Braising - Everyday Kitchen Magic
Braising is the term used for cooking foods in a covered vessel with a small amount of liquid for an extended period of time. (From the French, braiser, which also means to cook food in a covered vessel for a long time at low heat) Braising is great for use with inexpensive, tough cuts of meat because the end result is meltingly tender and juicy. Any time you drop something into a crock pot – you’re braising. The best part of the crock pot idea of course is that you can walk away after loading it up, and when you return hours later you have deliciousness.
When braising, make sure you choose cheap cuts – seriously. By this I mean those cuts of meat that typically cost far less than others. The very qualities that make them cost less are the same ones that make them perfect for braising. ‘Cheap’ cuts contain high amounts of connective tissue, cartilage and/or fat. When cooked quickly, the fibers in these cuts tend to contract, and the meat can become so tough as to be basically inedible. When cooked with a bit of liquid however, and when low heat is used over a long period of time, these same tissues literally melt into gelatin, and the meat itself becomes delectable and tender.
How to Braise a Pork Butt
Gelatin you ask? Why yes! If you’ve ever had the cooking liquid from a roast ‘gel’ in the pan you’ll know what I mean. Gelatin – same as in Jell-O is derived from cartilage. Now – before you flip out, think about this. The gelatin in your cheap roast will work more wonderful magic on your dinner plate than it ever could when dressed in Day-Glo colors and plopped with whipped topping. The gelatin in meats and their cooking liquids is what gives pot roasts their fabulous texture and mouth feel, and what gives really well done soups, stews and stocks their body and heartiness. It is one of the beauties of braising – embrace the gelatin. Not only does it give body to stock or gravy, it carries unbelievable flavor wherever it goes. If your cooking liquid reduced to the point where you have meat Jell-O, use it. Make gravy. Make soup. Make body lotion. Anything. You’ll love the result.
The thing is – if you use ‘good’ cuts of meat, braising is the worst thing you can do. The lack of connective tissue means that you’ll end up with either meat flavored mush, and the lack of fat and marbling means it will probably be extremely dry. So perhaps meat dust instead of mush. Don’t waste the money on higher quality pieces of meat – you’ll actually be shooting yourself in the foot.
Ok – so back to braising. Try this – especially if you are like me, and finding fall days full of school, work, scouts, dance, fencing, boxing, guitar lessons…you get my drift. This is the perfect way to insure home cooked meals even in a time crunch. Get a big fat roast – the biggest that you can fit into your crock pot or Dutch oven. Don’t worry about leftovers – you actually are wanting as many leftovers as possible. So even if you never think your family can use a roast that big – get it anyway. Because you’re going to take advantage of that delicious, versatile protein to create at least three meals. Cook once – eat several times. All homemade, delicious and different.
Different? From the same roast? How can they be different? Because when you first put the meat into the crock pot, you’re only going to use salt and pepper to season it. Season it heavily – you’ll want enough salt and pepper for the entire roast AND the liquid that renders from it. What you’ll end up with is a nicely seasoned bunch of meat to shred and then use in a variety of applications. I’ll link you to several in a minute – but let me say a bit more about braising first, before I turn you loose.
You can use your crock pot, certainly. I actually have four. One is a monster 8-quart model, and one is a triple Decker one that makes three dishes at once. That’s how wonderful the things are. If you don’t have a crock pot or slow cooker, you can use a Dutch oven, or any heavy container with a tight fitting lid. You simply want a vessel to go in the oven or the slow cooker on low, and to retain as much moisture as possible. Don’t worry much about the ‘right’ equipment – if it gets the job done well, it’s the right equipment. I’ve improvised more kitchen gear in the course of my cooking life than I care to recall – and it worked almost all the time. You want to set the oven to no higher than 250F if using a Dutch oven, or to low on the stove top, or the crock pot to low. Wait 8-10 hours, and there you go. That’s it.
Now I’ve seen about a billion different recipes that call for different liquids to be added, and quite a few of them say to keep the liquid level from dropping too far. Here’s what I think – I’ve never, ever once had a roast of any kind fail to render or release enough of its own juices to braise itself perfectly. I never add water – why dilute those gorgeous juices? That just dilutes the flavor, and that’s not lovely. Make sure the lid of your cooking container fits well, and you’re fine. On the other hand, if you want to add additional flavor – beer, wine, a bit of citrus – which are in classic braised dishes such as Beef and Guinness or Pot au Feu – then knock yourself out. They are classic for good reason – because they rock. However, remember that your braised meats will carry the flavors of the liquid – so if you’re after leftovers you may not be able to have as much versatility. I do both – either is yummy, yummy.
You'll end up with a lot of liquid left over - many people toss it out if they don't make gravy. While gravy may be the highest use for the stock left over, there are many others. Strain it and separate the fat. Just strain it through paper towels or clean cotton into a large container, allow it to sit (chilling is better).
If you stick that in the fridge, the fat layer on top will solidify and harden, and you can literally just lift it off of the somewhat gelatinous liquid below. In this case, from a 5 pound pork butt, I had six cups of liquid and about two cups of fat. Now nothing at all goes to waste in my kitchen, so the broth will be strained again, jarred in mason jars, labeled and then doled out to flavor soups (like the pulled pork tortilla stew I'm going to tell you about next), pots of beans, tossed with green beans or potatoes - all kinds of things. Pork broth is very 'porky' so you won't really want to use it straight. Treat it more like a flavoring and your dishes will be great.
The same thing goes for the pork fat. pack that into pint jars, seal it up and stash it in the fridge. If I have a lot I stick it in the freezer. In the fridge it lasts about two weeks if kept covered. In the freezer up to a few months. Drop a tablespoon into soups, stews, legumes (pinto beans), try using it to recreate a heavenly and easy refried beans, saute veggies in it, or pan fry potatoes. All of those thing require a bit of fat regardless. Make it the healthier animal fats than the hydrogenated gunk and your body and taste buds both will thank you.
What meats do you braise, you ask? Pork, beef, chicken (make sure they’re older), the tougher cuts of lamb – all work perfectly. Look for cuts that contain the words round, top or bottom, chuck, shoulder, butt or roast (but not a sirloin roast) or pot roast. In this case the white streaks that show cartilage is actually what you're looking for. Try them all. In each case you can add vegetables the last hour or two of cooking if you wish to serve the first meal pot roast-style. With each type of meat, I do this one night, then shred or ‘pull’ (think pulled pork barbecue) the rest to get it ready for the rest of the meals I’m working with the remainder of the week. You can even divide it into ½ -1 – or 2 cup portions, wrap it well and freeze it if you wish. In this first set of recipes, I had a bunch (like 40 pounds!) of pork butt (which is actually a hog shoulder) I had found on a super sale - bringing it under my $2 a pound limit for meat. I bought all I could manage to stuff my freezer with - and have had fun adapting it to a variety of dishes. So we're starting off the braising lesson with pork butt.
So the recipe-
1 big hunk of protein – I do up to ten pounds
Salt and pepper
Cover and set on low for 8-10 hours.
See how fabulous braising is? I can throw that puppy together even BEFORE my coffee in the morning, and suppertime is in the bag. It doesn’t get better than that.
Stay tuned for what to do with all that luscious stuff you just cooked off!
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