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Photo B.A. Nilsson

Braising Regard

Forget those expensive cuts and impress your holiday guests with these slow-cooked secrets

By B.A. Nilsson

Throw a couple of steaks on the fire and you satisfy a primal gustatory urge. In the snobby suburbs where I grew up, those steaks were the sirloin or, better still, its augmented sibling, the porterhouse. Ordering filet mignon in a restaurant was the height of refinement. My parents had fled their working-class families, where costly steaks were a rarely tasted luxury. Conspicuous consumption is a mark of the middle-class arriviste, and there’s no better forum for showing off than the backyard grill. Which kept my childhood diet relatively pot-roast-free.

While saving money is one of the imperatives of the new economy, enjoying even tastier meals is the luxurious by-product. With steak, the brisket, flank and chuck are significantly less expensive than the shell and tenderloin cuts, but the longer cooking time and creative techniques required give those cuts more fascinating flavors. This is where braising comes in.

It seems to have become one of the least-used cooking techniques, but the premise is simple: Cook a tough cut of meat with a small amount of aromatic liquid in a sealed container until the tough collagen gelatinizes, rendering the meat tender.

The best-known braised dishes are osso buco (traditionally veal, but more deliciously lamb), beef short ribs and Mom’s old standby, pot roast. Other types of meat, including pork and chicken, respond well to the technique, as do any number of vegetables. Braised cabbage, for example, imparts a nice texture to the rugged leaf.

“What about jugged hare?” you ask. Much the same preparation, it’s true, but this style of game cookery typically also includes the animal’s blood . . . and so we move on.

Add too much liquid and you’re making a stew. Use no liquid and you’re either roasting or burning the item. Much of the process is unattended, but you have to plan ahead. You want your meat to marinate for at least a day, and the cooking time will be reckoned in hours. Chuck and shoulder are the favored cuts, particularly when dealing with beef and lamb. Beef round is not recommended because of its coarseness.

Braise, in French, describes a bed of coals, and those coals were distributed on any and all sides of a specially formed pot called a brasière, a heritage of hearth cooking. You’re probably not going to be strewing coals across the top of your kettle, but you still want a tight, concave closure, such as is provided by a Dutch oven. Cast iron and copper are the best braising pot materials.

For much of the following, I’m indebted to Madeleine Kamman’s superb volume The New Making of a Cook, as comprehensive a guide to both recipes and science as you’ll find. “When a piece of meat is seared and acquires a brown crust,” she writes, “its natural juices travel toward the center of the piece and concentrate there. After the meat is put to braise in the oven, the pressure and the heat around the piece become increasingly intense, causing the collagen to gelatinize.” As the meat tenderizes, it also seems dry, but eventually “the pressure of the steam . . . bears down on the meat fibers and slowly pries them open; the meat juices now make their way from the center of the piece to the outside, break through the seared surface, and mix with the cooking stock.”

She recommends a red wine marinade that itself requires cooking. Brown a mixture of sliced shallots, onion, celery, carrots and parsley stems, add a bottle of dry red wine and simmer for 20 minutes. Cool the mixture before adding the meat, then let it sit in the fridge for a day or more, turning every 12 hours. Dry the meat, then sear it on all sides in a cast iron skillet on the stovetop. Sauté a fonds de braise, which comprises thick chunks of onion, carrots, garlic and shallots. This forms the bottom layer of your braise assembly, so you can do it right in the Dutch oven. Strain the marinade and add the purple veggies to the fonds de braise. Place the meat on top of this.

Kamman recommends reducing the marinade liquid by at least half, although I had very little left when I used this recipe recently. In any event, the liquid should be reheated and sent through a fine strainer, then added to the braising pot. Add some good stock—veal, chicken or, if you must, something from a can or concentrate—to bring the liquid level halfway up the meat height.

If your pot lacks a close-fitting lid, make one out of tinfoil and put the lid on top of that. Set it in an oven preheated to 325 degrees and cook for at least one and a half to two hours, probably more, turning the meat several times. It’s done when an inserted skewer meets no resistance.

Strain the cooking liquid and reduce it to make a sauce. Or thicken it with a roux, which is a mixture of equal quantities of butter and flour, one to two tablespoons of each per cup of liquid to be thickened, cooked on the stovetop until lightly browned, to which you add the still-hot braising liquid, whisking until it’s a uniform consistency.

A lot of work? You bet. But the payoff is a meal more exotic and flavorful than a costly steak, and one that will inspire your guests to hail you as a culinary genius. At least, that’s why I do it.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


New World Bistro Bar (300 Delaware Ave., Albany) was one of only 16 restaurants in the United States to win a 2010 Santé Restaurant Award in the Innovative Food category. The 13-year-old Santé Awards program is the only peer-judged national restaurant competition in North America. Chef consultant Ric Orlando previously won a Santé Award in 2006 at his Saugerties restaurant, New World Home Cooking. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.

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