Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tips on Braising

It is definitely that time of year again...brisk chill in the air, leaves turning golden, rust and brilliant red. That means it's time for hearty soups and stews.

In the most recent issue of LCBO's Food & Drink Magazine, which is hands down my favorite of all my favorite magazines. You can only find it at any Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) retail outlet. So if you don't live in Ontario, or know people who do and will save it for you...you can at least find back issue recipes on their site.

And I thought I would share Lucy Waverman's tips on braising...a "must have" list for the season, if ever there was one. Note: Lucy Waverman is the food editor of Food & Drink and author of several great cookbooks.

1. Best cuts: the tougher ones with more flavour and texture. More expensive cuts will dry out quicker...try beef chuck, shoulder, shanks, brisket and short ribs; veal shoulder and breast; pork butt and shoulder; lamb shoulder, shank & breast.

2. Choose the right size pot. Too big=gravy evaporates too quickly; too small=meat cooks unevenly. Cubed stewing meat should sit in two layers; a brisket or roast should fit snugly in the pot. Dutch ovens are perfect as they cook on the stove (searing meat and prepping veggies) and go straight into the oven. If you don't have one...and I really recommend that you do...sear and prep in a skillet and transfer to an ovenproof casserole for the roasting stage.

3. Pat meat dry with paper towels so cooking oil doesn't splatter as much. Trim most of fat and cut meat into uniform pieces for even cooking - same goes for the veggies.

4. Searing: heat just a film of oil on high heat on top of the stove. Add the meat a few pieces at a time. DO NOT USE BUTTER - it will burn on high heat. DO NOT CROWD THE PAN. It just lowers the heat and instead of sealing in all the juices, it will just produce steam creating a greyish flat stew.

5. Season the meat with salt and pepper and brown on all sides to seal in the juices. Remove the meat from the skillet set aside in a large enough bowl to hold all the meat (I prefer stainless steel to keep it hot) and repeat until all the meat is seared and dark brown. Always make sure there is a thin film of oil for each batch and that the oil is hot.

6. After the meat is all browned and removed from the pot, lower the heat to medium and add the onions, if using (this is when I like to saute chopped onions, carrots or other hard vegetables just until they soften 3-5 minutes).

7. Add the meat back into the pot, along with any liquid making sure that it comes halfway up the meat. DO NOT TOTALLY IMMERSE the meat or you will have a very weak gravy...fine if you're making soup, but not stew.

8. About liquids: beef stock, tomato juice, wine. Different liquids give different flavoured gravies. DO NOT USE WATER...it just makes an insipid, weak gravy.

9. Thickening: flour, cornstarch or arrowroot. Cornstarch and arrowroot should be mixed with water (Note: frankly I do this with flour too, or at least remove some of the liquid and blend with flour before adding back to the pot - makes it silky not lumpy).

OR: boil down the braising liquid to thicken naturally; puree braising liquid and some of the vegetables.

10. After browning, use gentle heat to cook the meat slowly (325°/160°C) or low in a slow cooker. High heat and "Fast cooking" just toughen the fibres of the meat. It's done when the meat is easily pierced with a fork (usually 2 hours for beef; 1 1/2 hours for lamb and pork.

11. Vegetables: potatoes, carrots and whole onions can be added about 45 minutes before the meat is ready; tender vegetables like zucchini, cabbage, mushrooms or peas are added just 15 minutes before the end of cooking.

12. Braises keep well and reheat beautifully. Although many recipes say they freeze well, Note: I find vegetables get quite spongy, so I usually remove large chunks and just steam some fresh for when I defrost)

Enjoy the cold weather! If you have any other braising tips, please share them in the comment section.

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