If you’ve ever been to a cattle farm you know that beef cattle are huge animals; often larger than you even picture in your mind. One of our calves, Daisy, was born on July 3rd, 2020 and already stands about 5 feet tall to the tips of her horn nubs! (all holstein cattle have horns-- even the females). Cattle are fully grown around 15-24 months old and weigh anywhere from 1300-1700 lbs or more. The point that I’m trying to make here is that cattle are HEAVY and their muscles work very hard. Hard working, older muscles set the stage for meltingly tender, moist and very flavorful beef.
What exactly is braising?
At its core, braising is a simple cooking technique in which tougher meats are cooked for extended periods of time, typically in the oven, in a moist environment. The result is fork tender, shreddy meat-- think grandma’s pot roast. There are several variations of how you choose to braise but here are the key points.
- Sear meat on all sides. Allow your meat to temper at room temp for a few hours prior to searing. Make sure that your pan is extremely hot, add a bit of fat or oil, and make sure that you achieve a deeply brown crust on every side of the meat. The great majority of flavor is developed in this single step. If you want to thicken your sauce a bit during braising, you can dredge your meat in seasoned flour prior to searing. If you do dredge, lower the heat just a bit so that you do not burn the flour.
- Remove meat, sear aromatics. In many cuisines, there is a ‘standard’ aromatic vegetable mix used in many dishes. Whether you use mirepoix, holy trinity, or your own rogue mixture, brown these vegetables well. If you need to, add a bit of extra fat. Don’t rush this step! Vegetables have a ton of water and may take some time to cook down before they brown. When you first add the aromatics to the pan, scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon so they don’t burn. Personally, I almost always add a bit of tomato paste to my veg in the last few minutes of caramelizing. It adds a great depth of flavor even if tomato isn’t the main desired flavor.
- Return the meat to the pan, add flavorful liquid. For the most part, stock is the most widely used liquid component of a braise. Not only does stock add flavor but the stock adds texture to the final sauce as it reduces during cooking-- essentially making demi glace. Wine is frequently used as well. Be sure to use a wine that is good enough for you to drink and stay far away from cooking wines. Feel free to get creative here. Any flavorful liquid can be used; fruit or vegetable juice, beer, soda, milk, etc.
- Cover and slow cook. Extend the cooking time for max flavor and texture. I prefer a very low oven temperature for a long time. Yes, you can braise at 350 degrees F and be done in 3-4 hours, but you risk drying the meat out. Also, according to science, you develop more flavor molecules during low/slow cooking so BE PATIENT! I prefer to braise overnight with the oven set at 200 degrees F.
- Cool meat in the liquid. When meat is very hot, the muscle fibers constrict and squeeze out liquid. Allowing the meat to fully chill in the braising liquid will allow the meat to absorb the max amount of liquid and flavor.
- Strain and reduce. Strain out any aromatics and reduce the braising liquid until it begins to thicken and develops the flavor that you’d like. If you need to augment the thickness you can add roux or a cornstarch slurry. Season with salt, pepper and acid as desired.
- Gently reheat meat in the braising liquid/sauce. Add meat back into the braising liquid and reheat to just hot-- 150-160 degrees. This will help the meat to retain moisture.