The weather has changed--it’s time to start braising.
We all divide the year according to our own calendar: winter, summer, spring and fall; school and vacation; dry and rainy; football and baseball (basketball seems to span both). For me, the year is split cleanly between grilling and braising. And now that we’ve had the first good rain, it’s time to break out the stew pot.
Braising, of course, is cooking meat in a moist environment. Technically, there’s a difference between braises and stews (stews use more liquid, daubes even more), but it’s not something I spend a lot of time worrying about. The techniques involved are much the same.
What happens during braising is that moist heat softens the connective tissue in meat. An extreme example of connective tissue is the yellow gristle you get in cheap cuts, but it comes in other, more cookable, forms as well. A thin sheet of connective tissue surrounds every protein strand in a cut of meat, and a slightly thicker sheet surrounds every muscle too. Still more connective tissue binds muscle to bone.
Connective tissue builds up in muscles that are heavily worked. That’s what makes them tough. But it’s also what makes them moist and tender after a long, slow cooking. There is no more point in braising a tender cut like sirloin than there is in grilling a shank.
The problem with connective tissue is that it’s tough and stringy and slow to dissolve in cooking. It takes extended heating--and moist heating at that--to break it down. While most red meats are considered cooked at 130 to 140 degrees, connective tissue doesn’t begin to soften until about 160 degrees. Braises commonly get cooked to internal temperatures of 180 to 185 degrees.
Furthermore, while a small amount of connective tissue will soften just from the moisture that’s contained in the meat, to soften very much of it you’ll have to add moisture to the pan.
This is where it gets a little conflicted. If there is any liquid in the pan, meat won’t brown (as long as there is moisture present, the temperature won’t go above the boiling point--212 degrees--and browning doesn’t take place until hotter than 300 degrees).
So this kind of cooking usually involves two steps. First, you brown the meat, just as you would for a saute. Then you add liquid and braise it. There are braises that are done without browning--the French call them blanquettes--but they tend to be done with veal or poultry, delicate meats.
The temptation when doing this initial browning is to turn up the heat and really scorch the heck out of the meat. While it is true that you want to brown it as dark as possible, this approach is to be discouraged. Browning doesn’t just change the color and flavor of the meat, it cooks the meat too. And though braising does involve the absorption of moisture, once the meat is overcooked, it will stay overcooked. If the meat in your stews has a dry, grainy texture on the outside, it’s probably because you’re overcooking it during browning.
Instead, you should heat the oil in the pan over medium-high heat until it is very hot. If you tip a corner of the meat into the oil, it should sizzle immediately. But once you add the rest of the meat, reduce the heat to medium. The meat should continue to sizzle, but it should never get to that mad burble you hear during deep frying.
Once the meat has been browned, it’s time for the braise. The most important thing to remember about this is that to get the most intense flavor, you want to use as little liquid as possible.
First, braise the meat in an appropriately sized pan. The meat should fit snugly with only a little room for liquid around it.
And while it should be obvious that all braises should be done under cover (well, duh!), you can do a better job if you double the cover. Lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the meat lightly, pressing the edges to the sides. Then put the real lid over the top.
This reduces the “head space” in the pot, meaning that there is less room to be filled with steam. This not only reduces the evaporation of the liquid, it also means the actual braising will begin earlier and be more thorough.
This may be a lot of advice to absorb in one sitting. Take your time. The rainy season is just beginning.
Pat lamb shanks dry with paper towel and salt liberally on all sides. Heat oil over medium heat in large cast-iron Dutch oven. When hot enough that meat instantly sizzles when added to pan, brown shanks on all sides. You may need to do this in two stages, depending on size of pan. As shanks are browned, remove to plate and keep warm. Do not brown shanks too quickly or they will be dry. It should take about 15 minutes.
When shanks are browned and have been removed to plate, drain all but film of fat from pan. Add carrots, celery, onion and bell pepper and cook, stirring, until vegetables begin to soften, about 10 minutes.
Add garlic and cook, stirring, until garlic becomes very fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, until you see dark streaks across bottom of pan where paste is browning, about 5 minutes. Add wine and stir to combine well.
Place shanks on top of vegetables. Cover with sheet of aluminum foil to fit snugly against sides of pan. Cover tightly with lid and bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes.
Remove lid and foil and add olives and good grinding of black pepper. Stir to mix well. Turn shanks and check level of liquid. Wine should just cover vegetables and bottom of shanks. Add more wine or water if necessary. Return to oven and bake until lamb is tender enough to fall off bone, another 45 to 60 minutes.
Remove from oven, turn lamb again and add rosemary. Cover and set aside 5 to 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Chop together lemon zest and parsley. Serve shanks with some sauce and with lemon-parsley combination sprinkled over top.
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