquids to deglaze the pan, such as white and red wine, vermouth (which keeps well on the counter), apple cider (great for pork shoulder) and low-sodium stock.
  • A heavy, oven-safe skillet or pot with a tight-fitting lid (cast iron is ideal).

by Karen Gaudette, PCC Taste, February 2011

More about: braising, cooking on a budget, cooking tips, meat, PCC Cooks