What’s the best way to bring out the full flavor of meat? If you want to get those juices really flowing, you need to cook it long and slow, and with the temperature down low.
Love Me Tender by Heston Blumenthal, The Guardian newspaper, November 24, 2001
Trust me, your patience will be rewarded. Besides, isn’t that the point of cooking meat – to bring out its flavor and to render it tender enough to eat.
Long before cooks had ovens, they had braising. They would suspend a heavy, covered pot over a hearth fire or open grate in the kitchen and slowly cook, or braise, their food. Sometimes they stacked embers from the fire on the lid, to provide both upper and lower sources of heat. Inside, a little liquid formed a sauce, as meats and vegetables cooked. This method of cooking yields delicious dishes with considerable character.
Juiciness and tenderness are two very important factors when it comes to meat quality. Both factors are influenced by not only how the meat was raised and slaughtered but the cut of meat you choose and how long the meat is cooked. The more a muscle is used- oxtail, shin and shoulder, for example, the stronger, and therefore tougher, the cut of meat will be and subsequently require long, slow cooking. Leaner cuts, such as steaks and chops from the loin of rack, will require less time.
Braising usually begins by browning the meat in a little fat. If you’re using small pieces of meat, brown in batches, so the meat doesn’t steam. The temperature must be high enough to trigger the browning process. Contrary to popular opinion, browning, or searing, the surface does not seal in meat’s juices. It does, however, produce new and complex flavor compounds as the sugars and proteins in the meat react under high temperatures and the surface color deepens. For the benefit of you science geeks out there, this browning reaction is known as the “Maillard reaction“.
Aromatic vegetables, such as carrots, celery and onions can also be added and browned. Liquid, such as wine, beer, stock, broth or even water is added. This liquid is essential for braising because less tender meats have greater amounts of collagen than tender ones. Collagen, a connective tissue, helps hold the muscle fibers in meat together. When cooked in the presence of moisture, collagen dissolves into gelatin, which allows the meat fibers to separate more easily. This is the essence of tenderizing tough cuts of meat and developing a sauce with “body” and as my wine geek friends like to say, “mouth feel”.
The higher the cooking temperature, the tougher the muscle fibers become, and the more they shrink in both length and width. It’s no wonder my mother’s beef stew became incredibly chewy when cooked in a boiling broth! If you are accustomed to boiling your braises, try reducing the temperature to a gentle simmer and I guarantee you’ll notice a difference in tenderness.
To keep meat tender yet safe during braising, you must maintain an important balance. Cooking temperatures must be high enough to kill microorganisms, yet not so high that the meat toughens. Use an instant read thermometer to check the temperature of the surrounding stock and keep it at a simmer between 180°F to 190°F.
Braising at low temperatures can never be done in a hurry. But those who are patient will be amply rewarded with a memorable amalgam of rich, deep flavors; heady, enticing aromas; and meat so tender it almost falls apart. Indeed, each succulent forkful reconfirms the ancient wisdom of braising.
To put theory into practice, see my recipe for Braised Beef Short Ribs.
image credit: Round La Cocotte by Staub USA