Braising in the Winter
Winter is not my favorite time of the year, hence why I live in Las Vegas. As I am writing this, the temperature outside is 66 degrees. I was raised in New Jersey, which is currently less than 40 degrees and my sister lives in Park City, Utah which is expecting fourteen days of snow and the Arctic Blast. One of the only good things about the winter season is that one of the cooking methods of choice is braising. I love all aspects of braising foods. As I wrote about earlier I sous vide cook a lot so in the summer I can braise without heating the house, but the long slow cook in an oven cannot be beaten for the warmth and the smells that fill the house for hours.
Generally speaking, during the winter months the meat cuts that are cooked by grilling, among other methods, are the cheapest at this time since most of the country is not grilling this time of year. These cuts usually come from the middle part of an animal. This is the opposite of the cost during warmer months. The opposite is true for the cuts that need long slow cooking methods. These cuts generally come from the front and back ends of the animal and are usually much cheaper in the warmer months since people do not want to turn on an oven for an extended time when it is warm outside. This is why braising is a popular cooking method in winter months.
Cuts of meat from the front and back of the animal, especially the front, have a lot of flavor due to the collagen and elastin in the meat, but they need to be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 185 degrees. I usually aim for over 200 degrees to melt the most collagen and elastin. The cuts from the front of the animal often have the word “chuck” in it and the cuts from the back of the animal often have the word “round” in their names. In comparison, the middle cuts of meat are usually cooked to 135 to 150 degrees. The only way to get the meat above 185 degrees is to cook it with moisture. If you are only using dry heat the meat will burn before it can reach that internal temperature.
When you braise, which is the same as stewing except with large cuts of meat, the first step is to brown the meat. This is very important because by browning the meat you are creating flavor. The process you want to achieve is called the Maillard Reaction, which is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its desirable flavor. This happens at around 320 degrees. Without this step you will not develop a depth of flavor in the meat. The next step is to add liquid. If you add a flavored liquid such as stock, you will be adding flavor, but if you add water you will dilute the flavor of the sauce because the flavor of the meat will have to flavor the water, while if you use stock you will not need to add flavor to the liquid. When you braise foods you do not cover the product with the liquid, while when you are stewing you usually will cover the meat with the braising liquid.
The most common braising liquid is beef stock. I like to make my own but that is not always feasible since it can take 8-10 hours to make. In a commercial kitchen I do make it often but at home I do not attempt this task. There are many products available to replicate homemade stock; some are good and others are not. The first thing I look for is that there is no MSG in the product and the second thing I look for is that the first ingredient is the flavor I am looking for. Whether it is beef, chicken or any other flavor, the protein should be the first ingredient, not salt. Of the brands available widespread and to the public, one of the best brands is Better Than Bouillon, which is available in most supermarkets. Commercially I prefer a brand called Minors.
Other ingredients can also be added with common ones being mushrooms for further umami flavor. This is also why tomato paste is often added. Another common ingredient is some form of an acid such as apple cider vinegar or wine. The cooking time is hard to gauge, with the internal temperature being the key factor. Often a braised item is refrigerated overnight to allow the flavors to merge. This chill will also aid in the cutting of this very tender meat.