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Nov 18, 2009 06:44 AM

Harold McGee on Braising

Uber food scientist McGee talked about braising with Lynne Kaspar on "The Splendid Table" this past Sunday. He was adamant that the liquid in the braising pot should never boil or even simmer, just smile with an occasional bubble. Tightly sealing the pot in a 350 degree oven inevitably results in boiling. He says the oven temp should be around 250 and the lid left ajar, to avoid this. This flies in the face of our gods (Julia, Madaleine, Simca) who say that the pot should be tightly sealed with foil (or even a flour paste) and then covered with a tight lid.

What do you think?


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  1. Wel,, he's right about tightly sealing the lid and braising at 350*, it will boil. I don't braise anything at that temp anyway, it's just too hot for a long slow braise.
    Actually I lean towards a tightly sealed lid and a lower braising temp, 300*, best of both worlds. The difference between a braise that's reaches boiling temp for just a short period of time towards the end of cooking, and one that hasn't, is negligible, IMO. I think his concern was that the braise cooked at a higher temp, with sealed lid, will result in a not-as-great product.
    So, I'm with Harold on this one, the longer the braising time, the lower the temp, the better the end result. I might even lower my oven temp to 250 the next time I cook.

    1. If it were true, it wouldn't be the first not the cooking 'gods' have been wrong and it certainly wouldn't be the last.

      That being said...

      Collagen does melt at temps far lower than boiling, but I'm not sure the difference in temperature is that substantial here. For an 'uber food scientist,' "just smile with an occasional bubble," is pretty darn unscientific. If memory serves me correctly, simmering is about 10 deg. F less than boiling, so what's "an occasional bubble?" 15 deg. less?

      If all we're talking about is about 15 degrees, then I'm not sure how much of an impact that's going to be. I believe it's been theorized that higher temps 'shock' meat, causing it to contract and lose liquid, but I'm not sure if that's proven being a shadow of a doubt. Even if it were proven, I still don't think 15 degrees would make that much of a difference.

      Unless he's talking about a much lower temp- 170 will cook the meat through and keep it above the bacterial zone while continuing to melt collagen. That's about where I like to keep braises. But you won't see bubbles at 170.

      13 Replies
      1. re: scott123

        This is exactly what I have been thinking lately. I have done short ribs in a slow cooker, and they still boil. I have been tempted to do them in the oven at 170-200, but haven't seen any recipes to confirm this as an option. How about overnight (10-12 hours) at this temp?

        1. re: strong95

          By slow cooker, do you mean crockpot? Low temp is about 200*, high is 300*, depending on the brand, so you will get a boil. When you cooked them in the slow cooker, was it on low? How long, 6-8 hours?
          I think 10-12 hour braise @ 170-200 would result in overdone ribs, unless you're using dinosaur-size, ;-) or doing a very large quantity. Normally 4 hours, give or take, until falling-off-the-bone tender, is plenty of time. I like the "until done" theory of braising, rather than a set number of hours.
          I mean, you want to eat at some point, right?

          1. re: bushwickgirl

            Re; crockpot temps...

            It's been a while since I checked, but I'm pretty sure that the 'Warm' setting is less than 200. I was a little surprised how hot 'Warm' was (was hoping for something just above the danger zone), but it wasn't 200.

            At some point I'm rewiring my crockpot with a dimmer switch. This will let me hit that just above the danger zone sweet spot.

            1. re: scott123

              I got this info from the Rival website. Other brands may have different settings but I think the concern amongst manufacturers across the board is to provide a "safe" cooking temp that will finish your supper in 8 hours, on low, and 200* certainly is that.

              I'm not sure about that dimmer switch thing, let me know if it works out.

              1. re: bushwickgirl

                The earliest crock pots (e.g. around 1980) did not have a thermostat. They just used a low wattage heating wire, and the thermal mass of the pot to 'control' the temperature. That is, they were slow to heat up, and retained the heat well once warm.

                As long as there is liquid in the pot, temperatures will not rise above boiling.

            2. re: bushwickgirl

              Yep, by slow cooker, I do mean crock pot. Mine is a decent-sized oval shape. I tested mine awhile back, and lowest setting registered around 205-210. Short ribs turned out great on low for about 10 hours overnight, but I need to cook a bigger batch, so that is why I am thinking of lower and slower in the oven. I think I'm going to give it a try tonight -- I will report back.

              1. re: strong95

                Bushwickgirl, you made me chicken out a little bit for fear of over-cooking. I did 175F for about 8 hours overnight and let them rest in the fridge so I could remove the fat. They still felt tough, but I had to go to work. Couldn't tell if they are overdone or underdone. I am not serving until tomorrow night, so I am contemplating cooking further tomorrow -- any suggestions, everybody? scott123 -- you seem to be on the same page with me about trying the lowest possible braising temp -- any ideas about how long for short ribs at 170-200F range? Am I going to wreck things further with a long, slow reheat?

                1. re: strong95

                  Strong95, it really depends on the recipe. Did you put raw cold ribs into a 175F oven or did you brown them first? How much liquid was involved? Was the liquid cold?

                  They may be perfect. Cooked meat firms up when refrigerated. I would definitely test them warm. You might want to warm a little piece in the oven on low heat- not the microwave.

                  1. re: scott123

                    I am using a Cook's Country recipe; I have done it before in the crockpot with good results, but this is a big batch, so that's why roasting pan and oven were necessary. I seared them first in a large roasting pan and got them nice and brown. Then I browned onions, added some other savory stuff, added Newcastle Brown Ale, boiled off the alcohol, then returned the short ribs to the hot roasting pan and stuck it in the oven at 175. The liquid level was enough to cover the ribs about half-way. Covered the whole thing in foil. I will warm one up tonight and have a snack!

                    1. re: strong95

                      Hmmm... I've got a good feeling about this. I kind of doubt that there will be a huge difference between the results from this process and the crockpot, but I think you should be pleased.

                      1. re: scott123

                        So, I did a "test rib" and determined that it definitely needed more time in the oven. For the big batch in the roasting pan, I did 2 more hours at 250F, 2 hours at 225, and 2 hours at 200. For the last several hours of braising time, the temp of the braising liquid was right around 190. I reserved some of the liquid in order to skim off the fat and tweak the sauce. At that point, things were finally fork-tender. I let it coast to the finish line at 175 until ready to serve. Finished product tasted great, beautiful color, tons of flavor. Full disclosure: I am prone to making things overly complicated, and I fretted over my experiment the whole time. For next batch, I think I would try 200 for the whole time and count on it taking at least 10-12 hours, maybe a little more. For food safety, sure seems like searing first and putting it into the oven hot with hot braising liquid was wise.

                        1. re: strong95

                          8 hours at 175 wasn't enough?! Well I'll be a monkey's uncle :P

                          I have to admit that I haven't done ribs since I've started dialing back my braising temps, so I'm not speaking from experience, but I'm a little surprised 8 hours wasn't long enough. Have you tested your oven temp lately?

                          Thanks for testing this.

                          Btw, this may not be a huge deal, but I've been thinking about the brown ale in your ribs- 10+ hours of slow cooking might be skunking your hops. Maybe. Last time I looked into this (about 3 years back) a few breweries were using hydrogenated hop oil- which, like the crisco of yore, is basically immortal. I wouldn't be surprised if the practice has spread. I'd like to think, though, that Newcastle is still 'pure' enough to be using the real deal. If that's the case then you might want to consider adding the ale later in the braise. Maybe. I, too, tend to over complicate things :)

                          1. re: strong95

                            I have tried basically the same recipe in the crock pot with either Guinness beer or port wine -- all have been good, but I think I liked the Newcastle the best. As part of my "research" during cooking, of course I had to sample the Newcastle straight up -- it is very mild and not ultra hoppy; maybe that's why CI preferred it.

                            Thanks for your input during this process -- good learning experience, good food!

          2. I think his main point was that a tightly sealed container will create a mini-pressure cooker effect even at quite low oven temps, and easily raise the liquid above 212. By leaving the lid ajar, liquid is continually evaporating, which has a cooling effect on the remaining liquid (which will probably need to be replaced at intervals during a long braise).

            2 Replies
            1. re: rswatkins

              Maybe I'm wrong, but I really don't see a foil/flour seal and a tight lid creating that much pressure.

              And even if it did create pressure, what's wrong with that? It depends on the dish, but pressure cookers can make some amazing braises.

              1. re: scott123

                I agree that there isn't a pressure effect in a regular pot; it's a matter of heat loss. I think McGee is arguing for an oven and pot combination that keeps the meat temperature at around 190F. That is liquid can see an occasional bubble. Bubbles are wide spread when the liquid is close to 212F (sea level).

                Often I'll lift the pot lid (oven or stove top) and see the liquid bubbling all around (even with low heat). But with the lid off this quickly subsides.

                But my experience with a true pressure cooker leaves me skeptical about Harold's point. I do though follow Lorna Sass's recommendation, and use a slow pressure release.

                Cut of meat remains important. With the cuts that I favor, chuck, shank, ribs, this temperature business does not seem that important. With a leaner cut like rump, it might matter more.

            2. I am all for the slowest possible braising. Last week top round was on sale and I decided to make pot roast although this is not generally a recommended cut. After searing deeply in a naked cast iron dutch oven (4# hunk of meat in a 4qt DO) I added 2# sliced onion, bay leaves, garlic, and cloves (this is what my mother called pot roast), lowered the heat, and covered. I stirred and turned every hour, keeping the pot on the stove at a very slow bubble. Somewhere along the line, when plenty of liquid had exuded, I added a dollop of tomato paste and a glug of Mr. Yoshida's cooking sauce. I cracked the lid a little for the last 2 hours. It took 5-1/2 hours for the meat to become fork-tender and the sauce to reduce to the right concentration. The flavor and texture are just what I wanted, and as a bonus, the low fat percentage in top round meant very little shrinkage, so I got 10 generous portions. As a rule, I don't braise in the oven - mom never did so I'd been cooking her way for a number of years before I realized there was another option. And my oven is the home for some large pots and pans so if I don't HAVE to move everything around, I don't.

              1. I know this is going to sound like a somewhat simplistic response, but in cooking as in many things I believe that there are many ways to skin certain cats. IOW, so far as I'm concerned, JC and MK and others knew how to produce a well prepared, delectable product. So did James Beard and so does Emeril Lagasse (I know he's not quite up at the "god" ranking to many, but the man can cook), and so does Harold McGee.

                When I oven braise, most of the time I do what bushwickgirl noted she does; I'll seal the vessel tightly and run it at 300 d F. Every now and then, if I have more time or if I'm following a new recipe from someone who's had success with the dish, I'll drop the temp to 275 d F. Sometimes I braise burner-top, and even with my heaviest pots and on my lowest burners, I'll have a hard time keeping it down to a true simmer. The point is that I've done braises using different circumstances and had great results with each. Could the dishes have been even better? Could I have ended up with less shrinkage, as greygarious brought up? I guess so; I mean, things can almost always be improved.

                One thing to keep in mind, and this will be pertinent to some of us and not to others, is that JC and MK and masters of that era started out in a time when few households had the type ovens and burners that many dedicated homecooks do now. Our cookware, in some instances, has changed, too. I don't know whether that's had an effect, but I raise it as a possibility.