In Praise of Braising

Now in Season Winter 2015 Issue

In Praise of Braising

By Terese Allen | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

Winter is a tough deal.

You know the routine: glacial blasts, hostile sidewalks, the interminable search for mittens. But the stuck-indoors season has its upsides, too—pot roast or ribs and sauerkraut, for instance. These are braises, the dishes that cook unhurriedly in a Dutch oven, fill a kitchen with wondrous smells and warm you to your DNA.

They also create deep, multi-layered flavor. Here’s how it works: Muscle-bound cuts such as beef chuck, pork butt or lamb shoulder are browned in fat (olive oil, bacon fat, clarified butter), enhanced with aromatics (herbs, onions, garlic) and combined with flavorful liquid (wine, stock, beer). The meat then cooks gently and for an extended time, until the collagen in its connective tissues has dissolved into gelatin, and the ingredients have become voluptuously tender, bathed in a silky sauce and profoundly delicious.

Browning the meat, is key; as in, the darker the tastier. This takes a little patience, and some gutsiness. Dry the meat in paper towels and bring it to room temperature. Use a squat, heavy gauge braising pot (enameled cast iron is ideal) and, to discourage sticking, heat it over a high flame a few minutes before adding the oil. Don’t crowd the meat, or it will steam rather than brown. When the exterior is fully colored and crusty, remove it to a plate.

Now soften your approach a bit. Add the aromatics, but bring the heat down a notch or two, to sweet-talk them into releasing flavor. Stir in the liquid, scraping up all the crispy little flavor bombs that have formed on the bottom of the pot. As soon as it comes to a simmer, that’s your cue: Time to be downright gentle. Nestle the meat back into the pot and tuck a square of aluminum foil around the top of the meat, like you’re putting it to bed. Top the pot with a tight lid and cook the dish at very low heat, just enough to maintain a non-disturbing simmer. Give it a long, warm slumber—this allows the meat juices to mingle dreamily with the braising liquid, and creates a dish with deep-down character.

Finally, wake it up slowly. Let the braise loll off the heat for a while. Better yet, for fullest flavor, let it cool off fully or chill overnight. Skim off the fat and thicken the sauce (if needed). Now tuck into what just might be the winter’s best side.

Pull out the Dutch oven and try these simple and delicious braise recipes:

Braised Lamb Shanks with Rosemary and Garlic (above)

Braised Pork and Fennel

Belgian Beef Carbonnade (pictured in header image above)

Five-Way Chicken Paprika

Online Only: Rabbit Fricassee with Rosemary Dijon Mustard Sauce

Terese Allen has written scores of articles and books about Wisconsin’s food traditions and culinary culture, including the award-winning The Flavor of Wisconsin, The Flavor of Wisconsin for Kids, and Wisconsin Local Foods Journal. She is food editor for Organic Valley, president of the Culinary History Enthusiasts of Wisconsin (CHEW) and a longtime director of REAP Food Group, the cutting-edge food and sustainability organization based in Madison. She is hungry all the time.

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