One of the best ways to feed yourself through the cold months and beyond is by perfecting the art of the braise. It's pretty easy to get caught in a dinner rut, but with the power of good braising techniques you'll open up a world of delicious dishes.
While it might come off as intimidating, braising is actually a simple, straightforward method that home cooks can riff on endlessly. Don't let the lengthy cooking times of braised recipes scare you off — it's mostly inactive, and it will make your kitchen smell delightful. As an added benefit, most braises are one-pot affairs, so you won't be left with a lot of cleanup.
This stuff isn't rocket science — once you've mastered the basic sequence of steps, you can get crazy (and braisy!) and start to experiment with different meats, veggies, liquids, and aromatics. But if you're just finding your footing a good recipe is always a smart idea.
Well, are you ready to braise or what?! Here's everything that you need to know before you set off.
Braised Meat Recipes to Try:
- Sherry Braised Beef Short Ribs
- Wine Braised Beef Brisket
- Rosemary Braised Lamb Shanks
- Braised Beef Cheeks
- Cider Braised Pork Shoulder
Choose Your Meat
The beauty of a braise is that it can transform the toughest cuts of meat — with a flavor-packed braising liquid and a few hours of simmering — into the most tender, succulent dish. Contrary to what you might think, you don't need to buy expensive cuts. In fact, the cheaper, tougher cuts are ideal.
Save your tender rib-eyes, pork chops, and lamb chops for searing or grilling, and opt for sturdier cuts like beef chuck, pork shoulder, lamb shoulder, short ribs, and chicken thighs.
Bone-in cuts are excellent because the marrow in the bones will release during cooking and make for a super-flavorful braising liquid. If you're staring at the meat display and unsure what to choose, ask the butcher to point you in the right direction.
Brown the Meat
The first step of any braise is to heat a neutral oil (vegetable, canola, or grapeseed) in a heavy-bottomed pot, ideally an enameled cast iron (even heat distribution, baby!).
Pat your meat dry with a paper towel, and season it generously with salt, pepper, and any other dry spices that you like. Once the oil is just beginning to smoke, gently lower in the meat and sear on all sides until it is a deep golden-brown. Make sure that the meat is undisturbed long enough to brown before you turn it (this is how you achieve really nice caramelization) and that there is space between pieces of meat if you are searing multiple small cuts (versus one large pork butt, for example).
You might need to work in batches in order to properly sear all the meat, as crowding the pan will create more steam around the meat than you want. Once seared, remove all of the meat to a plate.
The Best Dutch Ovens
Sweat the Aromatics
Once the meat has been seared, you're now left with a hot Dutch oven full of residual fat. Sounds like a flavor party! From here, you want to start incorporating your vegetables and aromatics. Any sort of allium (onions, shallots, leeks) and garlic is usually a must, but from there you can get creative with what else you add.
Try to "sweat" the onions, which means to saute them until they're soft and translucent, but not browned. Stirring frequently will ensure you don't burn the onions or garlic, which could make the whole dish taste bitter. Carrots, celery, mushrooms, and fennel are always great additions at this point. You can also add some woody herbs, such as thyme, sage, rosemary, or oregano.
If you want to toss in a few spoonfuls of tomato paste, go for it. Now would also be a good time to add some hot peppers or red pepper flakes if you think your braise could use a hit of spiciness.
Deglaze and Add Your Braising Liquid
If you thought we had a flavor party before, now we definitely have one once all the veggies have started to cook. From here, you'll want to loosen up all the browned bits on the bottom of the pan (because that's where a lot of flavor is hiding) by deglazing the pan. It sounds fancy, but you can deglaze a pan with any liquid — wine, beer, vinegar, stock, or even water are all great ways to unlock the tasty bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan.
After you pour your deglazing liquid in, use a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits (it's actually really satisfying). At this point, you can add your seared meat back into the pan.
Next comes the braising liquid. Always try to match your stock or broth with the protein that you're cooking; so if you're making a beef dish, your first choice should be a beef-based one.
That said, chicken broth or stock is pretty much universal and can be used in most dishes as a default. You can braise in whatever combinations of liquids that you like: red wine, balsamic vinegar, apple cider, or even milk. Just make sure that the meat you're braising is only partially submerged (if it's fully submerged, you're technically stewing, which is a slightly different process).
At this point, you can also throw in some more aromatics to flavor the liquid, such as bay leaves, star anise, cinnamon sticks, or cardamom pods. If you want to add a vegetable such as kale or potatoes, wait until you have about 30 to 45 minutes left of braising time to before adding them.
Time to Braise
At this point, it's time to take your hands off and let time do its thing. Bring your braising liquid to a boil on the stovetop, then reduce it to a simmer and cover the pot. If you can, transfer the covered Dutch oven to a 300 degree F (150 degree C) oven for consistent, even heat. Alternatively, you can continue cooking your braise on low heat on the stovetop, but stovetops are prone to uneven cooking.
The trickiest part of a braise is understanding when it's done. You aren't cooking to a specific internal temperature the way you might be when you're grilling or searing meats. Instead, you know your braise is done when the meat is fork tender. If it looks like it's ready to fall off the bone, then congratulations: You've just successfully braised your dish.
The Final Touches
From here, you can simply enjoy your braise (maybe serve it over some mashed potatoes, rice, creamy polenta, or pasta). Season with a few pinches of salt, a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar, and maybe a handful of fresh parsley or cilantro leaves and you're good to go.
If you want to turn that braising liquid into a more concentrated sauce, remove the meat and any veggies with tongs or a slotted spoon, then turn your stovetop heat back up and simmer to reduce the sauce. Try to skim off any fat that gathers at the top. You can always thicken the braising liquid by adding a slurry (cornstarch or flour mixed with water or stock) or beurre manie (a mixture of equal parts flour and butter).
However you choose to finish it off, you'll have created a hearty, warming, flavor-packed dish that you can enjoy for one or more wonderful meals.