Braising 101

Braising is a cook’s best kept secret for exceptionally tender and flavorful meat. Let’s take a look at when to use this cooking method and some of the best cuts of meat for braising.

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The appeal of braising is that the long cooking time mixed with the heat and moisture from the wet heat breaks down the connective tissue found in a lot of tough (and usually cheaper meats).

WHAT IS BRAISING?

Braising is a cooking method that uses both wet and dry heats: typically, the food is first sautéed or seared at a high temperature, then finished in a covered pot at a lower temperature, submerged in liquid. Meats and vegetables can be braised and pressure cooking and slow cooking (e.g., crockpots) are both forms of braising.

Braising needs heat, time, and moisture to break down the tough tissue that binds together the muscle fibers in meat, making it a great technique for cooking tougher, budget-friendly cuts. Some of the most popular braised dishes include coq au vin, beef bourguignon and beef brisket.

There are four main steps when it comes to braising meat. First, you’ll want to sear your meat evenly on all sides in a heavy pot or Dutch oven. Next, you’ll need to cook a mirepoix (onion, celery, carrot combo) in the drippings that remain from searing. Add your braising liquid, stirring and scraping up those tasty browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Finished that? Return the meat to the pot, bring the liquid to a simmer, cover and slide into a hot oven. Then braise until the meat is fork-tender (usually a few hours).

If the food you’re braising has a high water content (usually vegetables) it can be cooked in its own juices, making additional liquid unnecessary. If you are using braising liquid, the most common is wine or stock but water, beer and even port can also work, depending on the recipe. Remember you’re trying to achieve balanced flavors and acid. You can also add flavor enhancers like bay leaves or whole onions to your braising solution. 

Braising breaks down tough, connective tissue in meat, creating delicious texture and incredible flavor.

BREAKING IT DOWN

As mentioned, braising breaks down tough, connective tissue in meat, creating delicious texture and incredible flavor. You might be wondering what connective tissue is. Well, there are a few different kinds… one is elastin, and one is collagen.

Elastins are often called “gristle.” No matter how much you cook them… they will be chewy, rubbery, and tough. You see this in the silver skin on the back of a tenderloin roast or sometimes inside of a sirloin steak. Elastins are not your friend. 

Collagens, on the other hand, are tiny proteins inside of the meat itself. If you've ever heard that you should “slice against the grain” when cutting a steak, it means to slice against the collagens in order to break them down and make it easier to chew. This connective tissue exists to make the muscle stronger when it works. Parts like shoulders and legs have a lot of connective tissue, while muscles that don't get worked, like around the ribs, don't get used a lot and don't have a lot of connective tissue. So, the key with these tougher cuts of meat is to braise them! The collagen will start to melt away and turn into gelatin. This creates a delicious texture and moist meat found in dishes like pulled pork, pot roast, and many others.

Some of the most popular braised dishes include coq au vin, beef bourguignon and beef brisket.

BEST FOR BRAISING

Here are a few of the most popular meats for braising: 

• Chuck Roast – probably the most popular piece of meat to braise. It's cheap, well-marbled with and delicious in many dishes. Its triangular shape is unmistakable!

• Short Ribs – one of our favorite meats to braise. It can be a little on the expensive side, but, if you want an incredible and beefy dish, this one is for you. 

• Pork Shoulder – if you've ever had pulled pork, you've had pork shoulder. This is one of the best pork cuts of meat to braise. You get a large piece of meat, cook it for a long time and then shred it into delicious and tender pieces of meat.

• Lamb Shank – not everyone loves lamb, but a lamb shank (or lamb shoulder) is a great and cheap cut to braise. A lamb shoulder will break down and can be easily shred, like a pork shoulder. A shank is a little more expensive but makes a great main dish for a special dinner party or holiday.