To Braise or Not to Braise?

Braising is a favorite method of cooking among chefs. By first searing with dry heat and then adding a flavorful liquid, cooks enjoy the best of both worlds. When done properly, it is, by far, the king o’ cooking techniques. The toughest and cheapest cuts of meat can be transformed into moist and succulent meals by simply searing the meat on all sides before adding moisture and then cooking “slow and low” for hours. Over time, the heat breaks down the connective tissue and collagens in the meat. In the home, pressure cookers and crock-pots are ideal for the slow cook phase of braising.

The little bits of meat on the bottom of the pan are called “fond.” Fond is the base of French sauces and is a vital part of any braise. The fond, when combined with natural liquid from the mirepoix (onions, carrots and celery) and wine, brings a robust meat flavor to the braise. When the meat is finished, the braising liquid can be reduced to sauce consistency by cooking it at a simmer until the excess water steams out, enhancing the flavor. The sauce is done when the liquid coats the back of spoon.

The method for braising is as follows
• Season meat with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper.
• Sear meat in a small amount of fat until golden brown on all sides.
• Remove meat to a resting tray.
• Add and caramelize vegetables.
• Add tomato paste.
• Add wine and reduce by half.
• Add stock and bring to boil.
• Reduce heat to a simmer.
• Add the meat back.
• Cover and place into a 300-degree oven and cook for 1 to 6 hours, depending on the cut of meat, until soft and fork tender.

Some popular braised items that I am sure most people have had include beef short ribs, pork spare ribs, pot roast, osso buco, coq au vin and the Brussels sprouts from my fall 2008 article. A lot of chefs now are taking braising to the next level by braising fish, vegetables and other new wave ideas.

Stewing: Bite-sized pieces of meat, seared, then submerged in flavorful liquid and cooked on the stovetop at a slight simmer until fork tender.

Braising: Whole portion-sized pieces of meat, seared and covered half to three quarters of the way with liquid, then covered and finished in a low-temperature oven.
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Braised Beef Short Ribs (serves 4-6)
• 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
• 2-3 pounds beef short ribs, bone-in
• 2 cups onion, diced
• 1 cup carrots, diced
• 1 cup celery, diced
• 3 cloves garlic, chopped
• 1 tablespoon tomato paste
• 2 cups New York dry red wine
• 4 cups beef stock
• A few sprigs of fresh herbs like thyme and rosemary
• 1 bay leaf

Preparation:
• Preheat the oven to 300°F.
• Heat a large braising pan over medium high heat and coat the bottom with canola or vegetable oil. Season the meat on all sides with salt and pepper, place the flattest side down into the pan and sear vigorously until golden brown on all sides. Remove the meat to a separate platter.
• Add the carrots, onions, celery and garlic to the braising pan, and cook until caramelized and golden brown. Stir in the tomato paste and cook until it’s smooth. Pour in the red wine and reduce by half. Add the stock, bring it to a boil and reduce to a simmer.
• Place the meat back in to the pan. Toss in the fresh herbs and the bay leaf. Cover with a lid or aluminum foil and place into oven. Cook for at least three hours, no more than six hours, until meat is fork-tender.
• Remove meat to a platter and strain sauce. Reduce sauce if desired.

To serve:
• Place Smashed Red Potatoes (recipe follows) in center of serving plate.
• Arrange Roasted Garlic Potatoes (recipe follows) around the Smashed Red Potatoes.
• Place Braised Beef Short Ribs on top of the potatoes; spoon braising liquid and braised vegetables on top of ribs.
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Smashed Red Potatoes (serves 4-6)
• 2 pounds red bliss potatoes, cut into quarters
• 6-8 cloves garlic
• 3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
• 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, finely chopped
• 1/2 cup olive oil
• 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

Preparation:
• Place potatoes and garlic in a large stockpot, cover with water. Bring to a boil and let boil for about 45 minutes or until fork tender. Strain the potatoes and garlic into a colander and set aside.
• Meanwhile, put the oil and butter into the stockpot and heat until the butter is melted. Put half of the potatoes back into the pot along with the fresh herbs; smash with a potato masher. Add remaining potatoes and smash them into the potato mixture; season to taste.
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Roasted Garlic Potatoes (serves 4-6)
• 2 pounds red bliss potatoes, cut into quarters
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 6-8 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
• 3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
• 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, finely chopped
• 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon pepper, freshly cracked

Preparation
• Preheat the oven to 450°F.
• Place potatoes in a large bowl, add enough olive oil to lightly coat. Toss in the garlic, thyme, rosemary, Kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper to mix well.
• Place the potatoes on a sheet tray. (Don’t overcrowd the tray, or the potatoes will not get crispy).
• Place the potatoes in the oven and cook for 35-45 minutes.


by Chef Eric K. Smith