Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Braising (and Stewing) Basics

January and February are my favorite months of the year for making braises and stews. Here in the Midwest, the weather is technically appropriate from early fall and on in to March. But there's something about the slower pace of life after the holidays.....the slow processes of braising and stewing become very appealing.

Sunday was not really cold, but the weekend was generally blustery and gray—weather that seems to call for a braise. So for dinner on Sunday I prepared a variation of Alice Waters' Beef Stew from her book The Art of Simple Food. It was very good. It is also a classic and basic recipe. Since it has been my intention since I started this blog to write a post on the basic techniques of braising, now seems like a convenient time for such a post. I have included my variation of Ms. Waters' stew at the end of the post.

My understanding of the science of what is going on in the braising pot is mostly intuitive—based on practical experience and snatches of things I have read over the years. Consequently, I will not be delving into the science of the braise in my post. Rather I will be giving a step by step procedural of how a braise or stew is accomplished. My purpose, as always, is to get people cooking. It is my hope that after reading this that you will be able to execute any recipe for a braised meat with more confidence, eventually with more skill, and always with a measure of success.

For the remainder of the post, I will use the term braise and stew interchangeably. The only differences between a braise and a stew are the size of the cut of meat (braises are typically made with large cuts and stews with smaller pieces) and the amount of liquid involved (braises are usually accomplished in less liquid than a stew).

Braising is a moist heat cooking procedure. Its purpose is to tenderize. Cuts appropriate for braising will be tough, sinewy and often fatty. They frequently are located near or around a joint. They are loaded with collagen which, under the braising process, breaks down into gelatin. The final result of a well-prepared braise is meltingly tender and succulent pieces of meat. Examples of good braising cuts are lamb shoulder, lamb shank, veal shank (osso buco), veal breast, pork butt (shoulder), pork “country ribs”, beef chuck, beef brisket, beef short ribs, ox tail and chicken legs.

Braising does no favors for tender and lean cuts of meat. In fact, the long cooking will ruin these (usually expensive) cuts. When subjected to the long braising process, they will become dry and stringy. Classically you will find chicken breasts (a lean and tender cut) included in the French sauté—which is a type of stew. Unless you are using an old "stewing hen", I think that these kinds of preparations are better when made with just the legs and thighs, but if I do include the breasts, I always remove them when they are "just" done—which is some time before the stewing process is complete. This way the breasts are not really stewed—the cooking process they undergo is more akin to poaching or steaming. To finish these sautés that include the breasts, I return the breasts to the pan with the legs and thighs for a short reheat in the sauce just before serving.

Braises are even better if the meat is given a pre-cooking treatment of some sort. At a bare minimum I like to pre-salt the meat. This insures that the meat is well-seasoned throughout. I also think that it improves the texture of the final product. If you are not familiar with pre-salting, I wrote a short post about it last winter. Meats to be braised can also be treated to a dry rub and frequently they are marinated (in some wine, aromatic vegetables, herbs, spices, etc.). All of these things will improve and enhance flavor—but none are strictly necessary.

For the cooking of the braise, choose a pan/pot that is just large enough to comfortably hold the meat and any vegetables that will be added in a snug single layer. If the meats and vegetables are piled on top of one another they will not cook evenly. It is also best to choose a short-sided pan so that there is not a lot of air space left between the braising meats and the lid.

The first step of a braise is to brown the meat. Browning adds color and flavor to the final dish. This may be done in any fat of your choice (olive or vegetable oil, bacon fat, butter, etc.) in a pan on the stovetop. For large, unwieldy cuts, it is sometimes done by rubbing the entire piece of meat with fat and placing it on a rack in a hot oven (425° to 475°) and roasting until browned—20 to 30 minutes. Whichever method you choose, to get the most flavor you should make sure that all of the surfaces reach a deep, rich, solid brown.

When sautéing, the meat should first be patted dry (so that it won't steam) and the pan and fat should be very hot before you add the meat. Once the meat is added, regulate the temperature so that it is high enough to maintain an active sizzle, yet not so high that the meat (or the caramelization developing on the bottom of the pan) burns. If you have more meat than your pan can comfortably hold (there should be some space between the pieces of meat), brown in batches.

The process as described above is universally applicable to every braise with a couple of exceptions: Sometimes you will be directed to dredge the pieces of meat in flour prior to browning in fat on the stovetop. This aids in browning, but more importantly it will help thicken the final liquid. You will occasionally run across a classic "white" stew (like Blanquette de Veau) or other preparation (like the Mexicali Meat I posted last March) that is not browned at all.

When the meat is well-browned, lift it out of the pan. At this point aromatic vegetables (onion, garlic, leeks, carrot, celery, fennel, peppers, etc.) are usually added to the pan. You should adjust the amount of fat in the pan as necessary to obtain a thin film that will coat the vegetables. You may need to add more or pour off the excess. The vegetables may be caramelized or simply softened in the fat. This will depend on the depth of color desired in the final dish. Again, regulate the heat accordingly and as necessary.

Next, deglaze the pan. Basically deglazing a pan is dissolving the caramelized sugars and proteins left in a pan after roasting or pan-frying by adding a liquid. Any liquid may be used for this—water, stock/broth, wine, fortified wine, tomatoes, etc. Any fat remaining in the pan should be poured off before the deglazing liquid is added. The goal of deglazing is to capture the flavor in the caramelized food substance and preserve it for the sauce—or in this case the braising liquid. It isn't enough to simply add the liquid and allow it to boil, you need to use a flat wooden spoon (or something similar) to actively scrape the bottom of the pan. This will insure that the caramelized bits are released into the sauce. If wine or a fortified wine is used to deglaze, it should be boiled to reduce the volume, concentrate the flavor and soften the harshness of the alcohol. And although tomatoes are not as acidic as wine, when used as the deglazing agent for shorter braises (less than an hour—in a chicken sauté, for example), they too will benefit from a brief cooking to concentrate their flavor and soften their acidity.

Reducing the red wine used to deglaze the pan

Once the deglazing liquids have been reduced, return the meat to the pan. Sometimes the braising vegetables are removed from the pan prior to deglazing. If this is the case, return the vegetables to the pan with the meat. Next add the braising liquid. The liquid may be water, stock (if you are not able to match the stock to the meat, chicken stock makes a good all purpose cooking medium) or the wine marinade. When I use the wine that I have marinated the meat in as my braising liquid, I always bring it to a boil (in a separate pan) before using it, skimming off and discarding any impurities that rise to the surface in the form of foam. If this is a braise that will cook for less than 2 or 3 hours, reduce the wine marinade by half before using it as the braising liquid (for the same reason the deglazing wine is reduced—to rid it of the harshness of the alcohol and concentrate the flavor).

I mentioned at the beginning of the post that one of the differences between a braise and a stew is the amount of liquid used. If you are braising, you should add only enough liquid to come one-quarter to two-thirds of the way up the sides of the meat. If you are making a stew, the liquid should come all of the way up the sides of the pieces of meat so that only the tops of the pieces of meat are visible (some recipes will call for even more).

The stew...ready for its long simmer

Bring the liquid to a good simmer. Reduce the heat, cover tightly and cook. It is important that the cooking be accomplished at a bare simmer. A rapid simmer or hard boil will ruin the braise—it will produce dry, stringy, meat and murky, greasy sauces. Moreover, the meat will not cook any faster at a boil than it will at a bare simmer. The cooking may be done on the stovetop or in a low oven—whatever temperature produces a bare simmer. Start at 325° and check after the first 20 minutes and occasionally thereafter. Adjust the oven temperature as necessary.

I prefer to cook a braise in the oven—the oven will maintain a consistent, all around gentle heat (as opposed to strong bottom heat). The oven also mimics to some degree a "true" braise. The word braise is from the French and refers to a pot with a concave lid. This pot was filled with the meat, vegetables and liquid, placed directly in the coals and more coals were piled on top—creating an all around gentle heat. (Some recipes will direct you to press a piece of parchment or foil to the surface of the braise, underneath the lid.  This creates an interior space in the pot similar to that of a traditional braising vessel.) The other thing I like about cooking the braise in the oven is that it requires less attention from me—and part of the beauty of a braise is that once started, it pretty much cooks itself.

When you check the braise, resist the temptation to stick a spoon in the pot to stir things up. This is completely unnecessary (particularly if the braise is in the oven and/or you have put the meat in a pan that holds it in a single layer). As the meat begins to get tender, stirring will cause the meat to shred and fall apart. In general, a finished braise should be comprised of beautiful chunks of glistening meat—not shredded bits.

If you are making a braise that uses very little liquid, it may be necessary to turn the meat over from time to time. But if this is the case, take the time to carefully turn each piece over with a tongs so that the pieces of meat will remain intact. Occasionally, the goal is shredded meat—if this is the case, it is of course fine to stir.

The braise is finished when the meat is meltingly tender. The tip of a knife will encounter no “grab” or resistance—it will slide in and slide out of the meat. Meats cooked on the bone will be nearly falling off of the bone. No matter what the recipe says, continue to cook until this point is reached—it may take 3 or 4 hours (or more for very large pieces of meat).

The final dish may include the aromatic vegetables from the initial cooking or they may be strained out for a more refined dish. When the sauce will not be strained, it is not uncommon for additional vegetable “garnish” to be added to and cooked with the braise. These vegetables are simply added at an appropriate point during the cooking process so that they are not only cooked, but very tender when the braise is done. A good example of this is the kind of pot roast my mother made when I was growing up. The pot roast was started with the onions and liquid and then an hour before she planned to serve it she added carrots and potatoes to the pot.

When the aromatic vegetables are strained out, a separately cooked vegetable garnish (poached, roasted, sautéed, etc.) is often added and simmered in the finished sauce with the meat for 5 or 10 minutes prior to serving. Good examples of this are the stew I am posting today or the Poulet Basquaise I posted a couple of years ago.

The finished stew, ready to serve--braising vegetables have been strained out, the sauce lightly thickened and fresh cooked carrots added.

To strain the sauce, lift the meat out to a plate and pour the remaining contents of the pot through a fine-meshed sieve (use a Chinois if you have one). I like to press on the contents of the sieve to extract as much liquid as possible, but inevitably, some of the soft, cooked vegetables will pass through the mesh. If this bothers you, press very gently, or don't press at all (but you will lose some of the precious sauce if you don't press). I don't mind when some of the vegetables get through—they have been reduced to a purée by virtue of the cooking and straining process and they only serve to thicken the sauce.

If not serving right away, cool the meat in its cooking liquid. Braised meats generally improve in flavor and texture if allowed to sit overnight (or for several hours). Furthermore, meats that are so tender they are falling apart will be easier to handle and serve if they are allowed to rest and/or cool in the cooking liquid.

Whether you are serving it right away or not, the liquid should be skimmed of as much of the surface fat as possible. This is easily accomplished if the braising vegetables are going to be strained out—strain the liquid into a deep container, allow it to sit for a moment or two and then use a ladle to skim off the fat. If you are not straining the sauce, a good trick is to skim off as much as you can with a spoon then take several thicknesses of paper towels and press them to the surface of the braise—the towels will absorb the fat first and the fat will repel the liquid, enabling you to get rid of the maximum amount of fat with minimal loss of the tasty sauce. If the stew is to be served the next day, simply chill it (without skimming) and the next day scrape/lift off the hardened fat.

The final step of the braise is to finish the sauce. It is rare for the sauce to be too thick, but if it is—or if there isn't enough of it (for a stew, for example), simply add some stock or water. If the sauce is too thin, it may be reduced—particularly if the flavor isn't as strong as you would like. To reduce the sauce it may be gently simmered or, if the meat and vegetables have been removed, boiled. A too thin sauce may also be thickened with a cooked roux or beurre manié (equal quantities of soft butter and flour, combined to make a paste). Bring the sauce to a simmer and whisk/stir in the roux/beurre manié a little bit at a time, waiting after each addition for it to take effect before adding more. You don't want it to be too thick... Taste and correct the seasoning and you are done.

The recipe for the stew I am posting today was intended to be a casual affair of big chunks of meat with the soft braising vegetables left in it...and I'm sure it would have been very good that way. But I was in the mood for something a bit less rustic, so I opted to strain out the braising vegetables. To the meat and finished sauce (thickened with a small amount of beurre manié) I added some freshly cooked carrots. I served it over buttered noodles (you should always serve a nice starch—potatoes, rice, couscous, noodles—with a stew or braise to soak up all of the wonderful sauce). Altogether it made an elegant, flavorful and satisfying Sunday night dinner. And if you are new to the technique of braising, this dish would be a good place to begin.

Red Wine Braised Beef

3 lbs. beef chuck, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 to 2-inch cubes (see notes)
Salt & freshly ground pepper
2 T. olive oil
3 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch squares
2 onions, peeled and quartered
1 large or 2 small carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch lengths
1 small head of garlic, cloves peeled and lightly crushed
2 cloves
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
a few peppercorns
3 T. brandy
1 1/3 c. red wine
half of a 14-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed with your hands
1 thin strip of orange zest
2 cups chicken stock (this is what I used, but if you have beef stock, you should use it)
Kneaded butter (beurre maniésee notes)

Season the beef generously with salt and pepper. If possible, do this a day ahead. Wrap and chill. Whether you have pre-seasoned the meat or not, let it sit at room temperature for an hour before browning.

In a wide, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook until rendered and lightly brown, but not crisp. Remove to a plate. Add the beef to the pan and brown well on all sides. If necessary, brown the meat in batches. Transfer the browned meat to the plate with the bacon. Pour off all but a tablespoon or so of the fat, reduce the heat slightly and add the onions, carrots, garlic, herbs and spices to the pan. Toss to coat in the fat and cook until lightly browned. Add to the platter with the beef.

Increase the heat and add the brandy—be careful, as the brandy may flame. Reduce by half and add the wine. Bring to a simmer and reduce the wine by two-thirds, scraping up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. When the wine is reduced, add the tomatoes, orange zest and stock. Bring to a simmer.

Return all of the meat and vegetables, along with any accumulated juices to the pan—everything should fit in a snug single layer. Check the level of the liquid. It should be at least three-quarters of the way up the sides of the beef. Add more stock, or water, if needed. Cover the pan and transfer to a 325° oven. Cook at a bare simmer until the meat is meltingly tender—2 to 3 hours. Check the stew occasionally to be sure that it is not boiling—reduce the oven temperature if it is (I ended up cooking the stew at 275°). If the level of the liquid becomes too low, add water.

When the meat is tender, remove the pan from the oven. Lift the pieces of meat out and transfer to a plate. Strain the liquid into a deep container, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. Allow the liquid to stand for few moments so that fat can separate to the surface. Skim away the fat. You should have a minimum of 2 cups of liquid. Return the liquid to the pan and bring to a simmer. If the liquid is too thin, gradually whisk in some of the kneaded butter until the sauce lightly coats the back of a spoon. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Return the meat to the sauce along with some cooked carrots (see notes). Cover and simmer very gently for 5 minutes to heat through and allow the flavors to blend.

Serve the meat, carrots and sauce over pappardelle noodles (2 oz. per person) tossed with butter and minced flat leaf parsley. Scatter more parsley over all. You should have enough meat and vegetables to make 4 to 5 generous servings.

• I purchased a chuck roast that was 2-inches thick, so my pieces were on the large side—which I prefer. For slightly smaller, more traditional "stew" sized pieces, try to find a chuck roast that is 1 1/2-inches thick. (And you should purchase a whole chuck roast when you make stew—the "stew meat" sold at the butcher's counter is odds and ends of different cuts—some of which are really not that great for stewing. If you don't want to cut it yourself, purchase a whole roast and ask the butcher to cut it for you.)

3 lb. beef chuck roast

Cut into chunks for stewing.  The 3 lb. roast yielded 4 oz. of fatty trim and 14
 nice sized pieces and 3 slightly smaller pieces.

• For this recipe I mixed together a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of flour for the beurre manié. I used half to three-quarters of this mixture to thicken the sauce.
• To prepare the carrots to add to the final stew, trim and peel a pound of carrots. Slice the carrots a generous 1/2-inch thick on the diagonal. Place the carrots in a covered pan (something wide and shallow) along with a tablespoon of butter and a generous sprinkling of salt. Add enough water to the pan to come half way up the carrots. Cover, bring to a boil and simmer until the carrots are tender—about 20 minutes. Uncover, increase the heat and cook until the liquid has evaporated and the carrots are glazed with the butter.

• Alice Waters suggests adding a half cup of pitted black olives to the finished braise and while I didn't do this, I think it would be very good. Add with the carrots to the strained sauce.

(Recipe adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters)


Anonymous said...

I am curious why chicken stock is used with this beef dish instead of beef stock. I trust you, but it seems counter intuitive.

Paige said...

Hi! I used chicken stock because it is what I had...and this particular recipe is just a transcription of what I did on a particular day. But in general, I think chicken stock is a good "all-purpose" stock. I don't make beef stock at home and I have never found a canned beef broth that I liked too much (although I haven't looked very hard). If you have a good beef stock, by all means, it is what you should use!

Thanks for asking the question...I will change the recipe in the text to make sure people know they should use beef stock if they have it.

Emily said...

Hi Paige, First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to keep this blog updated! You share excellent recipes and your secrets to success in the kitchen. As someone who grew up on my mom's Kraft mac n cheese and canned food, I've proudly come a long way in part to blogs like yours!

I made this beef for my friends and I for dinner, and it was fantastic. I let it cook on 250 for 3 hours, and it was melt in your mouth delicious!

I added a lot more carrots at the end--my advice would be to double (or even triple) the carrots before you put them in the oven.

Also, I skipped the butter step because I didn't really understand what exactly I needed to do. But, it still turned out great and it's a new favorite of mine! The sauce could have been a bit thicker, but next time I can try dredging the beef in a bit of flour or truing the butter method. I also added about 1/2 cup more broth because I prefer a lot of sauce.

Buen provecho! :)

Paige said...

Hi Emily, Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and tell me how you prepared your stew! I think adding more carrots...and more liquid...is a fine idea. This is the beauty of a braise/stew....once you have the hang of it, you can adjust and add and subtract elements so as to produce a dish that suits you.

I'm sorry the kneaded butter/roux portion of the recipe wasn't clear. It is meant to provide a way to thicken the stew at the end. (You are absolutely correct that you could just flour the meat before you brown it in order to achieve some thickening of the liquid.) To use a roux or the kneaded butter, just take equal weights of butter and flour and either smash them together to form a smooth paste...or make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan and then whisking in the flour and cooking briefly (like making white sauce for macaroni and cheese). You can then gradually crumble in a little bit of this mixture into the gently simmering liquid of the finished stew...it will begin to thicken the liquid almost immediately. Use less than you think you need...the sauce will continue to thicken as it simmers...You might only need about a tablespoon...more, the more liquid there is. I hope this helps!

Thanks again for taking the time to comment! I'm so pleased you find the things I post helpful!