This is the time of year I crave comfort foods. Something braised slowly in a big pot. Those dishes that remind me of when I first learned how to cook back in the day. Way, way back in the day. We’re talking Crock-Pot.
Braising is a simple, slow-cooking technique in which browned meat comes together with a liquid that will ultimately become a rich sauce. But braising doesn’t mean boring. There are so many kinds of braised meat dishes, from almost every culture, that you could eat them practically every day without having to have the same one twice.
Braised pork dishes, such as pork shank, tend to lean toward a sweet flavor. Braised lamb, while delicious, can be earthy and even gamy, and often the resulting stock can be a bit sour, depending on the age, diet and source of the meat. My personal favorite has always been beef. I will never forget my first childhood can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew. Crazy good. For me, braised beef has a simple, straightforward savory depth and richness both in aroma and flavor. I also love the versatility of beef. Unlike many other meats, the flavor of beef can go in any number of directions.
Is it easy? Yes, but there are some rules to keep in mind, as well as some old rituals than can be dispensed with. First of all, you’ll need a big, heavy pot. If you don’t have a lid, that’s fine, you can make one. This is the perfect time to break out that gigantic cast-iron Le Creuset pot you registered for but have yet to use.
Typically braised meat dishes are made with the toughest but most flavorful cuts. Many recipes call for parts of the shoulder or leg. The best braising parts tend to have a lot of collagen-rich connective tissue, which, when exposed to long periods of low heat, will break down and become gelatin. That gelatin is what gives the resulting sauce a rich, hearty and soul-satisfying weight. It is often said that braised meat gives up its soul to the sauce. A worthy cause, if you ask me.
The mainstream grocery store meat departments tend to focus on the “center” cuts but often ignore some of the lesser-known gems. One prime example of a forgotten cut is the cheek. Beef cheek is an extremely versatile piece of meat. I’ve made numerous dishes, including stews, curries, hash, dumpling filling and ragout, with beef cheeks.
Because a cow’s cheek muscles get a rigorous daily workout, they can be quite tough and lean. However, the toughness is what makes them perfect for a slow-cooking technique like braising. Braising in liquid will unlock and release the gelatin from the cheeks, yielding a rich, unctuous sauce while making the meat very tender.
One of my absolute favorite cheek dishes is the Provencal classic daube de boeuf, a rich, earthy slow-simmered stew with fork-tender beef cheek and root vegetables, all brought together with red wine, shallots and herbs. It’s the most perfect thing in the world to eat with mashed potatoes.
Of course, I always make big batches, so I have plenty of leftovers. Braised meat dishes are often even better the next day, so don’t be shy. Make a lot. My leftover daube usually gets reheated the next day with the addition of sour cream, which then becomes a stroganoff-like pasta sauce. Perfect over buttered egg noodles.
Root vegetables are the perfect addition to a braise for their sweetness, complexity and texture. Think parsnips, rutabagas and, of course, carrots. Since we’re trying only to soften the vegetables, not break them down entirely, it’s best to add them for just the last 30 to 40 minutes of cooking.
Another essential element is wine. Now technically braising can be done with other liquids, such as a dark beer, but nothing will create flavor depth like a heady red wine. When choosing a wine, following the basic rule of cooking only with something you’d actually drink is not a bad place to start. For beef braises, I lean toward big, ripe red wines. Maybe something like an Australian Shiraz or a big southern Italian Primitivo.
A well-made stock in a braise is absolutely essential, as it is what will make all the components come together in the end. This is one time I firmly believe you have to make your own. Many recipes will state that store-bought broth can be used, but I don’t agree. In this case, the convenience simply doesn’t win out over flavor.
The added salt of store-bought broth will make it difficult to control the seasoning of the final dish. Because we’re reducing significant amounts of liquid during the braise, the salt will just concentrate, and it could become disastrous.
Also, when it comes time to add the stock, make sure to bring it to a simmer first. I don’t like to add cold liquids to hot liquids because it slows down the reduction process as the once-boiling liquid has to regain its temperature.
I usually add just enough stock to cover everything.
I also like using herbs in braises to add further nuance and layers of flavor. Fresh thyme, rosemary or parsley all add delicate character to the finished sauce. But be careful when adding rosemary. Use just a little, as it can become quite bitter in large quantities.
Acid is often an ignored component in braised meat recipes. I am a huge believer that a splash of vinegar added at the end of a braise is a detail that should never be overlooked. The intention when adding vinegar is not to add sourness to the dish but to literally “wake it up.” Even a properly made braised meat dish can be oppressively rich and the more delicate flavors can be obscured through the reduction process. A little red wine or sherry vinegar added as a last step is like a double shot of espresso. The inherent heaviness of all that weighty gelatin in the sauce is lifted, and the deeper nuances come alive.
If you’ve read French cookbooks, you’ve probably seen the old cartouche called for in braise recipes. That’s the big circle you cut out of folded parchment paper with a bagel-like hole in the middle for a steam vent. This is just something you can use in lieu of a lid to control the amount of moisture evaporation, but it isn’t a necessary step unless you’re in culinary school. So if your pot has a lid, no need for the origami. Just use the lid and leave it askew slightly to allow for ventilation while cooking.
How long a braise takes depends on type, cut and size of the meat, temperature and many other factors. But a braise is not something you can rush. No matter how many episodes of “Iron Chef” you’ve watched, proper braising cannot be accomplished in an hour; don’t even think about trying. The meat will never get tender that quickly. I’ve never braised anything for less than three hours. That’s about how long it takes for the meat to lose most of its resistance, become buttery soft and can easily be cut with a fork.
The biggest challenge for home cooks wanting to cook with beef cheek is finding them. It’s a popular item in other cultures, so the first places to look are a Mexican carniceria or an Asian supermarket. If you find them there, they’ll be pretty cheap. On the other hand, for a little more money you can special-order them from a good butcher. They’ll be a little more expensive, but they’re worth it.
When you find them, buy a bunch and freeze what’s left. Trust me, this is something worth looking for and a perfect way to savor the season.