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What is Braising?

Braising is a classic technique that delivers fabulous-tasting, comforting food with minimal effort. Find out what you need to know for perfect braises every time.

What is Braising?

Essentially, it’s just simmering meat and vegetables in a small amount of liquid in a covered pot to concentrate and enhance the liquid’s flavor and tenderizes tough cuts of meat to melt-in-your-mouth perfection. Yes, it takes time but it’s almost all hands-off cooking—you get it started and then the stove or oven takes over. But it’s worth it: Whoever said, “Good things come to those who wait” must have had braising in mind.

It’s ideal for cooking inexpensive, tough cuts of meat (such as brisket and pork shoulder) until they’re melt-in-your-mouth tender, but can be done with quicker cooking cuts like chicken breasts as well.

The technique can be divided into three simple steps: browning, deglazing and braising. Browning, the first step, creates deep, rich color on the meat and also helps render out some of the fat. Because braising is a fairly low temperature cooking method (300°F. to 350°F. in the oven), natural browning won’t occur. Instead, you need to create it by searing the meat on top of the stove first. Afterward, pour off any fat that has melted out of the meat.

The next step is to deglaze the pan. See those brown bits of food stuck to the bottom of the pan after browning? This is called fond, and it’s loaded with great flavor which will become the foundation for building a delicious sauce. To deglaze, transfer the meat to a plate then add liquid (Swanson® stock, wine or juice) to the hot pan, scraping the fond loose with a wooden spoon so it blends into the liquid.

The final step—braising! Return the browned meat to the pan along with any vegetables and aromatics called for in the recipe, preferably in a single layer, adding more liquid to submerge everything about halfway. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid (creating a steamy environment inside the pot is key to keeping the meat moist) then let it all simmer, either on top of the stove or in the oven. (It’s generally preferred to braise in the oven because the heat surrounds the entire cooking vessel. On the stove, heat comes just from the bottom and isn’t quite as even as it is in the oven.)

Equipment

Really, the only piece of kitchen equipment required for braising is a heavy-duty Dutch oven, sauté pan or stockpot with a tight-fitting lid. A good choice is one made of cast iron—whether it’s plain or enamel-coated, the even and consistent heat conduction and retention of cast iron make it ideal for braising. Plus, long periods of time in the oven or on the stove don’t harm it at all. But a heavy-duty stainless steel pot or sauté pan works great, too, as does your slow cooker! If using a slow cooker, make sure that it’s no more than two-thirds full when all the ingredients are added (less than that is okay too—the steam created will also help the braise cook). Regardless of the vessel you choose to use, keep these things in mind before you braise:

  • For everyday braising needs, a pan, pot or slow-cooker in the five- to six-quart range works just fine for most people. Make sure it’s big enough to hold the ingredients in a single layer. However, a pot that’s too large may cause liquids to evaporate more rapidly, so monitor the braise’s progress during cooking to make sure there’s still liquid inside. If it starts to get dry, add more stock, broth or water.
  • Check for a tight-fitting lid. This is critical to a braising recipe’s success as well as an indication of the quality of the pot’s construction. A tight lid keeps steam inside the pot for more even cooking and moisture retention. If the lid on your pot isn’t as tight as it should be, you can wrap the base of the lid with heavy-duty aluminum foil (keep the handle exposed so you can remove the lid easily), pressing down on the lid firmly to mold it to the edge of the pot for an air-tight seal.
  • If you’re using a Dutch oven or stockpot, be sure it has two large handles on the side that are either securely riveted or are cast in metal as part of the design of the pot. A pot full of ingredients can be extremely heavy so it’s critical that the handles are sturdy and safe. Also, be sure the lid can be grasped easily so getting inside the pot during cooking is simple. If you’re using a sauté pan, the handle should be sturdy as well. And in all cases, make sure that the handle material is ovenproof—plastic and wood will not hold up to the prolonged cooking times.
  • Cast iron pots come coated in enamel or uncoated. If you’re buying a new cast iron pot, consider an enamel-coated version. Although more expensive than uncoated cast iron, it doesn’t impart an off-taste and is easy to clean either by hand or in the dishwasher.

Ingredients

While you can braise just about anything, the main function of the technique is to tenderize large, tough cuts of meat and fibrous vegetables through low, slow cooking. These three categories of ingredients are most commonly used in braised dishes:

Meats:

The best cuts for braised dishes include beef short ribs, brisket and chuck roast; pork shoulder and spareribs; lamb shanks and shoulder; turkey legs, chicken thighs and drumsticks. Leaner meats, such as pork tenderloin and chicken breasts may also be braised but should be cooked for much shorter periods of time so they don’t dry out and turn tough. Keep in mind, though, that the sauce may not be as rich and flavorful with shorter cooking times.

Vegetables

Aromatic vegetables, like onions, carrots and celery, are used to flavor braises as well as many other dishes. Because the vegetables (especially carrots and celery) can become very soft and dull-looking over the long braising time, it’s a good idea to add more vegetables during the last 30 to 40 minutes of braising for a fresh hit of flavor.

Liquids

All liquids function the same way in a braise, but obviously flavored liquids deliver more punch—Swanson stock or broth, wine, beer, fruit or vegetable juices, even Pace® Picante sauce can provide a terrific flavor foundation to the sauce. Don’t be afraid to combine different liquids for a more complex taste.

Branch Out With Braising

Once you have the fundamentals of braising under your belt, you can play around with ingredients and flavors to create your own signature dishes. Get creative with any of these ideas:

  • Rub beef short ribs with chili powder and a touch of cayenne, then braise in a combination of beer or apple juice and your favorite purchased barbecue sauce. Serve the ribs over creamy polenta made with smoked Gouda or Cheddar cheese.
  • Make Asian-style spareribs by simmering sections of pork ribs with onion, garlic, ginger, Campbell’s® Condensed French Onion soup, honey, hoisin and soy sauce until the ribs fall off the bone. Thicken the sauce with cornstarch blended with more soup or water then serve the ribs over steamed rice with
    stir-fried broccoli and carrots.
  • Try braising vegetables for super-flavorful and unique side dishes. Sauté chopped bacon in a pan, then added sliced onion, shredded cabbage and sliced green apple and braise in apple cider and Swanson Chicken broth for a wonderful accompaniment to pork roast. Or simmer chunks of butternut squash in a mixture of Swanson Vegetable broth, fresh lemon or orange juice, a bit of honey and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes and whole fennel seed for a delicious side dish to chicken or fish. Keep in mind that vegetables won’t take nearly as long to cook as meat dishes—aim for cooking just until the vegetables are tender.