To braise something is to cook it by browning in fat, then simmering in a small amount of liquid in a covered container. That definition describes none of the romance or magic involved in the actual act. It speaks not at all to transforming the cheapest cuts of meat into a sustaining and supple supper using only some heat and good dose of time. It doesn’t explain that you can braise a week’s worth of meals in the oven at the same time. And it doesn’t illustrate to the “ohs” and “ahs” that this style of food will elicit.
The following walk through of a straightforward pot roast illustrates how to braise and the things to remember along the way. Use this recipe as a braising tutorial. The recipes at the end of this column show variations on the theme: another classic, a short braise and an uncovered braise.
The cuts that work best for braising are the tougher, inexpensive cuts. They are tough because the animal used them more (think leg muscle versus tenderloin) and that use leads to thicker grained muscles held together with collagen and connective tissue. Braising's gentle, wet cook slowly breaks that collagen down to gelatin, thickening the cooking liquid and enriching the meat itself. When that collagen is fully broken down, the meat will pull easily when plied with a butter knife or fork.
Basic Pot Roast
4 lb chuck roast
5 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1 sprig rosemary
1 onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, smashed and sliced
1 C red wine
2 C beef stock or water
1 lb small potatoes, Yukon gold or red skin, cut into ¼’s
3 large carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
Step One: Season the roast liberally with salt and pepper. Rub with olive oil and place into a sealable bag with the herbs and let marinate overnight. This step can be skipped but adds a good deal of flavor as the salt penetrates the meat bringing the flavor of the herbs with it. If you have the time and the forethought, it is well worth it.
Step Two: Find a braising pan in your kitchen. This can be a classic Dutch oven or a stockpot that will be covered with tin foil. The critical components to a braising pan are that it can go from the stove top to the oven, that it has a heavy bottom to achieve an even, scorch free sear, and that it have some sort of a lid even if that means a double layer of tinfoil cinched tightly.
Step Three: Heat oven to 300F. Heat a glug of oil in that pan until shimmering. Sear the chuck roast (herbs and all) until it is dark, darker than you might think. The myth is that this sear keeps the juices in the meat. It does no such thing but it does convert the sugars in the meat to a caramel crust. The liquid in which the meat will cook dissolves that caramel adding an inviting complexity to the cooking broth. Unbrowned meat will still taste good but there is little stand in for that deep rich flavor developer.
Step Four: Remove the meat from the pan and deglaze with the red wine. Deglazing is adding liquid to a pan to release the browned bits (frond) left in a pan after searing. You can do this with any liquid but by using something acidic gives the final dish a bright note to contrast the richness of a slow-cooked meal. I never braise without that element.
Step Five: Allow the wine to reduce by half adding the onions and garlic and letting it sweat in the wine as it reduces.
Step Six: Nestle the roast into the onions and garlic. Add the stock and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Returning the liquid to a boil shortens the cooking time in the oven. Putting cold liquid in the pot and relying on the radiant oven heat to bring it to temperature could take a couple of hours. This way you’ll braise for 2-3 hours as opposed to 5. Conversely if you need to take more time, put cold ingredients into the oven. This is an example of how to make the food work for you, not the other way around.
Step Seven: Transfer the pot to the oven. Allow the meat to cook until ¾ done (about 1 ½ hours) and then add in the carrots and potatoes. This way they will cook through but maintain their structural integrity.
Step Eight: The meat is cooked and tender. It will have a gentle giggle when probed with a finger showing the collagen giving up its tension. The muscles will pull easily when encouraged by the fork or knife. It is possible to over cook a braise, the meat will be dry and a bit stringy, but the margin for error is wide.
Step Nine: If you have the time, allow the meat to cool in its cooking juices overnight and then rewarm the whole thing for the next night’s dinner. This is not essential but allows the flavors to mingle and deepen. If you can’t be bothered simply serve it and it will delight nonetheless. Before serving, if the cooking juices are not thickened and taste thin, simply remove the roast and boil the liquid down until it tastes perfect. Taste it as it reduces and keep going until it is knocking your socks off.
Step Ten: Bask in the radiant glow of your friends praise while tidying up.
The following recipes use the same procedure but are slightly different. The veal shanks will have a thicker sauce because shanks contain both a good amount of collagen and marrow in the bone. The green beans and chicken are not technically braises because the beans aren’t seared and the chicken is cooked uncovered. The idea is the same and again shows how to adapt a technique to suit the situation.
Uncovered Chicken “Pot Roast”
Use the same recipe for the Basic Pot Roast but with the following substitutions
- Use 6 skin-on chicken breasts or thighs in place of the meat
- White wine for the red
- Chicken Stock for the Beef Stock
- Sear only the skin side of the chicken
- Add the carrots and potatoes at the beginning
- Do not cover this braise! Not covering allows the excess liquid to evaporate more quickly as it cooks and ensures that the chicken skin stays crispy.
- Cooking time will be about 30-45 minutes instead of several hours
Seeing veal shanks at the nice grocery store was the inspiration for this recipe. You don’t see veal very often, but there is a new crop of farmers raising veal humanely. The calves have space to move around allowing more blood flow to the muscles and therefore the meat is not the pale hue normally associated with veal. I find this “rose veal” more appealing both in flavor and ethos. Any animal’s shanks will work; the time may vary because of the age of the animal. Use your fork to pull the meat to test doneness as opposed to a timer. And when it is all said and done, use a small spoon to scoop the marrow out of the center of the bone—I usually shmear it on a spare piece of toast.
4 veal shanks, 6-8oz each
½ C flour (for dredging)
1 T tomato paste
1 C white wine
1 onion, sliced thinly
3 carrots, cut small
3 stalks celery, cut small
4 cloves garlic
3 C stock
4 sprigs thyme
- Heat oven to 300F
- Season shanks liberally with salt and pepper and then dredge in flour, knocking off the excess
- Heat a glug of neutral oil in a large Dutch oven
- Sear the shanks until golden brown on both sides
- Remove from the pan
- Add the tomato paste and white wine to deglaze and scrape up the browned bits
- Reduce the until the wine is syrupy
- Add the vegetables, garlic and thyme and toss to coat
- Nestle the shanks into the veg mixture
- Add the stock and bring to a simmer
- Cover with a lid, transfer to the oven and cook until shanks are fall apart tender
- Meanwhile roughly chop the parsley, add the lemon zest, juice and olive oil and a good pinch of salt
- Serve atop something creamy that can catch the sauce: saffron risotto, mashed potatoes, polenta etc.
- Slather the whole lot with the parsley sauce
Braised Green Beans
Out of season for this time of year, braised green beans are a great way to use up last summer’s stock in the freezer. This is epitomizes the Roman style of cooking vegetables, slow cooked until they are pale green and magically greater than the sum of the parts in the pan. I will often make this without the chicken as part of a vegetable smorgasbord. This recipe also works well with fennel, leeks, peas or endive as stand-ins for the beans.
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 small onion, sliced thinly
1lb green beans, tipped and tailed
8oz cherry tomatoes halved (or substitute 1 can diced tomatoes)
3 sprigs oregano, thyme or rosemary
2C water or stock
- Heat oven to 350F
- In a large, shallow pan heat a glug of olive oil until shimmering
- Add garlic and onion and fry until lightly browned
- Add the beans, tomatoes and herbs
- Season with salt and pepper and toss to combine
- Add the liquid and bring to a boil
- Cover and place in the oven
- Cook until beans are dark green and beginning to wrinkle (about 40min)
- Remove the lid if there is a lot of liquid bring to a boil to evaporate it down to a flavorful sauce