Wednesday, February 4, 2004

In praise of braise

This nearly fool-proof cooking technique turns the ordinary into the extraordinary

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Cooking teacher Rita Heikenfeld stirs a blend of braised vegetables and herbs.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
You've probably been braising and didn't know it.

If you've gently simmered chunks of carrots or parsnips in a covered pan, you've braised.

If you've cooked veal or lamb shanks slowly in the oven, you've braised.

And if you've bubbled pot roast in a slow-cooker, you've braised. (Although a few pro cooks might quibble on that one.)

Braising is an elementary and nearly fool-proof cooking technique that turns tough cuts of meat meltingly tender, vegetables into morsels of incredible flavor and mere cooking liquid into intensely delicious sauce.

Braising is made for winter, when a warm oven is welcome and we crave satisfying foods.

"It is a chase-the-cold kind of dish," says Rita Heikenfeld, culinary professional for Lazarus-Macy's and Ridge Market, and an experienced braiser. "It's a great excuse to stay home to cook, even though braising doesn't require much watching."

It's difficult to explain, but like the homey aroma of the short ribs or pork roast cooking, the very act of braising fills the kitchen with a comforting, secure feeling. It's as if we know there's food in the oven, and it will be dinner soon. And it will taste wonderful.

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The rules of braising are simple: Low heat, a little liquid in the pot, a tight-fitting lid and, most important, patience. Braising is one of the most basic culinary skills, a technique young French apprentices such as Bertrand Bouquin, now executive chef at Maisonette, learn and practice early in their training.

"The idea is to color whatever you braise," says Bouquin, who regularly offers specials of braised veal, lamb and pork shanks at the five-star restaurant, downtown.

In this case, "to color" means searing the ingredients over high heat in a dab of butter or oil before the braising begins. Searing not only makes the food more appealing to the eye, it adds texture and rich caramelized flavor.

And searing not only applies to the usual cuts of meat, but to fish and vegetables as well. One of Heikenfeld's favorite braised dish-es is all vegetable - chunks of sweet potatoes, butternut squash, turnips and rosy beets.

Once the main ingredients are seared and colored properly, a little stock, wine or other liquid is added to the pot, which is covered and placed over low heat on top of the stove or in a low (usually 325-degree or less) oven.

"If I'm braising something relatively quick, like greens, I cook it on top of the stove," Heikenfeld says. "But if it gets a long cooking time, I put it in the oven. The heat is more even there, and you don't have to watch it closely."

In the pan, the long, slow heat works its wonders - tenderizing and concentrating flavors.

While braising is easy, it is, as we said, nearly foolproof. Common mistakes include braising at too high heat and allowing the pot to dry out during cooking.

Another braising sin is to add too much liquid to the pot, resulting in stewing, which is different from braising. (Stewing means the food is submerged in liquid. Braising means the bottom of the cooking vessel is covered with liquid.)

It's crucial, of course, to braise the food long enough. Meat should fall off the bone, vegetables should be tender and the sauce should be reduced to a syrupy consistency.

One more braising tip: After taking the pot off the heat or out of the oven, food scientist and cookbook author Shirley Corriher recommends allowing the food to sit a few minutes, covered and undisturbed.

"The moisture leaves the meat when you heat it," says Corriher, author of CookWise (Morrow; $30). "But when you take it off heat, the meat reabsorbs the moisture, and you want to allow that, so it's juicy."

Finally, even the simple rules of braising are bendable. While most insist on clamping a lid tightly on the pot - even hermetically sealing the food with foil or parchment paper - others are more loose with this tenet.

Chef-owner Patrick McCafferty of Slim's in Northside prefers to cover his lamb shanks with foil in the oven. Chef Bouquin often leaves his braising pans uncovered to further concentrate the flavors of the sauce and food.

"It makes a nice glaze around the meat," he says.

Bouquin braises for hours at very lower heat, sometimes only 200 degrees, and he frequently bastes the meat and vegetables to keep them moist.

And remember, he's a French chef who's been braising since he was a teenager. If you're a beginning braiser, keep the lid on to play it safe.

But now at least, you'll know you're braising.

The rules

• Sear meat and/or vegetables briefly on high heat.

• Add small amount of stock, wine or other liquid.

• Cover pot and reduce heat.

• Cook slowly, until tender.

Best chuck roasts

In Inside America's Kitchen (America's Test Kitchen; $29), the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine identify the best cuts of chuck roast for braising as seven-bone pot roast, top-blade pot roast (also called blade roast) and chuck-eye roast. The seven-bone pot roast usually requires the shortest coming time. The larger chuck-eye roast takes the longest.

Do it slowly

Although it may not fit most chefs' definition of the technique, there's no reason you can't braise in your slow cooker. John Kinsella, head of the Midwest Culinary Institute, suggests searing the meat and/or vegetables in a pan on top of the stove, then transferring it to the slow-cooker.

It's also a good idea to deglaze the pan in which the meat was cooked, by adding a little wine or stock to the hot pan and stirring a minute or two. Pour this reduced liquid into the cooker. Add a little more broth or stock to the slow-cooker - but not too much. (Remember, you're not stewing.) Set the cooker on the lowest setting and keep it covered during cooking.

Monitor the liquid during the braising, adding more if necessary, to make sure the pot doesn't dry out.

Best pots

The best braising pots, like the Le Creuset Short French Oven, work equally well on top of the stove and in the oven, and have a tight-fitting lid. Made of enamel-covered cast iron, the 61/2-quart Le Creuset oven costs $179.95 and is available at Sur La Table: Rookwood Commons or

Books to braise by

• Cooking for Comfort: More than 100 Recipes That Are as Satisfying to Cook as They Are to Eat (Simon & Schuster; $24)

• Inside America's Test Kitchen (American's Test Kitchen; $29.95)

• The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook (Wiley & Sons; $34.95)


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