Braise the Ante
Turning chewy, cheap cuts into lusciously flavorful food
Coffee and red wine are two of my favorite beverages to drink with meat. Given how much braising I do, it was only a matter of time until I tried braising meat in a mixture of coffee and wine. The results are exceptional: a browned, flavorful exterior and spoon-tender, succulent interior.
Braising means cooking in the oven, half submerged in fluid, and it's one of the most powerful and under-appreciated cooking techniques around. The process requires only basic implements and can transform meat tough enough to stop bullets into a soft puddle of flavor.
It’ll change your shopping habits, too. No longer will you feel compelled to pay big bucks for tender slices of fancy steak. Instead you'll find yourself leering at chuck steak and other cheap cuts, braising them with your eyes.
The very best cuts for braising are difficult to find over the counter, because those parts usually get ground into hamburger, the great cop-out of American meat cookery. But the burger-bound scraps, crisscrossed with connective tissue, have more flavor than a soft steak from the same animal, provided you know how to coax it out. Any butcher, including the guy at your local market, can set aside some of the better braising cuts for you: shoulder, neck and cheeks.
You'll find yourself leering at chuck steak and other cheap cuts, braising them with your eyes.
Osso buco, Italy’s famous bone-in veal dish, braises the shank muscles. They’re analogous to your forearm or calf. Shanks are the toughest muscles in the body, layered with Kevlar-like sheets of intramuscular membrane. As osso buco cooks, the membranes tighten, bunching the muscles into a lumpy ball at one end of the bone. When the membranes finally cook, they melt like fat.
Melted tendon, cartilage and other connective tissues add texture as well as flavor to the meat, telling a story about the animal. A tender steak will never have this much character.
Many braising recipes call for searing the meat prior to braising to seal in the juices. But given that the meat will spend hours submerged in pressurized hot liquid, I'm not worried about moisture loss. As long as you make sure that the braising liquid half-covers the meat as it cooks, it’ll be plenty moist.
While searing is pointless, browning is nonnegotiable. Braising meat without browning it would be like brewing coffee without roasting it first. Indeed, the essence of a good braise is a simultaneously browned exterior and creamy innards.
A tender steak will never have this much character.
Browning meat owes its charms to the Maillard reaction, a chemical combination of amino acids and sugars at high temperatures. It produces hundreds of aromatic compounds that deserve much of the credit for making meat taste good.
Following the lead of James Beard, who was hardly one to shy away from added fats, I shun the commonly used greasy pan for browning and go oil-free under the broiler instead.
The broiler method gives you superior control over the exact shade of brown you want, with less splatter and decreased fire danger. Broil the meat about 4 inches from the heat, turning often for even browning. Think crispy and golden, but not crunchy and burnt. If burning does happen, your best bet is to slice off the burned part and move on.
Add your braising liquid to a pan full of browned meat. (Cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens with heavy lids are ideal for this kind of cooking.) I highly recommend equal parts wine and coffee, but the liquid could also be stock, plain wine, dark beer or just water. I like to add a few bay leaves and some garlic powder, but I hold off on salt and other seasonings until later—like the next day when I’m making stew or shepherd's pie, or refrying cut pieces of braised meat for tacos.
Cover and cook at 300 degrees, turning the meat periodically. Whenever the fluid level drops to about half full, replenish with water (or more wine and coffee) until the meat is nearly covered again.
Braise until the meat falls apart in total surrender to the slightest provocation, roughly two to five hours, depending on the cut of meat and how tight your lid fits.
Let the braise cool to room temperature, then put it in the fridge overnight. In the morning the liquid will be solid gelatin (a poor man's demi-glace) and will melt like butter in a hot pan.
With a pan of braised meat in the fridge you have a wealth of meal options at your disposal. A favorite of mine are tacos, starting with a stack of corn tortillas in the oven while chopped bacon cooks in a pan. When the bacon starts to brown, add minced garlic and pieces of pulled-apart braised meat. Stir it all together with some of the gelatinized braising liquid, which melts into the mix. Season with chile and salt and pepper, and eat it on tortillas with chopped onion and cilantro. Serve with red wine or coffee, depending on the time of day.