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I love the chillier temperatures of late autumn and winter. The brisk air and snuggly sweaters make this my favorite time of year. I also especially love the food with its heartiness, big flavors and comforting textures. Cooking for my own family, for friends and clients is also a pleasure as everyone is actually hungry in the winter! People’s appetites are more timid in the warmer months, but everyone likes to eat when it is cold.

This is the time of year when dishes that take a long time to cook, like short ribs, stews, soups and casseroles, are a cook’s best friend. Not only can you create a satisfying hearty meal, but long slow braises benefit from TLC. You can really tell when a cook has put some love into their braised dish, because the end result has succulent flavor and texture.  Here are some chefs hints to make your braised dish luscious and  amazing.

osso bucco

Braising is one of my favorite cooking techniques. This cooking method combines dry and moist heat. Braising is a term that describes a cooking technique. First the meat or sometimes vegetables are browned in fat (my favorite, duck fat, olive oil, or canola oil). Then the aromatics are browned, and herbs, wine and stock are added to the mix. Finally, the whole gorgeous concoction is covered in a heavy-duty casserole dish or Dutch oven and cooked slowly for a long period of time. 

Braises utilize the economy cuts of meat. These are the cheaper cuts that have a lot of connective tissue and are tougher meats.  They require a long, low heat cooking session. The end result is a tender, richly flavored dish with meat that can be cut with a spoon.  Pressure cooking and slow cookers both are forms of braising. 

Most braises follow the same steps.

First an item is browned over high heat, to enhance color and flavor, through the Maillard Reaction, and then the food is cooked in a flavorful liquid, usually with some sort of acidic element (wine, beer, or vinegar) and a good stock, until the food is tender. The food is removed and the braising liquid is reduced to a glaze to be served as a sauce.

Most of the time braising is used to refer to meat and even chicken.

Braising has an added make-it-ahead virtue. On Sunday you can cook up a storm, make lots of food and pack it into containers that you can freeze and then take out as needed. During the week when you don’t get home until dinnertime, and the thought of preparing an entire meal is beyond you, just pull dinner out of the freezer. As an accompaniment to something braised fix a quick veggie like sautéed spinach or kale and maybe a side order of rice or noodles.

The most Jewish meat that is braised is brisket.

But if you like more variety try lamb and veal shanks, chuck, short ribs and coq au vin.

Braising is one of the easiest techniques and the recipes are wonderfully forgiving. It’s basically this: brown meat in a pan, add some liquid and seasonings, put a cover on top and slow-cook the dish on the cook top or in the oven until it’s tender.

Really, that’s all there is to it. It’s the same whatever cut you choose. Use a heavy pan, add some vegetable oil and brown the meat. You can flour it first if you like a darker look (flour also thickens the sauce a bit). The only caution is to not crowd the pan. Brown the pieces a few at a time.

Aromatics

Use aromatic vegetables, such as onions, garlic, fennel and celery, which all have big flavor and add to the dish. These aromatics are the backbone of a good braise. I like to add carrots, turnips and tons of FRESH herbs.

A Bouquet Garni is French for “Garnished Bouquet” and is a professional chef’s secret flavor weapon. The stems of fresh herbs have tons of flavor in them and a long slow braise in liquid unlocks that flavor.  I use unbleached (I do not want bleach flavor in my food!) kitchen twine and wrap my herbs together in a tight bundle.  When the dish is done, I pull out the bundle and discard it. The herbs have released their flavor and added an earthy essence. 

The liquids? 

That depends on what you like and what you have. Wine, stock, juice, cider, even water will do. You can add a bit of brandy if you like.

I like to use good quality wine when I braise. For heavier beef cuts, I use red wine. For poultry and vegetables like mushrooms and root vegetables, I use white wine. The important thing here is to only use a wine that you would drink. So-called cooking wines are not palatable and not of good quality. Remember each ingredient going into the dish must be good unto itself. There is no amount of cooking time that will make up for inferior wine. I also only use homemade stocks; richly flavored and with tons of body. I know when I use a homemade stock in a braise, the sauce will end up intensely flavored and delicious.

Seasonings also depend on your personal tastes. Fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, savory, etc.) or dried. Try dried fruit, then add so-called “baking” spices: cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg and so on.

Include vegetables. Not only do they give the dish more flavor, they add color too, and some, like tomatoes, onions, celery and mushrooms, add moisture.

Browning

The most important step in braising is browning the protein.  Browning the meat, poultry or vegetables creates deep, rich and intensely flavored food. The natural sugars caramelize and the surface of the meat becomes  crispy, resulting in a multi-textured dish. No, this step does not seal in the juices—but it makes it taste better.  Whenever I teach classes and demonstrate a braised dish, the first thing I am asked is if the browning step can be skipped. The answer is NO. You can certainly skip the browning and get dinner on the table, but the dish will not be deeply flavorful.
Browning is essential. It may take a bit more effort, but it is worth it.

So, bring on the winter weather, the snow and the cold.  I am going into the kitchen to make satisfying soups, stews and my favorite short ribs and Osso Buco. It is my favorite season after all!

Kosher meat cuts are ideal for braising. Shank, short rib, chuck, lamb breast, veal breast all cook to tenderness and taste perfection when you cook them slowly, VERY slowly. Chicken is also great for braising, check out 12 Braised Chicken recipes and find your answer to all your make aheads.