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braising makes a tough cut tender
braising makes tough cuts tender

Long before cooks had ovens, they had braising. They would suspend a heavy, covered pot over a hearth fire or open grate in the kitchen and slowly cook, or braise, their food. Sometimes they stacked embers from the fire on the lid, to provide both upper and lower sources of heat. Inside, a little liquid formed a sauce, as meats and vegetables cooked. This method of cooking yields delicious dishes with considerable character, explaining why you can still find many fine recipes that call for braising.

Think carbonnade, pot roast, fricassee, stew, or daube. While all these dishes are variations on braising, most are more complex than those enjoyed by our ancestors. Though the success of their execution relies on similar principles: browning, moist heat, lengthy cooking in a closed vessel, and simmering temperatures.

A traditional braising pot holds heat well and has a tight-fitting lid. Ideally, it should be about the same size as the dish being prepared. Too much space between the ingredients and the lid allows steam to condense and drip from the lid's underside onto the ingredients, diluting the rich sauce.

Most braises call for the tougher cuts of meats or poultry. In beef, this means cuts such as chuck, flank, brisket, rump, and round. These cuts come from areas of the animal that are continually exercised, which allows the muscle tissues to develop more flavor extractives as well as strength.

Usually, braising recipes begin by browning the meat in a little oil. If you're using small pieces of meat, as in a stew, brown in batches, so the meat doesn't steam. The temperature must be high enough to trigger the browning process. Contrary to popular opinion, browning, or searing, the surface does not seal in meat's juices. It does, however, produce new and complex flavor compounds as the sugars and proteins in the meat react under high temperatures and the surface color deepens. This browning reaction is known as the Maillard reaction.

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Aromatic vegetables such as carrots and onions can also be browned. After browning the meat, just add a little corn syrup or brown sugar to the remaining oil, and you'll trigger a different type of browning reaction called caramelization. In caramelizing, sugar melts, then decomposes at high temperatures (over 338 °F/170 °C) and is transformed to a complicated mixture of new compounds with "burnt sugar" flavors. These too, add considerably to the richness of the finished dish.

Liquid, such as wine, beer, stock, or broth, is also essential for braising because less tender meats have greater amounts of collagen than tender ones. Collagen, a connective tissue, helps hold the muscle fibers in meat together. When cooked in the presence of moisture, collagen dissolves into gelatin, which allows the meat fibers to separate more easily. This is the essence of tenderizing tough cuts of meat. Note how the dissolved gelatin causes the broth to set as it cools.

While collagen softens in moist heat, muscle fibers firm as their proteins unfold and form new linkages during cooking. (add link to this part of the "meat" section, please). Various proteins in meat fibers coagulate over a range of temperatures from 105 F/40 C to 195 F /90 C‹temperatures that are far below boiling point (212 °F/100 °C).

The higher the cooking temperature, the tougher the muscle fibers become, and the more they shrink in both length and width. It's no wonder that stewing beef becomes incredibly chewy when cooked in a boiling broth! If you are accustomed to boiling your braises, try reducing the temperature to a gentle simmer and let us know if you notice a difference in tenderness.

To keep meat tender yet safe during braising, you must maintain an important balance. Cooking temperatures must be high enough to kill microorganisms, yet not so high that the meat toughens. Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the surrounding stock and keep it at a simmer of 180 F/82 C-190 °F/88 °C.

Braising at low temperatures can never be done in a hurry. But those who are patient will be amply rewarded with a memorable amalgam of rich, deep flavors; heady, enticing aromas; and meat so tender it almost falls apart. Indeed, each succulent forkful reconfirms the ancient wisdom of braising.

Bon apetit!
Anne and Sue

Anne Gardiner & Sue Wilson are the authors, with the Exploratorium, of the book The Inquisitive Cook.


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