“Brown food tastes good."
We all know braising is one of the most delicious ways to get the most out of your meat. But it can also be an intimidating technique to the uninitiated. Luckily, Chef Anne Burrell was on hand at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen to dispel some of the myths and mysteries behind cooking things low and slow. “Braising is my favorite cooking technique,” Burrell told the crowd. “It’s where the soul in cooking lies.”
Burrell describes braising as “coaxing the most flavor and making beautiful things out of [cuts of meat] that were previously thought of as not fantastic.” Kicking off with her mantra of “brown food tastes good,” here are some of her key braising basics everyone should know.
Don’t skimp on the browning
The first step to a flavorful braise is to brown the ingredients at the beginning. “You have to take things to what I call ‘the burnt toast phase,’” Burrell explains. “A slice of bread is great. Toast is crunchy, a little brown, and has more texture. But toast is the most flavorful one step before it’s garbage. So when we think about braising, we take things to the burnt toast stage, to the edge of disaster and bring it back. That’s when you get the most flavorful food.”
Burrell demonstrated braising a bone-in chicken thigh by browning both the skin and underside with olive oil in a hot pan. If you’re scared you’re going to burn it, just remember one key piece of advice: “The knobs on the burners adjust. Just turn it down.” If you do end up with burnt black bits in the bottom of your pan, don’t panic. Just grab a fresh pan and keep going. “Don’t try to build a braise on a burnt pan,” Burrell warns.
Wondering how to know when the meat is sufficiently browned? “If you have to ask yourself ‘is that brown?’ then it’s not.”
Season from the get-go
“If you don’t salt from the beginning you can’t add a few sprinky-dinks of salt at the end,” Burrell says. She advises to taste your braise along the way and keep seasoning.
After you pull the browned meat from the pot, you can use the cruddy, brown goodness leftover as the base for your other flavor elements (in this recipe’s case, onions and mushrooms). Brown up the vegetables and deglaze the pan with some wine. Oh, and season it again.
After building all of these delicious flavors, you’re ready for the “low and slow” part of the process.
Burrell demonstrated a stovetop braise (versus an oven), which gives you a constant visual (and smell and taste) of your food. She doesn’t advise using a lid because the whole point of the next phase of braising is to evaporate water and concentrate flavor. For the chicken thighs, Burrell used chicken stock as her braising liquid, but some meats like lamb shanks and short ribs can braise just fine (and deliciously) with water, as long as you put the browning work in at the beginning.
Whatever you use, “when you’re starting, add liquid about halfway to two thirds up the side of the meat.” Then “BTB, RTS.” That is, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer. And keep repeating that process. “Add liquid and reduce, add liquid and reduce. over and over. It’s the dance,” Burrell instructs. “Taste it while you’re doing it. The life cycle of a braise—the difference from where you start to where you finish are wildly different.”
Don’t overdo it
“Braised meat that’s falling apart is overcooked,” Burrell says. “It should hold its shape, but you should just need a fork [to eat it].” So when is braised meat “done?”
“It’s not about medium rare, rare, well done—it’s so beyond that,” Burrell says. Because you’re typically braising off-cuts and less tender parts of the animal, the rules are a bit different. “The more you cook protein, the more it firms up,” Burrell explains. However, “braising is like a test of wills—You cook it low and slow. You put it in a jacuzzi. What do you do in a jacuzzi? You relax. The proteins firm up and then they relax.” Burrell says to use standard meat temperature guidelines and a thermometer to bring it to the safe, desired point of doneness. In the case of the chicken thighs, this only took about 30 to 45 minutes. Not so daunting after all, is it?
Lastly, Burrell reminds us that the whole point of building flavor and seasoning properly is to end up with something delicious. “Food should taste good. If it doesn’t, there’s something wrong.”