Learn the basics of braising and you can transform even the toughest cut of meat into a tender, succulent masterpiece. Here’s how to braise meat—no recipe necessary.
Real talk: You don’t need a recipe to make the braise of your dreams. Not that there’s anything wrong with following a recipe, it’s just that when you cook from enough of them you’ll notice that, by and large, they all follow the same template
.Learning how to braise meat is all about mastering the basic process and then putting your own spin on it, customizing the ingredients and flavor profile to your liking.
At the end of the day, braising is just cooking a tougher cut of meat gently in liquid until it is transformed into a tender, succulent, fall-off-the-bone masterpiece. The low-and-slow cooking time is largely hands-off, warming your kitchen and filling the house with the expectant aroma of dinner while you putter around and binge watch Netflix. And it’s a great way to feed a crowd: A modest amount of meat can easily be bulked up by plenty of veggies, and creates a rich, flavorful sauce that’s begging to be soaked up with rice, polenta, bread, or whatever starch you’re working with. What’s not to love? Here’s how to braise meat without a recipe.
Meet Your Meat
No money? No problem. (OK, you will need some money, but just not that much.) See, cheaper, tougher cuts of meat make the best braises. In fact, we never use pricier, sought-after cuts that benefit from quick-cooking (think pork chops, cutlets, and steaks). The combination of a low oven temperature and moist heat turns the chewy sinews, well-worked muscles, and connective tissue in cheaper meat into rich, gelatinous broth and tender meat. Some of our favorite cuts to braise are beef short ribs and chuck, pork shoulder and Boston butt, lamb shoulder and shanks, and chicken thighs and legs. And if you have the option of getting bone-in meat, you should: It will impart better flavor to the braising liquid and sauce.
Brown, Baby, Brown
The first step to a successful braise is to brown the meat. No matter what cut you’re using, and no matter what you’re flavoring it with, the finished dish will be so much more delicious if you sear if first. Heat a heavy pot or Dutch oven on the stovetop and add your well-seasoned meat to it with a little fat (i.e. oil, butter, lard). Brown the meat on every side. Don’t be shy about getting as much color as possible—the meat should be deeply golden all over. Once you’ve achieved that perfect hue, remove the meat from the pan and set it aside so you can get to work building the rest of the flavors for your braise.
Dial Up the Flavor
Now that your meat is good and seared, that hot Dutch oven is a blank canvas for building flavor. You’ve got some tasty fat left behind in the pan (you can drain some off if it seems like too much), and now you’re going to sizzle any combination of vegetables, aromatics, herbs, fruits, and spices your little heart desires in it. The only non-negotiable is something onion-y like leeks, shallots, onions, and/or garlic, which should be the first thing you add and will lend an irresistible sweetness and complexity to the finished product. After that, add any other veggies you like along with hardy herbs or spices, which will bloom in the hot oil and express more flavor. Once everything gets to a nice happy place and starts smelling incredible, it’s time to move on to the saucy portion of our program.
At this point, you’ve probably noticed that there are some browned, stuck-on bits at the bottom of the pan—that’s a good thing! Now you’re going to deglaze the pan, which is just a fancy term for getting the delicious caramelized bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan unstuck with some liquid and a wooden spoon. You can use just about any liquid you happen to have on hand; white or red wine, vinegar, vermouth, beer, stock, or even water all work. Those little browned bits add an intense depth and richness to the braising liquid, making the finished dish even more flavorful. Once you pour the liquid in, the whole thing will make a whoooosh sound, which is your cue to try to use a spoon to scrape up whatever is stuck to the bottom. Place your seared meat back in the pan, and add enough other liquid (again, whatever is delicious and/or available will work) so that the meat is partially, but not fully, submerged. How much you add depends on how you want to serve it—add more if you want a more soupy, stewy situation, less if you want a more concentrated sauce.
Let It Go
Great news—the hands-on portion of your dinner is almost finished. Once you’ve browned your meat, and added your aromatics, and liquid, all you need to do is cover the pot with a tightly-fitting lid and cook it in the oven at a low temperature—aim for a steady 300-325°F. You can also cook it on the stovetop over the lowest possible heat, but we prefer the oven for it’s consistency; burners (and pans) tend to have hot spots that can cause meat to cook unevenly. Your call! How long it will take depends on what you’re braising—chicken thighs can achieve tender perfection in as little as 45 minutes, while a whole pork shoulder can go for hours, and it’s a good idea to move the meat around whenever you check on it. And that’s the thing about a braise: It doesn’t cook to a specific temperature, just until it’s fork-tender and ready to fall apart. Dinner’s almost done!
Dig In—Or Reduce & Intensify
Remember all that great flavor you built into your braising liquid with the browned bits, the onion, the fennel, the soy, the whatever? For goodness sake, don’t let it go to waste! If you added a lot of liquid to create a stew situation, you can just taste it, season to taste with salt and maybe a splash of lemon juice or vinegar to perk things up, ladle it into bowls and dig in. If you held back on the liquid to create something richer, you might want to take the time to reduce the liquid into a more concentrated sauce. Remove the meat and cover it with some foil to stay warm, strain the liquid (if you want a smooth sauce), put it back in the pot, and heat it at a lively simmer. Once it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, taste it, season it if it needs it, sauce the meat and finish with something fresh—bright pickle-y things and roughly chopped herbs like parsley, dill, or cilantro are always nice. Braises can be heavy and a little brown, and a garnish can add the flavor, texture, and color needed to bring the whole thing into focus. And remember to serve it all with something satisfying and starchy (think polenta, egg noodles, or rice) to soak up all that meaty goodness.