A Cut Above: How to Braise

Every month, discover new ideas to enjoy the simple but elegant pleasures of a delicious, easy-to-prepare meal.
How to BraiseA Cut Above

Busy or not, here we come. Every month “A Cut Above” serves up new recipes, cooking tips and ideas for dishes that are elegant in taste and presentation, yet simple enough to prepare and enjoy in a snap.

For the year that we were writing Cooking Know-How, our new book on basic cooking techniques due out in a couple months, we always looked forward to the braises: deep, long-stewed, comfort-food deluxe.

Truth be told, there may be no more misunderstood culinary dictum than “to braise.” The term itself actually comes from a French word for live coals — as in the stuff a cooking pot sat over while it worked its magic back in the 18th Century when the French were busy inventing what we now call “dinner.”

But a braise is not a stew. It’s a technique whereby protein and vegetables are simmered in an aromatic broth until tender and delicious. In a stew, everything goes for a swim, dunked under the liquid. But in a braise, things sit in and out of the liquid — and so must be stirred occasionally to make sure everything gets time both in the simmer and in the ambient heat.

Thus, a braise is actually a cross between stewing and steaming. Why the fussy combination of two seemingly opposite techniques? Because meat and vegetables cook differently as they stew or steam. When they sit submerged, they undergo a transfer of various liquids, some of those from the pot's broth coming into their cellular layers and some of those in the cellular layers leaking into the broth. But when the same items steam, they don’t do the transfer two-step. Instead, the essential sugars tighten, caramelize and recombine into myriad flavor molecules — and thus, you get a more intense, essential taste from those ingredients.

So a braise is the best of two worlds. With one important warning: You have to have the right pot. Since this is partially a steaming technique, you want a tight-fitting lid on a very heavy pot. You don’t want one drop of that aromatic steam to escape because lost steam is lost flavor. So drag out that heavy behemoth you bought at the outlet mall and get to braising. There’s no better winter comfort around.

German-Style Chicken Thigh Braise
Because the liquid in a braise is so important to its overall success, you want to pump up its flavors — here, with Dijon mustard, caraway seeds and plenty of vegetables. The vinegar is actually a braise secret: it mellows during the long cooking, providing a very subtle wash that brightens the other aromatics in the dish.

German-Style Chicken Thigh Braise

Makes 4 servings

PointsPlus™ value | 6 per serving

Ingredients

  • Cooking spray
  • 4 (4-oz) boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped red onion
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 2 cups small Brussels sprouts, halved
  • 2 cups diced parsnips
  • 3/4 cup reduced-sodium fat-free chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup white wine or dry vermouth
  • 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp caraway seeds

Instructions

  1. Coat a large pot with cooking spray and set it over medium heat. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and then add them to the pot. Cook, turning once, until browned on each side, about 4 minutes; transfer to a plate.Add the onion and garlic; cook, stirring often, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the Brussels sprouts and parsnips; continue cooking, stirring all the while, for 1 minute. Stir in the broth, wine or vermouth, mustard, vinegar and caraway seeds. Bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer very slowly, stirring once in a while, until the parsnips are quite tender, about 40 minutes. Cover pot and remove from heat; let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Serving size: 1 chicken thigh and about 3/4 cup of vegetables and sauce.

Shanghai-Style Braise of Pork and Vegetables
This dish is actually called “red cooking pork and vegetables” in Chinese because of the way the soy sauce takes on a dark red cast when long stewed. As with all braises, this one is better if you let it sit covered on the back of the stove for 10 minutes after cooking. Braising is actually a dehydrating process as the meat and vegetables squeeze moisture into the sauce. Letting the dish stand for a bit allows them to reabsorb some of those juices — plus many others from the aromatics and spices — thereby creating a more satisfying dish, especially if you serve it over wilted greens or cooked brown rice.

Shanghai-Style Braise of Pork and Vegetables

Makes 4 servings

PointsPlus™ value | 6 per serving

Ingredients

  • Cooking spray
  • 4 (4-oz) boneless lean center loin pork chops, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 cup diced celery root
  • 1 cup thinly sliced carrots
  • 1/2 cup frozen pearl onions (do not thaw)
  • 1/2 cup reduced-sodium, fat-free chicken broth
  • 1/3 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup cooking sherry
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh ginger
  • 1 Tbsp packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp five-spice powder
  • 1 cup canned straw mushrooms, drained

Instructions

  1. Coat a large saucepan with cooking spray; set over medium heat. Add the pork and brown thoroughly on all sides, about 6 minutes, turning occasionally; transfer to a plate.Add the celery root, carrots and onions. Cook, stirring often, until the onions begin to brown a little, about 3 minutes.Stir in the broth, soy sauce, sherry, ginger, sugar and five-spice powder; bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan.Add the browned pork and any accumulated juices, as well as the mushrooms, to pan; bring to a simmer.Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer slowly, stirring occasionally, until the meat is quite tender, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Cover pan and remove from heat; let set for 10 minutes before serving. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer slowly, stirring occasionally, until the meat is quite tender, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Cover pan and remove from heat; let set for 10 minutes before serving.
Serving size: about 1 1/2 cups.
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