It’s that magical time of year: fall. No, it is not the season of all things pumpkin spice. Allegedly, companies are making paper towels with this scent now; after all, who doesn’t want all of their household spills cleaned up with something that smells vaguely of a Thanksgiving pie? The pumpkin people are getting out of hand.
But anyway, there are many other reasons why fall – particularly early fall – is my favorite time of year from a food standpoint. At the moment, it is the perfect crossroads of seasonal produce. It has been warm enough still where the northeast is getting the fruits of a hot summer (late-season tomatoes, peppers, etc.), but cool enough where fall fruits and vegetables are starting to emerge (squashes, apples, brassicas, etc.) Fall is a phenomenal time, however, for one-pot cooking – a time for braises and soups. These are the best dishes for cutting the chill of a cooler evening and cozying up with a glass or mug of something equally warm. They are rich and satisfying – good “stick-to-your ribs” food as the saying goes. Plus, if you have a house that gets drafty, they are an excellent way to keep the oven and stove running to warm up the place.
In terms of cooking, soups and braises are purely about technique and flavor building. For the sake of length, I will focus this particular entry on braises (in drafting this, I realized that I can write a lot about both). Naturally, there are many fantastic recipes out there: I tend to use these as shopping lists and nothing more. Once I know what goes into a braise, it is very rare that the technique changes.
Braising is hardly complicated or finicky, but the technique requires some strict adherence. When braising, the idea is that a larger, tougher cut of meat (shoulder, shank, neck, etc. – working muscles) will be cooked at a low temperature over an extended period of time in a reasonable amount of liquid. If you read none of the information below, please know that braising consists of 6 basic steps:
- Brown the meat.
- Brown some vegetables.
- Deglaze the pan.
- Build the braising liquid and return the meat to the pan.
- Cook low and slow.
- Finish and serve.
Wait, don’t leave! I want to tell you more about braising!
Preheat your oven to low (normally somewhere between 200-325F). The first step is always to brown the exterior of the meat. I cannot stress the word “brown” enough. One of the first tests of cooking ability in culinary school was, simply, to braise two chicken legs or beef stew meat. Should be easy, right? The chef’s critique was the same for almost everyone: “Not brown enough. Turn up the heat. Don’t crowd the pan – you’ll steam the meat and ruin your braise. Brown the meat; you’ll be able to smell when it’s ready.” (I got lucky and nailed the caramelization, but tried to get too crazy with adding warm spices to the dish, resulting in a beef stew that belonged in a Yankee Candle).
This might seem like culinary nitpicking to many, but I doubt that any well-made braise you’ve ever enjoyed could be criticized as “lacking in depth of flavor.” The key to any good braise is fond – the “foundation” of caramelized goodness that sticks to the pan. (Note that I’m saying “caramelized” – there is a stark difference between caramelized and burnt. Think about waking up to the smell of roasted turkey on Thanksgiving Day – that’s good caramelization. Now think about that time when the idiot in your college dorm somehow managed to burn microwave popcorn – that’s burnt.) In many circumstances – cooking fish for instance – something sticking to the pan is annoying and can potentially ruin the dish. With braising, it’s the exact opposite: these browned on bits make the rest of your braise.
The next step is to brown a “bed” of aromatic vegetables. These vegetables are typically carrot, onion, and celery, or some variation similar to this (a parsnip or leek never hurt anyone that I’m aware of). Once again, brown, don’t just sweat the vegetables (don’t overdo it either; vegetables will burn just as quickly as meat if not faster, and those can put off the flavor of the entire dish). Once browned, deglaze the pan. Deglaze with whatever you have on hand – typically something acidic is best (wine is the usual choice). Cook this liquid down for a few minutes. How much? Some recipes require the deglazing liquid to be cooked a sec – almost to the point of “dryness” – where the majority of the wine is cooked off. Others – such as coq au vin, for example – use wine as the braising liquid itself; in these circumstances, it is only necessary to simmer the wine a bit to cook off the alcohol.
Following this, add enough cooking liquid to cover 80-90% of the meat (usually either stock or water, but there are braises that use dairy or other liquids) and taste the liquid. This is essentially the “last chance” to check the flavoring of the liquid prior to returning the meat to the pan and resuming the cooking process. I occasionally make the mistake of returning the meat to the pan first – it is, after all, easier to estimate the necessary amount of liquid with the meat already there. The issue with this is simple: the meat is not fully cooked at the point when you’re returning it to the pan, so tasting the liquid at this point is inadvisable (I’m not as wary about tasting liquid with undercooked lamb or beef, but undercooked chicken or pork present the taster with a dangerous gamble). Use common sense and look at your pan: if you have a 1 gallon braising vessel, don’t prep a gallon of stock for your braise.
Bring this to a simmer (the oven can’t do all of the work, after all). Cover the cooking vessel – either use a lid or cover it with a parchment lid and foil (this helps limit evaporation while the meat is braising). Let it cook low and slow. One again, how long will it take? I don’t know. The meat is done when you can poke it with a fork (or poking utensil of your choice) with absolutely no resistance. The meat should shred or fall apart easily – if it doesn’t, back into the oven it goes. Now finish the liquid – taste it again (it should be free of pesky diseases at this point, God willing). Add any “extra” vegetables (potatoes, crunchy green vegetables, etc.) that benefit from only a brief cooking. Add last minute flavorings or thickeners if necessary – but it normally isn’t. If you did the leg work prior to putting the whole thing into the oven, the breakdown of the meat in the braising liquid should meet you halfway and finish the job.
Start off fall right and put some stuff in a pot! Cook it for a long time and serve with starchy goodness that will soak up the joyous richness of a quality braise. Consume with a flagon of ale (sans pumpkin, of course) in a rustic wooden dwelling, ideally decorated with antlers or carvings of woodland creatures. Enjoy with good company and embrace the warmth of food in these cooler times.