What is real cooking? When you roast chicken and serve it with pan juices, say, or when you saute a steak Diane, bake Mom’s meatloaf or stir-fry Asian-style?
Not really. Those are all just heating.
True cooking--real cooking--happens when you take a raw ingredient and transform it into something far better than its former self. And there is no more soul-satisfying, body-nourishing form of true cooking than the braise. Braising transforms a cheap, tough piece of meat into a meltingly tender, rich, succulent dish.
Technically, to braise means to cook something slowly in a little liquid, usually having seared the item in hot fat first and using the cooking liquid as the final sauce. Pot roast and beef stew, lamb shank, osso buco and oxtail are all braises.
Whatever meat and liquid you choose, the method is the same. Season the meat well with plenty of salt and pepper, sear it to a perfect golden brown (be careful not to over-sear, which will make the outer layer leathery and dry), add just enough liquid to cover the meat and then set it to cook in a 300-degree oven for hours and hours, until the meat is fork-tender.
It hardly matters which ingredients you use. The pleasure is in the method. If you flour the meat lightly, take a moment to appreciate the smell when it hits hot oil--one of the supreme aromas in all of cooking. Take time to enjoy browning the meat, a great visual pleasure. Once the liquid is added and brought to a simmer and your pot is covered and in the oven, your home will fill with smells of great cooking. It’s a little-known fact that bills are easier to pay on a winter Sunday evening when short ribs are braising in the oven.
You can vary the meat and liquid any way you wish. We like to marinate the meat in red wine first and then use the marinade as part of the braising liquid.
You can use also veal stock--perhaps the best braising medium--but chicken stock works fine. So does water, for that matter. Add tomato juice or aromatic vegetables and herbs (onions, carrots, thyme, garlic), or unconventional seasonings such as lemon grass and coriander seed.
One handy trick is to cover the braising meat with a parchment paper, pressed right down onto the surface of the liquid. The paper absorbs some of the fat, which helps keep the surface of the meat moist. At the same time, it allows some reduction in the liquid that will become the meat’s sauce.
But those elements are all a matter of your mood on any particular day. What is constant is the braise itself--the slow transformation of scraps into treasure: true alchemy in the kitchen.
Keller is chef at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Ruhlman is author of “Soul of a Chef” (Viking, $26.95). They are co-authors of “The French Laundry Cookbook” (Artisan, $50). Previous columns by them can be found on The Times’ Web site, at: http://www.latimes.com/keller.