Braising is a method of preparing food through low and slow cooking with a small amount of liquid. The purpose of the liquid is to moderate the heat.
It's important to note that the liquid does not add to the moisture of what is being cooked. That is a food myth.
Braising is used with vegetables -- Julia Child gave a recipe for Braised Lettuce in The French Chef -- but most usually, it is used with tougher cuts of meat. Not only are these cuts cheaper and therefore need this type of cooking, but they are the only cuts that will stand up to it: a braised filet mignon would be tougher than an old boot. These tougher cuts have collagen that breaks down, making them both tender, moist and extremely flavourful. Some meats, though, such as sausages, as equally as happy being braised as they are quickly grilled over a flame, because they have enough fat in them.
Well-known dishes that use Braising include pot roast and daube.
Braising is usually done in an oven, but it doesn't have to be: ovens for the masses are a 20th century phenomenon, and people were braising long before that in covered pots. The pot used should be a good sturdy one that will hold the heat and steam in, with a tight-fitting lid.
Braising can be seen as just a slightly more sophisticated version of stewing. Braising is used with larger or whole pieces of meat, whereas stewing is usually done to bite-sized pieces. As well, Braising uses a more restrained amount of water than stewing does, allowing the flavoured liquid that results to be concentrated and rich and serve as the basis of a very good sauce. Your recipe may or may not call for you to thicken the sauce before serving. You may need after removing the meat and any vegetables to quickly ratchet the heat up to boil the sauce to help reduce it quickly. If your recipe doesn't use the liquid at all, by all means freeze it, and use it later as a good running start towards a very tasty gravy or stew.
Braising should be done at a very gentle simmer. Too high a temperature causes meat proteins to shrink, so your meat will become chewy instead of fork-tender.
There are two different kinds of Braising:
- Brown Braising: This is the most usual these days. The meat is sautéed first to sear it on the outside until it is browned to give it visual interest and to develop flavour, then a dark liquid is used (such as beef stock, red wine, tomato juice, etc.);
- White Braising: The meat is blanched so that it doesn't brown, then cooked in a clear or light coloured liquid such as chicken or vegetable stock, white wine or beer.
If your recipe calls for you to brown the meat first before Braising, consider browning as well any items such as carrots, turnip, swede, mushrooms, onions or brussels sprouts. When you've removed the meat from the pan, add a bit more oil or fat if needed and then brown these items right in the same pan. Even just a few minutes will help develop their flavours.
If your Braising will be done in a pan different to that in which you seared the meat, don't forget to deglaze the searing pan and add that liquid to your cooking pot.
There is no need or benefit to marinading meat before Braising.
To Braise, add the meat and the braising liquid to a pot.
On the stove top, bring the liquid to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low. Cover and continue to cook at a gentle simmer. A good simmer temperature is within a few degrees either way of 185 F / 85 C.
In an oven, use an oven-safe pot. Oven Braising temperatures given are generally 275 to 325 F (135 to 160 C.)
When Braising, whether on top of the stove or in the oven, don't forget to check periodically to make sure that all your liquid hasn't evaporated away: this can spell disaster, especially on a stove-top.
Stove top braising is better for the summer, as it means you don't have to have the oven on.
When larger cuts are Braised, the technique tends to be called "pot roasting" in North America.
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Braiser (French); Schmoren (German); Brasear (Spanish); Cozinhar lentamente em gordura (Portuguese)