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To braise food means to cook it slowly and for a long time after browning or searing it in fat, butter or oil. A small amount of liquid is traditionally added to the dish to prevent it from becoming dry during the cooking process. A tight fitting lid on the pan or pot is necessary to hold in the moisture during the braise. Braising can be successfully done in the oven, a Crockpot or on top of a traditional range.
Lower grade cuts of beef, pork and lamb are generally considered excellent candidates for braising. These typically include ribs, briskets, shanks and pot, chuck or shoulder roasts. Since the braise cooks the meats at such low temperatures, the high collagen content slowly dissolves and tenderizes the meat while creating a thick sauce, rich with the flavors of the meat.
Vegetables can also be braised. Although they are traditionally added to a braised meat dish along with the liquid right before the process begins, most hearty root vegetables react well to this cooking method. The vegetables should be cut into fairly large chunks and browned well on all sides before the pot is lidded and the braising begins. For vegetables with high natural water content, such as onions and celery, it is not normally necessary to add additional liquid to the pot.
Braising can generally be successfully accomplished through following four simple steps. After choosing the cut of meat, it should be browned, the liquid added and the lid tightly placed on top. The pot or pan should then be placed into the chosen cooking environment. If a cook chooses to braise vegetables alone, they should be started without added liquid but periodically checked to make sure they do not dry out or stick to the bottom of the pot.
Browning the meat normally takes about ten to 20 minutes, depending on the volume. The meat can be left whole or cut up. If it is cut up, all the pieces should be around the same size to make sure everything cooks evenly. It should be browned in the same pot it will be cooked in to incorporate the flavor of the browning agent in the finished dish.
Next, the liquid should be sparingly added. A three to four pound roast, for instance, should need no more than a half cup or so of liquid for braising since the meat has natural juices. The chosen liquids can be anything that goes well with the meat and typically include water, broth, wine, juice or a combination thereof. If vegetables are part of the recipe, they should be added at this time, and a secure lid should top the pot.
Cooking times vary but generally range from one to four or five hours, depending on the amount of meat being used. Stove-top cooking is acceptable although some cooks prefer the all-encompassing heat of a traditional oven. Braising temperatures differ for each recipe as well.
I think every beginning cook should start with braising, myself. Because it's so nearly goof-proof, it's a good method for a beginner. It builds confidence that the rookie cook can come up with a successful main dish on the first try.
Braising is an old method, too. It was used as early as the Middle Ages, when good cuts of meat were nearly impossible to find for a poor family -- when they had meat at all. If they had it, they frequently braised it to get the most flavor from it, and to tenderize it enough so they could eat it easily.
One of the first meat main dishes I ever cooked was braised pork chops. They were wonderful! I cooked them in a cast iron skillet, with sliced onions on top. I just dredged them lightly in flour, then browned the chops on both sides. I took the meat from the skillet, added some water to get the browned bits from the bottom, returned the chops, added the onions, covered the pan, turned down the heat and cooked it for about 30 minutes. Couldn't be easier!
Braising is one of my go-to cooking methods. Doesn't require a lot of fat, is easy, quick and almost always results in tender, juicy meat. It's really a good method.
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