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In Praise of Braise

In Praise of Braise

Amy Culbertson | McClatchy/Tribune Newspapers

Steady heat and hearty vegetables turn cheap cuts of meat into tender, succulent dishes

Jacques Pepin says it produces the ultimate comfort food.

It’s perfect for the economic times, turning cheap, tough cuts of meat into meltingly tender, richly flavored dishes that, as an added bonus, make their own sauce.

It’s braising.

If you’ve made a pot roast, you’ve practiced braising. It’s the process of cooking something in a small amount of simmering liquid in a closed pot, with low heat, for an extended period. Its mantra is “low and slow.”

Braising has its origins in hearth-simmered dishes cooked in banked embers in the family fireplace, or brought by family cooks to the town bakery to cook overnight in the oven’s retained heat after the day’s bread had been baked.

The magic of braising is twofold.

Its tasty results stem partly from the fact that the cheaper cuts commonly used for braising usually yield more flavor than the more expensive ones. Braising enhances and intensifies that flavor via an exchange of flavors in the braising liquid and the steam it creates. The juices of the food being braised combine with the liquid, which is also infused into the meat along with the flavors of the other ingredients added to the pot.

And the secret of braising’s ability to alchemize chewy cuts into succulence lies in the connective tissue found in well-muscled cuts of meat. It’s called collagen, and when cooked only briefly, as you would a medium-rare steak, or by high heat, as you would a roast loin of pork, it stays tough and chewy. If cooked slowly enough on low heat, however, it dissolves into gelatin, enriching and silkening the already flavorful sauce.

You can braise meat, poultry, vegetables—even some fish and shellfish. But the technique is most commonly used for large pieces of meat and for meat from the more well-muscled cuts: chuck roast or brisket instead of, say, sirloin of beef; or lamb shank instead of lamb chops; or chicken thighs instead of boneless, skinless breasts. This is one case in which you want to stay away from the leanness and tenderness we typically pay a premium for.