Why braising is one of the best ways to cook meat

With very little effort you can create a complete dish that boasts rich, deep flavours.

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Braised cabbage with bacon

Braised cabbage with bacon. (Photo, Roberto Caruso.)

What’s so good about braising? Maybe it’s the fact that with little effort you can create a rich, flavourful dish. Or maybe, it’s the fact that braising calls for inexpensive cuts of meat? Or the fact that, by braising, you end up with a complete one-pot meal? Then again, maybe it’s the aromas of home-cooking that fill the house . . . but regardless of the “why,” the important thing to remember is it’s easy, and the results are impressive.

There are a few things that will make or break your braising, so here are some tips to help you get the tender meat you deserve, every time.

What is braising?
Terms such as roasting and baking apply a “dry” cooking method. Braising, on the other hand, applies to a “wet” heat. In order to braise, meat or vegetables are often browned or seared in a hot, oven-proof pan. A liquid is then added, and the dish is covered, the cooked over a low, consistent heat for a long period of time.

How (and why) does it work? 
Braising always calls for cuts of meat that have a higher quantity of fat, or are considered tough cuts. Happily, these cuts are loaded with flavour, and are also the most economical. By applying low, slow heat, collagen — the culprit for these tougher cuts of meat — melts away and becomes gelatin. The side effect of this is a silky, tender meat that’s so tender, you can often break it apart with just a fork. Because braising calls for a liquid, the flavours extracted during the cooking process are absorbed by the liquid. Therefore no flavour is lost — it is actually developing during the cooking time. Enter delicious sauce!

Related: 10 perfect-for-winter braising recipes

How do I braise my meat?
The best thing to do for braising is find a good recipe…and stick to it. For example our braised Asian beef. There are many variations, but here are guiding principles that relate to them all.

1. Select your meat.
Sometimes braising meats will be smaller stewing pieces or large roasts. The cook times will differ for these different cuts. If dealing with smaller pieces of meat, cut them all to approximately the same size to promote even cooking. The same rule applies to any vegetables you’re adding.

2. Cook on a low temperature.
Between 250F and 300F (or to the temperature indicated in your recipe).

3. Brown meat first.
Pan-sear your meat in oil in a large an oven-proof pot over med-high heat until there is a nice deep colour.

4. Add seasonings and vegetables.
Cook until vegetables get a little bit of colour.

5. Add your liquid and cover pot.
The meat needs to simmer. If you leave the pot uncovered, the liquid (and a lot of flavour) evaporates.

6. Transfer to oven.
Or cook on stove-top if indicated.  The cook time will depend on the weight of your meat, so follow your recipe guidelines.

7. Use the sauce.
When braising is finished, skim any excess fat from the top of the braising liquid and enjoy it as a delicious sauce. If the liquid is too thin, remove the meat to a platter and reduce the liquid in an uncovered pot on the stove. You can also adjust seasonings at this time.

Related: How to choose the right pot or pan for the job

5 tips for better braising:

1. Select fatty, tougher cuts that will benefit from a long cooking time.
Examples of ideal braising meats are pork shoulder, stewing beef and other tough beef cuts as well as chicken thighs and short ribs.

2. Cook in the appropriate size pot.
You meat and vegetables should fit the pot. There should be enough room that they aren’t packed on-top of each other, but not so much room that the pot looks sparse.

3.  your meat first.
It develops the flavour and adds a bit of colour. Make sure you dry your meat well (patting it with a paper towel works) to get the best colour.

4. Braise in the oven.
Although stovetop braising is effective, it is an uneven heat as the heat source comes from below the pot. Adding the pot to a preheated oven means that heat will penetrate the pot from all sides and cook very evenly.

5. Don’t let the temperature exceed the boiling point.
Meat that is cooked too quickly will be tough. Also, if a starch such as flour is included in your recipe it is intended to thicken the braising liquid, resulting in a sauce. If the temperature gets too high, your starch will break down and lose its thickening function, resulting in a thin sauce.

Originally published December 2012. Updated February 2016.

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