By Chef Eamon Lee, CEC
A cooking method that produces a dish that’s greater than the sum of its parts is a technique deserving of praise. Stemming from the French word braiser, meaning to stew, braising is rooted in flavor extraction as slowly cooked, tough meats mingle with hearty vegetables and flavorful juices to undergo an exquisite transformation. Once the initial effort is complete (searing, caramelizing, and prepping the vegetables, etc.), time does the rest of the work. From that point on, the focus is dedicated to overseeing the critical moments of the meat’s transformation. Braising is a fundamental culinary technique that I implore you to master. With the right amount of care, the texture, flavor, and profits are well worth a few minutes of preparation and a couple hours of anticipation!
Braised items on your menu create enormous value for your restaurant. This moist-heat method develops deep, complex flavors and textures from cost-effective, less tender cuts of meat from the chuck, shanks, and plate, making it a very profitable choice for restaurants. When done in large batches, braising is labor-friendly since the bulk of the cooking time can be more or less unattended. Plus, most customers don’t have the time or patience to braise meats at home, giving braised dishes an elevated perceived value on menus.
While customers will always love comfort food, they’re also willing to try new things, and braised items can combine these elements, offering the perfect platform for experimentation. Rejuvenate your braised menu items and incorporate unique ingredients such as tri-color baby carrots, sauerkraut, or garnishes like mint, rosemary, or gremolata (a combination of lemon zest, garlic, and parsley). Braising provides real opportunity for chefs to take traditional dishes and push the envelope with more modern approaches, letting their creativity shine. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a method that has a higher payoff in maximizing flavor, innovation, and your food-purchasing dollar.
A versatile cooking method for a plethora of proteins and vegetables, the fundamentals of braising include searing and caramelizing, flavor building with aromatics, vegetables, and liquids, and portioning and garnishing for service.
For braises, you’ll want to select the protein with large amounts of connective tissue, which develops mostly in muscles that are frequently worked such as the leg or shoulder. The connective tissue also consists of collagen and elastin, which are the keys to all that unctuous goodness inherent in braised dishes. When cooked using a moist heat method such as braising, collagen contracts and then becomes more tender as it breaks down and converts into gelatin, which is released into the braising liquid. The low cooking temperature allows the collagen to break down slowly while retaining the meat’s moisture. Collagen starts to break down at around 140°F and continues breaking down at an exponentially quicker rate as the temperature increases.
To begin the braising process, start by trimming the meat of any excess fat and gristle – too much fat and connective tissue can result in an overly-rich braising sauce. Before searing, consider seasoning duck or lamb shanks with a dry rub such as cumin and chili powder for a Latin American flavor profile, or a marinade such as cider vinegar, ginger, and sugar for a sweet and sour touch. For deeper and penetrating flavor enhancement, consider marinating or lightly brining the meat before it’s braised. Some recipes call for the main item like poultry or beef to be dredged in seasoned flour to seal the meat, promote even browning, and lend additional body to the braising liquid. Finally, take time to properly sear the meat until it’s beautifully caramelized and G.B.D. (golden, brown, and delicious!) Now you’re ready for braising!
The next step is flavor building using mirepoix, herbs, spices, and aromatic vegetables. You can incorporate a traditional bouquet garni made of parsley stems, bay leaves, and thyme wrapped in a leek leaf and bound by butcher’s twine. Get creative and create your own bouquet by using any combination from our fresh herb program. Consider other aromatics such as garlic, fennel, shallots, rosemary, leeks, spices, and dried fruits – the options are endless! Adding acidic ingredients like tomato paste and citrus zest help tenderize the meat. They also produce more depth of flavor and balance some of the richness that braising develops.
The overall character of a braise will be deeply rooted in the quality of the cooking liquid: Beef, veal, chicken, vegetable, shellfish, and/or fish fumet are the most common depending on what is being braised. From there, liquid flavor enhancers like white or red wine, cider, and fruit juices can be used. In lieu of these, challenge yourself and try dashi as a stock with short ribs for an Asian flavor profile, or bend your braise with a combination of bourbon, stout, and soy sauce with a beef brisket. Add enough of whatever liquid you choose so the meat is halfway to three quarters submerged, then heat to a simmer, tightly cover, and place in a slow oven, anywhere from 275-325°F. With braising, slow and gentle cooking is the key, so let time do the work until the meat is fork-tender but not falling off the bone.
Some details are important to note; you’ll want to make sure all surfaces are evenly moistened during cooking and not drying out. Occasional basting will ensure that all sides get equal amounts of moisture and flavor. Taste occasionally and make adjustments when necessary. Remove the lid during the final minutes of cooking to help the liquid reduce and develop a glaze on the exposed portions of meat.
Prime Quality Proteins Without a Prime Price Tag
Proteins typically account for the majority of food costs, so thoughtful selections should be made to create a healthy menu mix. Braised items can garner higher margins and help boost your bottom line if you regularly feature them on your menu.
If your kitchen’s resources don’t allow for braising from scratch, Maines partners Bonewerks, Cobblestreet Market™, Farmland®, Prairie Creek®, and Hormel® offer fully cooked braised products that are ready to use as a platform to showcase your own sauces and presentations. Items include osso buco, beef, pork, and lamb shanks, and boneless beef short ribs. Maines partner Prairie Creek® offers all natural, ready-to-use, fully cooked beef chuck short ribs that deliver consistent quality and flavor, increase kitchen efficiency, and present chefs with an excellent foundation for braising.
Once braised, these cuts can be utilized in a variety of ways, further enhancing their contribution to the meat’s extraordinary transformation. Add braised items like pork shoulder and pork belly to salads, sandwiches, ravioli, pot stickers, or an on-trend Korean rice bowl bibimbap. The trimmings of proteins can also be added to pasta or salad entrées as garnishes.
Out of nutritional necessity, every culture throughout history has used less tender cuts of meat, which means braising can be found in nearly every culture and cuisine. In Italy, there’s osso buco, which calls for veal shanks. Follow our recipe to incorporate a classic Italian osso buco preparation onto your menu. In Morocco, tagines, traditional Moroccan slow-cooker dishes, take cuts such as lamb shanks and turn them into flavorful braises punctuated by the sweetness of honey and fruits such as dates and raisins. In Indonesia, beef rendang is a spicy beef dish braised in luscious coconut milk flavored with kaffir lime and lemongrass. A traditional Filipino entrée, leguna estofade (braised beef tongue) is made with ox tongue, tomato sauce, potatoes, green olives, onions, and mushrooms. Use proteins from Maines signature brands to experiment with your own rendition of these on-trend, ethnic items.
The Final Touches
Before simmering your braise, boost the flavor by adding umami-rich ingredients such as anchovies and soy sauce, which will impart meatiness to the braising liquid. Use the same pot that you browned the meat in for caramelizing the aromatics and vegetables then deglaze with the liquids
to release the flavorful browned bits on the bottom of the pot (fond).
Once out of the oven, there’s still plenty of opportunities to maximize flavor! Always allow meats to rest in the liquid; as the meat cools, it will absorb additional liquid and become easier to slice. Braised meats also taste better when they remain in the liquid, allowing time for the flavors to meld. Braise meats the day before service, chill, and heat the meat to order the next day.
Braising is the ultimate in transformational cooking and the cornerstone of all great cuisine. Methodical steps that require thoughtfulness, dedication, and immense attention to detail all pay dividends in the end result. As the ingredients and flavors meld for hours, time and patience are ultimately responsible for the greatness of your braises, creating high-margin, value-rich returns. By investing in braising, not only will you be transforming tough cuts of meat, you’ll also be transforming your brand, reputation, menu, and profitability!