Making Meat Tender Through Braising

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It isn’t news that food prices are spiraling out of control. What makes it worse is that other living expenses are also climbing into the stratosphere, causing most families to look at their grocery budgets to see where they can make cuts to save money. While it’s necessary to take a hard line during these troubling financial times, you don’t want to have to do so at the expense of your family’s enjoyment of meals. If you learn the cooking technique known as “braising”, you can save money on meat, but still eat like royalty.

Braising essentially makes use of tougher, less expensive cuts of meat, like chuck or rump roasts, lamb or veal shanks, and short ribs, and uses liquid and slow cooking at a very low temperature to tenderize them. It does this by breaking down the connective tissue in meat to collagen. As the heat and moisture build up in the cooking pot, the collagen is dissolved into gelatin, which in turn dissolves. The heat also contracts the meat fibers, causing them to give off moisture and drying out the meat.  As the cooking process continues, the meat fibers relax and absorb the gelatin. That’s why there is such a long cooking time to braise; the meat must go through all of these chemical changes in order to end up tender and flavorful.

There are some important things to remember about braising:

  • It is designed to cook a whole, large piece of meat at once, unlike stewing, which requires that the meat be cut up into chunks.
  • You need a heavy pot such as a Dutch oven with a tight-fitting cover to keep the moisture inside. You can braise on the top of the stove or in the oven. However, if you braise in the oven, be sure your pot is oven-proof.
  • Once the cooking process has begun, the only attention you need to give it is to be sure that the cooking liquid doesn’t evaporate.

You begin by heating a small amount of oil in the bottom of your pan. Use either vegetable or canola oil because they have a higher smoke point than olive oil. “Smoke point” refers to the temperature at which the oil breaks down and starts to give off smoke. When this happens, the oil is burning, and it will make your food taste awful.

When the oil is hot, sear the meat until it is brown in color. This develops the flavor by creating a crust on the meat when the sugars in it are caramelized. After searing, remove the meat to a plate and deglaze the pan (scrape up all of the brown bits at the bottom) with chicken stock.

Next, place the meat back into the pot and add enough, stock, wine, or a combination of the two to cover  2/3 of the meat. You can also add tomatoes for additional flavor. This is also the time to add any vegetables such as carrots, celery root, turnips, parsnips, etc., that you would like to cook with your meat. Cover the pot if you’re cooking on top of the stove. You can leave the lid off if you’re braising in the oven.

If you are braising on top of the stove, lower your temperature to approximately 185 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re using the oven, set the temperature between 275 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Allow the meat to cook for 3-4 hours until it is fork-tender.

Remove the meat and vegetables to a serving dish and keep warm. Strain the excess fat from the liquid in the pot, and cook on the top of the stove until it reduces down to the desired thickness. Then ladle some of the liquid over the meat and put the rest in a bowl or gravy boat so that each person can add more to their meat if they choose.

Braising is not only an easy way to make use of inexpensive cuts of meat, but it is also a great way to make a one-pot meal that can stand alone. You can also try adding a side dish of mashed potatoes or white rice so that everyone can take advantage of the sauce with all of its blend of flavors.

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