Looking for an easy way to make a memorable grass-fed meal? One word; braising.
As a technique, braising is economical (favoring the use of tough and inexpensive cuts) and efficient (a one pot meal mostly finished before your guests arrive), but more importantly, it transforms an economy cut of meat into a fork tender, deliciously rich meal with very little work, just some prep and then time in a slow oven. Braising allows flavors to mingle and develop rich complexity. In short, it’s easy AND delicious.
There are three pillars to your flavor foundation – the braising liquid, the sear, and the soffrito/mirepoix. What you do with them before the braise goes into the oven is what counts. Here are 5 simple steps to a great braised meal.
#1 – BRAISING LIQUID
Most braises are made with stock and/or wine, but don’t be shy about trying something new to bring new balance, complexity, and depth to the final product. Broth (or stock) underscores the meatiness of the main ingredient. Match the broth to the meat when you can, but chicken broth is universal. Beer, especially lagers, contribute a pleasantly sour note that is tailor-made for pork. Darker stouts and porters play well with beef, as do certain Belgian ales. Cider (fresh or fermented) adds sweetness to braised poultry or pork, and even better with a splash of cider vinegar. Wine adds depth and a jolt of acidity to any dish. Use it in combination with broth, and, whether red or white, choose something dry. Cook with a bottle you’d actually drink.
# 2: SEAR
Season the meat on all sides. Set a heavy lidded pot (like a Dutch oven) over medium-high heat. When the pot is hot, pour good olive oil in to coat the bottom, then add the meat. Brown the meat. Don’t crowd the pot and do take time to get deep color all over. Remove meat; set aside.
One of the three flavor pillars in braising is the classic mirepoix or soffrito, a combination of carrots, onion, celery, and sometimes garlic. Rough chop the onion, carrot and celery. Chop garlic and set aside. In the drippings left from the meat, sauté the onions, celery, carrots, etc., until softened, stirring frequently. Add the garlic. Keep stirring and adjust temp if things are moving along too fast. Continue stirring until vegetables become a golden caramel brown color. (You don’t want to scorch. Scorching or burning adds bitter flavors to the braise.)
# 4: DEGLAZE
When the veg is ready, add 1 cup of your braising liquid and stir, scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Once these bits are dissolved, add the rest of your braising liquid.
# 5: BRAISE
Now, return the meat to the pot with any accumulated juices. The meat does not have to be submerged, 2/3 submerged is sufficient. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover and slide into a 325-degree oven.
When the meat is tender, take it out of the liquid and refrigerate both separately. Overnight the flavors of the braise will develop and any fat will separate from the sauce. The next day, an hour before company comes over, skim the fat off the top and reunite the meat with the braise.
(B)RAISING THE BAR
To take your braise to the next level, try these finishing tips:
#6 – ADD MORE VEG: Adding more vegetables (such as fennel, potatoes, parsnips or greens), will give your braise more flavor and add interest to the meal. You will need about 45 minutes to cook root vegetables through.
#7 – REDUCE THE SAUCE When the meat is fork-tender, remove it and any vegetables. Skim surface fat, then simmer the sauce until it thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Return meat (and vegetables) to the pot to heat through.
#8 – THE FINAL FLOURISH
A handful of fresh-chopped herbs (parsley, mint, cilantro) or grated citrus zest and a squeeze of juice adds color and freshness that brightens the dish. A splash of balsamic vinegar balances the richness. A swirl of creme fraiche or heavy cream will cool a spicy braise. A sprinkle of sliced mushrooms add a woodsy note.