“Roast Beef is not only a food. It is a philosophy. Seated at Life’s Dining Table, with the menu of Morals before you, your eye wanders a bit over the entrees, the hors d’oeuvres, and the things although you know that Roast Beef is safe and sane, and sure.“
– Edna Ferber, American writer (1887-1968)
It’s that time of year again. The beautiful colours of fall have vanished, leaving us with brisk winter temperatures and the craving for good ‘ole comfort foods. The delicate flavours of food & wine that we enjoyed during spring and summer lack the oomph that our palates (and padding) require during winter. In this issue of Live to Eat, we will explore the magical cooking technique of braising – the technique behind France’s famous coq au vin and boeuf bourguignonne and Italy’s osso buco.
Now simmer down. “Braising” may sound like one of those complicated culinary terms, but what we’re talking about here is a pot roast. Basically, braising is cooking food in a relatively small amount of liquid in a closed container over a long period of time. Magically, braising can turn a tough and inexpensive cut of meat into a tender, heart warming, and hearty dish.
How does braising work its magic you ask? Well, tough cuts of meat come from well used muscles that contain a higher amount of a connective tissue called collagen. When cooked slowly in liquid, collagen is converted to gelatin, the substance that brings body and decadence to your palate. The “wet heat” from cooking in liquid is essential in this process because the liquid transfers heat more effectively than dry heat. If you were to use a dry heat-cooking method with a tough cut of meat, such as oven roasting, the outer portions of the meat would become over cooked, dry, and tough long before the internal temperature of the meat becomes high enough to break down the collagen.
It’s important to understand that braising only works with tough cuts of meat with sufficient fat content. Even though it seems counterintuitive, braising actually dries meat out faster than roasting because the liquid speeds the cooking process. As the proteins in muscle tissue cook, they tighten and squeeze out their moisture. This actually reduces their tenderness. However, the gelatin (converted from collagen) and fat more than compensate for the loss. A tender cut of meat with low fat, such as from the loin, would taste terrible if braised. It would lose all it’s tenderness with little gelatin and fat to take up the slack – an effect like wringing out a wet towel. Similarly, braising a tough cut of meat with sufficient fat for too long will dry out the meat, so you want to remove it from the heat as soon as the collagen-to-gelatin conversion process has occurred.
Suggested Cuts for Braising:
Blade Roast or Steak
Braising is a slow-cooking method; the time each cut of meat will take will depend on its size. Most braised dishes take from 45 minutes (for smaller cuts of meat and poultry) to 6 hours for really tough shanks and ribs. Don’t limit yourself only to meat; vegetables that braise well include onions, fennel, carrots and beets, and even fruit such as pineapples and apples. In each case, it’s easiest to cut the vegetable in half and brown it on the flat cut side.
What you need to braise:
- A tough cut of meat with sufficient fat (see chart above);
- Roasting pan/pot or Braiser just large enough to hold all the ingredients snugly, with a tight-fitting lid (you can skimp and use heavy-duty foil);
- Cooking liquid. You can use stock, water, wine, beer or any combination of the four. We recommend stock with added wine; beef stock for braising beef, pork stock for braising pork, or chicken stock for braising chicken.
- SEASON MEAT – Make sure the meat is dry, and season it well. If you’re a strong meat like beef, lamb or bison, be generous – these meats takes very well to salt and pepper.
- SEAR MEAT – Using a pot that will hold the meat snugly, heat up a little oil, then sear the meat on all sides; use sturdy tongs to turn the meat to avoid burning yourself. For the large pieces of meat that are typical of braises, we find that searing takes about 15 minutes, which is probably longer than you might think. Trust us – it’s worth it. Remove the meat from the pot when it’s nicely browned. Note: There’s a big difference from searing (or browning) and burning – burning the meat will give the roast a bitter flavour and affect the finished sauce as well.
- BROWN VEGETABLES – Next, you want to brown the aromatic vegetables (onions, garlic, carrots, celery). To do this, you’ll typically need only a couple of tablespoons of fat in the pot. So if the meat you have just browned was fatty, you’ll need to pour out some of the excess fat; if, on the other hand, the meat was lean, you may need to add a bit of oil to the pot. Sauté the vegetables for 1-2 minutes.
- DEGLAZE – At this point, you will notice a bunch of browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. In French, this is called fond, and it is definitely not something you want to throw out as it is intensely flavourful due to the browning. What you want to do is loosen and dissolve those brown bits in liquid so their flavour will be diffused throughout the dish as it cooks. This is called “deglazing”. Add some cooking liquid to the pot, and as you heat it to a simmer, use a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits.
- RETURN MEAT TO POT – Return the meat to the pot and add liquid to a level of about half way up the meat. If the liquid completely covers the meat, it is considered stewing rather than braising. Many chefs prefer slightly more liquid rather than less.
- RETURN TO SIMMER – Add any other vegetables you want to add and season the liquid to your preference. When the liquid has come back to a simmer, skim any film off the surface, cover the pot, and put it in a 300˚F oven. You could cook the meat on top of the stove at a low simmer, but we prefer using the oven because it provides a more even heat that surrounds the pot. If you’re braising a steak or other small piece of meat that won’t take very long, it’s probably easier to complete the braising on the stove top.
- REMOVE MEAT WHEN “FORK-TENDER” – The best way to determine doneness with braised meat is to stick a large fork straight down into the meat and try to lift it out of the pot. If you can’t do so because the meat won’t hold the fork, then it has reached the “fork-tender” state. Remember, you are cooking past the point of doneness to the point of tenderness. Remove the meat and cover it loosely with foil.
- FINISH THE SAUCE – The leftover liquid in the pot can be strained, returned to the pot, and then reduced into a sauce. The sauce may also be prepared without straining the liquid, but as much fat as possible should be skimmed from the surface. Add some more salt and pepper, bring the liquid to a boil, and allow the liquid to reduce until it is flavourful enough for your taste.
- VOILÀ – Carve the meat into thick slices, pour the braising liquid into a big gravy boat, and you’re ready to eat some incredibly flavourful, tender meat. Carving braised meat is often difficult because it falls apart; a trick is to let it cool completely, then cut and reheat.
Red Wine Braised Blade Roast
- 1 four lb. organic blade roast (netted)
- 1 Tsp. butter
- 1 Tsp. olive oil
- 1-2 carrots
- 1-2 stalks celery
- 1 medium onion
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 Tsp. tomato paste
- 3 Cups Red Wine
- 10 black peppercorns
- 1/4 bunch thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 4-6 Cups Beef Stock
- Salt and Pepper
Season blade roast generously with salt and pepper. Heat pot almost to smoking point and place butter and olive oil inside. Sear roast on all sides being careful not to burn, then remove from heat and set aside. Add vegetables and garlic and sweat over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon to loosen browned bits (deglazing). Add tomato paste to vegetables and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add wine and reduce until nearly dry. Place roast back in pan, add stock to half or three-quarters the height of the meat, and bring to a bare simmer. Add thyme, peppercorns, bay leaves, and check the seasoning of the liquid. It should be fully seasoned now so add salt and pepper if it is needed. Cover with a tight fitting lid and continue cooking on stove top or in oven at 300˚F. Depending on the exact size and shape of the roast, it will take 4-6 hours. Remove the meat when “fork-tender” and allow to cool (see above). Strain liquid and reserve. When the roast has cooled completely and feels solid, carve with a very sharp knife (bread knife or carving knife works well). To warm slices, heat liquid to a bare simmer and place portions in the liquid until they have been fully reheated. Allowing the roast to cool before cutting allows you to break up the cooking into two days and makes for a quick and easy meal the next day or two.
Here’s a pork recipe with South American theme…
Braised Chile Pork Shoulder (Serves 6)
- 4 pounds pork shoulder
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 4 dried Ancho Chiles, dried and pulverized to a powder
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
- Zest 1 orange
- 1/2 teaspoon orange oil
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- Salt and Black Pepper
Heat a very large straight-sided sauté pan with olive oil until smoking hot. Season the pork with salt and black pepper. Add the meat and sear well about 5 minutes. Add the onion and sauté about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and quickly sauté about 1 minute. Add the chicken stock, ancho chile powder, cinnamon sticks, chipotle pepper, zest of orange, orange oil, and dried oregano. Bring to a boil. Cover with a lid and place in the oven. Braise until fork-tender about 40-50 minutes. Remove from the oven and skim the fat off the top. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm with rice or soft polenta.
For a complete reference guide to roasting, click here for our Ultimate Roasting Chart.
To learn more about various cooking methods and appropriate cuts for each method, refer to the:
RealFoodToronto.com Cooking Library