Don't know how to do it? Dr. Gourmet explains common cooking techniques and the hows and whys of what they are and why they work. All Cooking Techniques
Technically, braising is simmering food in a small amount of liquid in a covered or uncovered pan or casserole. In some ways it's similar to stewing, except that with braising there's generally only enough water, wine or stock to add a little moisture while stewing immerses the ingredients in liquid. Both achieve the same purpose of tenderizing ingredients while adding flavor. The classic braised dish is Coq au Vin: chicken cooked in red wine.
If you like, you can start by searing the item you are going to braise. It's a bit of a fallacy that the searing will seal in the juices, especially when you are braising for a long time, since the whole purpose is to break down the fibers and add moisture. Searing can, however, add a wonderful caramelized flavor to the dish. If you do sear first, it's best to do that on the range over medium-high heat, then add the cooking liquid before putting the pan in the oven.
Generally speaking, one braises at lower temperatures for longer periods, and it is usually done in the oven, but crock pots actually work really well. Set the oven at 300°F, place the item to be cooked in a larger pan like a Dutch oven, add about one or two cups liquid (about one cup per pound is a good rule of thumb), cover and place the pot in the oven.
At 300° the liquid will heat to just below the boiling point, at around 190 to 200 degrees. By cooking at a low heat for a longer period of time, tougher cuts of meat turn out tender because the fibers are broken down slowly while the liquid keeps food moist. The braising liquid can then used in making sauces.
Traditionally braising is reserved for cooking less tender cuts of meat. The prototype of this is pot roast. An inexpensive but tough chuck roast, cooked for hours, turns out tender and delicious. Flank steak, flap meat, hanger steak, lamb shoulder, lamb shanks and the like all are great for braising.
While braising works well with tough cuts of meat, you can use the techniques for quick cooking as well. Braising can be a great choice for delicate fish or vegetables, but the cooking time is much shorter. This takes less liquid: about half as much as for beef and longer cooking ingredients.
My recipe for Braised Tuna with Ginger Plum Sauce is a great example of braising for shorter periods. The tuna braises for less than ten minutes and still makes a great, tender dish with a fantastic sauce.
Likewise, pork tenderloin is by its very nature tender. Yet braising, as in this recipe for Mojo Pork Tenderloin, adds flavor while keeping it tender - and the sauce is fantastic.
Flavor, tenderness, ease of cooking... braising is the perfect technique for great food.
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.