Food & Drink

From the archives: Why do you need to know braising?

Braising with preserved lemon and green olives gives it a Moroccan profile.
Braising with preserved lemon and green olives gives it a Moroccan profile. Gary O’Brien/Observer files

From the archives: This story originally ran Feb. 16, 2005.

What if you could turn a cheap cut of meat into a tender feast?

What if you could swap a few minutes of work for hours of mouthwatering smells?

What if you could make bitter endive taste sweet and humble cabbage taste rich?

What if you learned to braise?

Now, simmer down. Braising just sounds like one of those complicated kitchen terms, like “fold,” “zest” or “bard.”

Braising, in fact, is the most basic trick of all, and it does its best magic with those hearty dishes we crave when it's cold. If there were an official cooking technique of winter, braising would be it.

When you strip away the mystique and accoutrements, cooking methods really fall into two camps: Dry heat and wet heat.

Braising is wet heat. That's it.

When you use a slow cooker, you're braising. If you've made a campfire stew, you've braised. If your mother made pot roast on Sunday, she was braising.

But oh, the places braising can go. It goes to France, for coq au vin and boeuf bourguignonne. It goes to China, for braised fish and spare ribs. It goes to Morocco, for braised chicken with lemons and olives. It goes to Italy, for osso buco.

It even goes into the sparse winter produce department and brings us braised root vegetables.

We haven't found a braised dessert yet. But that doesn't mean it couldn't be done.

Secrets of succulence

At its heart, this is braising: Get a piece of meat – preferably a fatty one with lots of gristle. The really tough stuff. Brown it, to start building flavor in the pot.

Add a little liquid (a little, not a lot). Cover the pot. Apply low, steady heat, on the stove, in the oven or even in the slow cooker.

Walk away.

When you come back and lift the lid, that tough, fatty, gristly meat will be transformed into meltingly tender, succulent dinner. With its own sauce, yet.

You can do so much with this one simple technique. Molly Stevens wrote a book, “All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking,” (Norton, 2005) that explains the science behind the method:

When you cover the pot – whether it's a Dutch oven, a casserole with a lid or a pan covered tightly with foil – you create a braiser. The liquid you've added combines with the moisture the food releases as it gets hot. As the liquid simmers, it turns to steam, rising and hitting the lid. Then it drips back down. As it continues going up and falling down, it picks up flavor from the ingredients in the pot, from the meat and from that browned crust, knitting them into a complex sauce.

Meanwhile, the fibers in the meat slowly melt, making it tender. The protein in the meat is collagen, which melts and adds gelatin that thickens the sauce.

As cooking methods go, braising is very forgiving. There are only a few tricks to know. You need a heavy pot with a lid, just large enough to hold all the ingredients snugly. But you can fake it with heavy-duty foil.

If the pot is too deep, the rising and falling liquid has farther to go to form a sauce. But you can fix that: Just press a layer of parchment paper down into the pot, over the ingredients, and put the lid on. The paper will decrease the space inside the pot.

That's all there is to it.

A cheap cut of meat, a little time and hardly any work. Now, that's magic.

Moroccan Chicken With Green Olives and Preserved Lemons

From “All About Braising,” by Molly Stevens (Norton, 2005). Preserved lemons are sold in some shops (try the salad bar at Earl’s Grocery). If you don't have them, you can skip them. Serve with couscous to soak up the rich sauce.

Spice mix:

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (pimenton) or sweet Hungarian paprika

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/8 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled

Braise:

1/2 cup green olives with pits

1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces, or about 3 pounds legs and thighs

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

Coarse salt, such as kosher salt

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced

3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

3/4 cup water

1 lemon, halved

1/4 cup mixed chopped flat-leaf parsley and cilantro

1 whole (4 quarters) salt-preserved lemon (optional)

Stir together the ginger, cumin, black pepper, paprika, red pepper and saffron. Set aside. Cover the olives with cool water and set aside.

Rinse the chicken and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Heat the oil and butter in a large, deep-sided skillet or 4-quart braising pan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle half the chicken lightly with salt. Add the chicken, skin side down, and sear without disturbing until crisp and brown on one side, about 4 minutes. Turn and brown the other side. Remove to a platter. Repeat with the remaining chicken.

Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from the pan and return to medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic, stir with a wooden spoon and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. (The bottom of the pan will develop a dark crust.) Add the spice mixture, stir and saute for a minute.

Pour in the water, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with the wood spoon to dissolve the crust. Return the chicken legs and thighs, wings and back (if using a whole chicken) to the pan. Tuck the liver in between the pieces. (This is optional. It won't make the sauce livery, but will give it a rich depth of flavor.)

Cover, reduce heat to low and braise chicken for 10 minutes. Uncover, turn the legs and wings with tongs, and place the breast pieces (if using a whole chicken) on top. Adjust heat if needed to maintain a gentle simmer. Squeeze the juice from a lemon half over the chicken and sprinkle with half the chopped herbs. Cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes.

Drain and rinse the olives. Crush each olive with the flat side of a knife to remove the pits. Rinse the preserved lemon, if using, under water and remove and discard the pulp. Chop the peel into 1/2-inch pieces.

Add the olives and preserved lemons to the chicken and turn the pieces again. If using the liver, remove it from the pan, place in a small bowl and mash with a fork.

Cover the chicken and simmer until juices of legs run clear when pierced, about 10 to 15 minutes (for a total of 40 to 45 minutes). Transfer chicken pieces to a platter. Cover with foil to keep warm.

Increase heat and bring the braising liquid to a boil. Stir in the liver, if using. Squeeze in the juice of the remaining lemon half. Simmer until sauce reduces a bit, about 5 minutes. Add remaining herbs. Spoon over the chicken.

Yield: 4 to 5 servings.

Chile-Flavored Braised Halibut

Adapted from “Spices of Life,” by Nina Simonds (Knopf).

2 1/2 pounds halibut steaks or firm fish filets, such as cod, skin removed

3 tablespoons rice wine or sake

2 or 4 slices fresh ginger, smashed with the flat side of a knife

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar (or balsamic vinegar)

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons water

1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1 teaspoon hot chile paste or 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons minced green onion tops

Hot, cooked rice

Rinse the fish lightly and drain. Put a bowl with the rice wine and sliced ginger. Turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 20 minutes.

Mix the chicken broth, soy sauce, sugar and vinegar and set aside. Mix the cornstarch and water in a small dish and set aside. Combine the minced garlic, minced ginger and chile paste and set aside.

Heat a wok, heavy skillet with a lid or a Dutch oven. Add the oil, swirl to coat pan and heat until very hot but not smoking. Add the minced garlic, minced ginger and chile paste and stir-fry about 10 seconds, until fragrant.

Place the fish in the pan and fry about 15 to 20 seconds to brown lightly. Turn with a spatula. Pour in the chicken broth mixture. Partially cover the pan and bring liquid to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium and cook 8 to 10 minutes, partially covered, until fish is just cooked through.

Remove fish with a slotted spoon or spatula and place on a platter. Slowly stir the cornstarch mixture into the cooking liquid, stirring constantly until thickened. Spoon over the fish. Sprinkle with minced green onion. Serve immediately, with cooked rice.

Yield: 6 servings.

Slow Cooker Pot Roast With Vegetables

From “Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook,” by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann (Harvard Common Press). Although many slow cooker dishes call for browning the meat, it isn't necessary this time. Just pile it all together and cook.

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon paprika

3 to 3 1/2 pounds boneless chuck roast

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 large onion, peeled and cut in wedges

2 to 3 carrots, peeled and cut in 1-inch-thick coins

2 to 3 parsnips, peeled and cut in 1-inch-thick coins

4 starchy potatoes, such as russets, peeled or not, each cut in 8 pieces

1 cup beef broth

Combine the salt, pepper and paprika. Rub all sides of the roast with the spice mix. Put the vegetables in the slow cooker with the potatoes as the top layer. Put the meat on top of the potatoes. Pour the broth over all.

Cover and cook on low setting for 8 to 9 hours. Serve the meat and vegetables straight out of the cooker, with the hot juices ladles over. (We preferred to thicken the sauce into a gravy: Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet. Stir in 2 tablespoons flour and cook 1 minute. Pour the cooking juices into a defatting cup, or pour into a glass measure and spoon off the fat. Pour 1 to 1 1/2 cup juices into the skillet, stirring well. Cook until thickened.)

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

World's Best Braised Green Cabbage

From “All About Braising,” by Molly Stevens.

1 medium head green cabbage (about 2 pounds)

1 large yellow onion, peeled and thickly sliced

1 large carrot, peeled and cut in 1/4-inch coins

1/4 cup chicken stock or water

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly oil a large gratin dish or baking dish (13-by-9-inch works well).

Peel off and discard any bruised or ragged outer leaves from the cabbage. Cut cabbage in half, then into 8 wedges. (Don't trim away the cabbage heart.) Arrange the wedges in the baking dish on their sides, overlapping a little but trying for a single layer.

Scatter the onion and carrot over the cabbage. Drizzle with stock or water and the oil. Season with salt, pepper and pepper flakes. Cover tightly with foil and slide into the oven.

Braise for 1 hour. Uncover and gently turn the wedges with tongs, keeping them as intact as possible. Add a little water if pan is drying out. Cover pan and return to oven. Bake 1 hour longer.

Remove the foil, increase the heat to 400 and roast until vegetables begin to brown, about 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Yield: 6 servings.

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