How to Braise Anything (Not Just Meat) to Perfection

Chef Peter Nguyen thinks you can braise just about anything, and now we do too.

Team Made In|Feb 18, 2020
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When you have some time on your hands, braising is one of the best things you can do for a piece of meat. A winning combination of roasting and steaming, braising involves covering your ingredients in liquid, and letting them cook low and slow in a tightly covered vessel over a period of hours, sometimes the better part of a day.

Ideally, you’ll end up with a piece of meat that is succulent and full of flavor. However, if done incorrectly braising can occasionally backfire, resulting in meat that’s unpleasantly wet on the outside and bone dry on the inside.

In order to avoid the common pitfalls of braising, we talked with Chef Peter Nguyen of Houston’s

Riel

. He shared his advice on how to braise anything and gave us some expert advice on how to lock in flavor and moisture everytime.

Use the Right Pan

The first thing to address in the braising process is what Pan to do it in. You want something that can go from stove to oven safely and seamlessly, so that you don’t lose any fond or flavor.

A

Rondeau

will do, but if you have one, an

Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven

is perfect for braising. With any type of metal Pan, your braise can burn from the bottom up. Especially if you’re using sugar, all of your hard work can get ruined by that acrid taste.

A Dutch Oven on the other hand, can take the heat while cooking evenly, and its lid complete with oven-safe knob, helps you retain moisture. “In Vietnamese culture, we use clay pots. An Enamel Cast Iron Dutch Oven sort of mimics that,” says Chef Nguyen. As an added bonus, making this a one pan meal also cuts down on the amount of

clean-up

you will need to do as well.

Choose Your Meat Wisely

Braising goes better with darker meats—beef is usually the first thing that comes to mind—but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t braise chicken, fish, or even vegetables. Chef Nguyen recommends sturdy fare—dark, leafy greens or root vegetables—anything that can hold up to being cooked for a while.

Chef Nguyen describes cooking beef for stew, saying: “the lower and slower, the more you can extract the flavor. That’s how you get the beef really, really tender,” he says. Some cuts of beef you’d want to do for a shorter amount of time (like a rib eye, because fat helps the meat break down easier) whereas something like an oxtail, you’d need to cook even longer. If you’re braising chicken, Chef Nguyen suggests drumsticks or thighs, as darker meat can withstand more cooking without getting tough or dried out.

He also likes salmon, shrimp, and a Vietnamese classic, catfish. “The only real difference is that fish and vegetables will have a shorter cooking time,” he says. “A flaky white fish will actually braise for even less time than kale.

To Sear or Not to Sear

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to sear every cut of meat you’re braising. It all depends on the recipe (and the meat you’ve chosen). For example, if you’re making a beef stew, you’ll definitely want to sear the beef beforehand, creating a

Maillard reaction

, which forms a crispy crust that helps the meat release naturally from the Pan. If you don’t sear the beef, it’ll boil to death and become tough. A little crust helps it withstand being cooked for so long in a stew.

However with other dishes, like carnitas, the goal is just to get the meat nice and soft. It's supposed to melt in your mouth, so you don’t want that crust on it. You won’t get the same crispy texture as you would from searing the meat, but you also won’t miss it.

Sweat Your Aromatics

As with any good dish, you want to build layers of flavor. After you’ve seared your meat (or not), add in a mirepoix of aromatics—onion, garlic, celery, carrots, or whatever else you’d like. Sweat them in the bottom of your Dutch Oven to release flavor

.

Not only does this add flavor, it also helps keep your meat from burning, both by adding a barrier between your meat and the heat and also by releasing more liquid as they cook down.

Add Your Liquid

It’s important to be intentional about the liquid you’re adding. If for some reason, you’re only using water for your braise, the meat is going to be seriously lacking. In order to create a multidimensional flavor bath, utilize stock (including dashi) and aromatics. From there, your flavors are easily customizable.

Additionally, this step is where you can decide how you want to serve your braise, which determines how much liquid you add. If you’re looking for a more saucy braise to serve over rice or another starch, cover your ingredients with 2 inches of liquid. If you want something that’s more glazed, make sure you’re using more sugar or alcohol and only cover with about an inch or so.

Cook it Low and Slow

Now comes the easy part. Once you’ve seared your meat (or not), added aromatics and liquid, all you have to do is pop the lid on your Dutch Oven and put it in the oven. We recommend aiming for a low temperature, at least an hour and a half at 325F. You’re looking for the meat to be thoroughly fork-tender.

To ensure your braise doesn't dry out, make sure you check it throughout its cooking time. After the meat has cooked for 90 minutes, start checking it every 20-30 minutes or so. This is a good way to keep it from overcooking and becoming dry or tough.

Finishing Touches

Chef Nguyen suggests seasoning towards the end of the cooking process. “I'll season in the last 10 minutes, so it’s almost done but the flavors can really meld together. If I season too much in the beginning, I run the risk of making things too salty once the liquid reduces,” he says.

If you really want to lock in those flavors and moisture, let your braise rest in its cooking liquid. Chef Nguyen recommends leaving it overnight. “It's much better the next day. All the flavors have that much more time to intensify,” he says.

One More Thing: Save that Liquid!

Don’t even think about discarding the remaining liquid when your braise finishes. The resulting liquid, which will now also be infused with slow cooked meat juices, is called

cuisson

, and it’s about to become your new secret weapon.

“I like to save the cuisson to either reduce into a glaze or even better, use it as part of the next braise,” says Chef Nguyen. “It’s super concentrated, so you only need a little bit. It’s so intensely flavored, you can even use it as a stir fry sauce.”

Now that you know how to braise anything your heart desires, what are you waiting for? All you need is a Dutch Oven and an afternoon, and you have the makings for something delicious on your hands.