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Braising is the most flexible, foolproof path to meltingly tender meat

Becky Krystal The Washington Post

Sous vide. Instant Pot. Air fryer. What's trendy in cooking today is so heavy on the gadgets and whiz-bangery that the most elemental techniques can sound quaint by comparison.

Take braising, for example. What does that conjure up? Your grandma and her pot roast? A chef sweating it out in a tiny Parisian bistro?

Or maybe nothing at all? You wouldn't be alone.

"It's like this super universal technique, but people didn't necessarily know what to call it," says cookbook author Molly Stevens, who literally wrote the book on the subject, her 2004 tome, "All About Braising."

But "if you cook at all, you probably braise," she says. "It's a really old-fashioned way of cooking," second only perhaps to that brilliant moment (oh, to be a fly on that cave wall!) when our early ancestors decided to put food over a fire.

Essentially, braising involves cooking food — meat, seafood or vegetables — in a sealed environment with some liquid. Remember those water cycle diagrams from school? Braising is essentially the same concept. As it's heated, the braising liquid releases steam. The steam hits the underside of the pot lid, condenses and falls back onto the main ingredient (meat or poultry for the purposes of this guide). So you get a constant cycle that causes the flavors of the liquid and the meat to meld, with an especially tender result by the end of cooking.

"It is such a forgiving way to cook, and there's so much room in the technique," Stevens says. "It's hard to screw up."

If you're up for embracing and improvising with braising (and no, it's not just a winter thing), here are some tips to get you started.

1. What to braise

Depending on whether you want a long or short cook time, you can braise a wide variety of meat, from chicken thighs all the way up to lamb shoulder. It's especially ideal for tougher cuts of meat, the parts that do the most movement in the animal, Stevens writes in her book. Examples include short ribs, lamb shanks and pork shoulder. Those active pieces contain lots of collagen in the muscle, which when heated melts and turns into gelatin, giving you tender meat and a smooth, velvety sauce.

If you're interested in a short braise, which can even be done on the stove top, you can go with something like chicken or sausage. The main goal in a short braise, according to Stevens, is to enhance flavors in that feedback process, rather than coaxing collagen out of the meat.

Whether or how much you trim the fat on meat is mostly a matter of preference, Stevens says. Huge pockets should probably be cut back before cooking to keep the final dish from getting too greasy. Otherwise you can "let it all play out," allow the flavors to meld and skim off any fat you want to at the end.

2. What to braise in

Braising doesn't require anything fancier than a heavy pot, ideally one that can go from stove top to oven. It should have a snug-fitting lid (although foil can also work) and high enough sides to hold the liquid. Then again, if "fancy" to you means an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven — yes, you, with the beautiful Le Creuset you haven't used much! — that is exactly the kind of thing you want here. Stainless steel-clad aluminum works, as does earthenware, although you'd have to do your browning on the stove top (see below) in something else first.

If you want to cut down on head space and make the steam-condensation-flavor cycle more efficient, Stevens recommends putting a piece of parchment over the food, making sure it is big enough to reach all the way out under the lid.

3. Building your braise

Because the majority of the cooking occurs in the enclosed pot, "most braising recipes rely on browning for much of their character and flavor," Stevens writes. If you have a stove-top-to-oven pot, browning in the same vessel in which you plan to braise means you can easily incorporate the flavor and browned bits into the sauce. It's also one less thing to wash. Brown in your choice of oil or animal fat (bacon or duck renderings, for instance), keeping in mind that butter burns more easily and might need to be mixed with oil to prevent it from scorching. Be sure to pour off excess fat, as too much left in the pot will turn the sauce greasy.

After you've browned the meat, saute your aromatics. Stevens says there are many possibilities, such as carrots, celery, onions, shallots, herbs (fresh or dried) and cured meats (pancetta, bacon). Try to avoid a "confusion" of flavors by adding too much or too many ingredients that don't complement each other. If it helps, think about the flavor profiles of various cuisines to guide you to suitable combinations.

Next comes the liquid. Wine and broth are pretty typical (alone or together), though Stevens says water can give you a nice clean flavor, one that can be better than subpar store-bought broth. Beer or cider are other options, and you can incorporate even more assertive ingredients such as fish sauce or soy sauce, though you need to be restrained since the flavors will concentrate by the end of cooking, Stevens says.

Whatever you choose, Stevens recommends that you aim to have the liquid come about a third of the way up the meat. Too little and the food will scorch. Too much and the sauce will be diluted and light on flavor. If you're starting with a larger amount of liquid, you can reduce it on the stove top before the pot goes into the oven, which will also help strengthen the flavor. Stevens sometimes does this in two steps, first cooking down wine and then doing another round with stock.

4. Cooking

Low and gentle heat is the hallmark of braising. Stevens says the ideal oven temperature is 275 to 350 degrees. Check on your food — it's okay to peek under the lid! — after about 30 minutes to make sure the liquid in the pot isn't boiling or bubbling too vigorously. If it is, start knocking back the oven by about 10 degrees.

As to when the dish is done, "Tenderness is really what I look for more than anything," Stevens says. If the meat is on the bone (her preferred cuts, as she thinks bones add flavor and gelatin), the meat should be starting to fall off. It should be fork tender, too.

"You can overcook a braise," she says, even if there is more wiggle room for when it's done. "Just because it's in a moist environment doesn't mean you can't dry it out ... Longer is not necessarily better." So pay attention to how it's cooking and, especially if you're winging it, check out a few recipes to have a general idea on how long you might expect to leave the meat in the oven.

For finishing touches, you can add a hit of acid (lemon juice, vinegar), dairy (yogurt, sour cream) or sweetness (honey). Fresh herbs are good, too. Depending on how refined you want things to be, you can remove the meat, strain and further reduce the sauce, or strain and skim the fat. Letting the braise sit overnight in the refrigerator makes it even easier to remove fat from the top of the sauce. Stevens says she believes braises often taste better the next day, anyway. Reheat gently on the stove top or in the oven, taking care not to cook the meat any more.

5. Serving

Stevens says one of her favorite things about braises is the communal nature of the dish. So bring the pot to the table, and let everyone dig in and enjoy the enticing aromas. Since you don't want the sauce to go to waste, serve your braise with something to soak it up, whether it's mashed potatoes, polenta, bread, egg noodles or a cooked grain.