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Reviving the Lost Art of Braising

I had always though the difference between braising and stewing was mainly the amount of liquid used (basically, in stewing the meat is fully or mostly submerged, in braising, the meat is only partially submerged).

So I was surprised to find when reading through "Modernist Cuisine" (lucky me) that braising once referred to a process that was substantially different than the one we use today. MC claims that what we consider braising is actually just stewing.

No big surprise: old-school braising involved cooking in an enclosed space with small amount of liquid.

The difference: old-school braising consisted of placing glowing coals both on top of and underneath the enclosed braising pot. What's the difference between that and using an oven's heat, you ask? Radiated heat.

In a normal oven braise, all heat comes from convection. You brown the meat before cooking it, because the meat is heated only by the moist air and liquid around it. In an old-school braise, radiated heat from the bottom heats the cooking liquid and moistens the air for the traditional tenderizing effect we associate with braising and stewing. But the radiated heat from the top - that browns the exposed meat and also helps to create maillard and caramelization reactions within the sauce itself.

The end result, supposedly: braised meat with a browned roasty surface and an especially intense sauce left in the pot.

Of course, digging a pit and lighting and maintaining a coal fire can be a lot of work. But MC had a suggestion: you can get a similar effect cooking an enclosed cast iron dutch oven under an electric broiler set to low.

So the first test run: chicken leg quarters on a bed of onion wedges, green peppers, garlic cloves and a lime. I used a cast iron dutch oven (not enameled). I also added a little beer and some chicken stock (in retrospect I used more than I probably needed to, though the chicken was not at all submerged). A bunch of Mexican herbs and spices.

MC warns to make sure that the lid of the pot is very airtight, even going so far as to seal it with clay. I decided to live dangerously and didn't bother - the result was fine, this time at least.

I cooked it on a low rack in my oven with the broiler on low for an hour. The end result was beautifully fork tender chicken and a very complex, tasty liquid from the braise.

One of the most remarkable things though was the skin. Since the cooking environment was so moist, I was not convinced the skin would brown or crisp well. But take a look at the pictures.

I'll remind you that the chicken was NOT browned in any way before or after the braise. That's all from radiated heat.

 
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  1. Obviously, there's still a lot of experimenting to do. I'm not sure if there will be problems with charring if I were to cook a piece of meat for a longer time, though I suspect I could get away with turning the broiler off for some portion of the cook time to fully cook a braising cut without charring.

    I also want to try using even less liquid. I don't know if I'll run into problems not fully sealing the pot before cooking. This time, there was plenty of liquid left in the pot and no obvious loss to evaporation.

    I'll update with further adventures if people are interested.

    1. How very intriguing! One of the only times in my life I wish I had electric instead of gas stove.....did a lot of fat render off, so it was a thin, crisp layer of skin? Or was it browned with a layer of unrendered fat beneath?

      Thanks for sharing.

      1 Reply
      1. re: 4Snisl

        It did not render fat like the idealized roast chicken might. I'd say it was maybe halfway there. Definitely some crispiness, but not that thin, shatters-in-your-mouth effect.

        Incidentally, I used chicken because that's what I had on hand, not because this is supposed to be more suited to chicken than to other meats.

      2. I saw ATK doing pot roast lat week - I think this is the current season, or perhaps last year's.
        They did not sear the meat. The level of liquid in the DO was low, and they put tin foil between lid and pot to create a tighter seal. Midway through oven braising on low heat (300, IIRC), they turned the meat over so both sides browned. They explained that the Maillard reaction will take place as long as the meat is cooked long enough, and not submerged. From all appearances, they got the same result without futzing around with heat from above.

        11 Replies
        1. re: greygarious

          Never been my experience. I've cooked a lot of braises in my time and never got anything remotely like the lightly charred, deeply browned, slightly crispy skin the above method produced on chicken.

          I'm not doubting some degree of maillard reaction takes place in a 'normal' braise, maybe adding something to the flavoring or a slight brown coloring. But the browning here isn't at all similar to tradition dutch oven, low liquid braises.

          Did you expand the photo? Have you ever gotten results like that with a 'normal' braise?

          1. re: cowboyardee

            Low heat, long time - yes - even when using a (naked) cast iron Dutch oven entirely on top of the stove.

            1. re: greygarious

              Similar effect, really? Walk me through your style of braising, please, cause I've never gotten browning anything like the above while braising in an oven normally. Course, I normally seared before braising.

              1. re: cowboyardee

                Film of oil, no liquid, just a lot of chopped onion and your choice of other chopped vegetables, which exude plenty of liquid to combine with meat juices into a flavorful sauce once reduced after the cooked meat is removed. Once the meat is brown, turn it over. I have no idea of time - probably 5-6 hours for 4# of meat but that's a guess. Like Mom, I cook it "till it's ready".

                1. re: greygarious

                  So, no added liquid. Fully covered pot? Oven set to 300? Or is this just cooked on the stovetop (I could certainly see why that would brown - you're basically sauteing the meat as you go)? Meat touching the bottom of the pan, or sitting on a bed of the vegetables?

                  Stupid question, but no pre-sear, right?

                  1. re: cowboyardee

                    No pre-sear, stovetop the whole time, covered pot, meat sitting on top of the onions. Searing first is what I do now but when I was first using the Dutch oven - ages ago - I didn't know that and was using a larger piece of meat so it cooked long enough to brown without searing.

                    1. re: greygarious

                      When you heat up a thick, massive piece of metal like the bottom of a CI pot, it generates some radiated heat (this is how a lot of broilers actually work - the gas flames actually radiate very little heat so the radiated heat is actually generated by nearby metal elements heated by the gas flame). I would think that cooking on the stovetop would do this more than cooking in an oven. Still, I'm surprised that most of the radiation isn't absorbed by the vegetables. Also, if the vehicle of browning is actually this radiated heat from the heated cast iron, I'm also a little surprised that the stovetop (presumably on a lowish setting?) generates enough of it.

                      Another stupid question - when you were braising in this manner, where exactly did the meat brown? Top, bottom, all around?

                      1. re: cowboyardee

                        Whatever is above the level of the liquid browns - as I said before, this is why you turn it over midway. If you want to know more of the thermodynamics, I'm sure the ATK/CI sites can explain the details.

                        1. re: greygarious

                          Interesting. Makes me wonder if I could cook chicken and biscuits in a dutch oven on the stovetop.

            2. re: cowboyardee

              Often braising in an enamel steel pot with white interior I end up with a dark coating on the lid and upper half of the pot, which I believe is spatter from the meat and liquid that has browned. I'm also in the habit of turning the meat so that it does not dry out.

              So even with ordinary oven heat, I get maillard reaction in a covered pot. Still might be interesting to try this top element version of braising. I haven't used the broiler that much, and when I have I've set the temperature control to 'broil' and kept the door a jar - so the broiler is on high the full time. In fact I didn't realize that it could cycle on and off like lower element.

              Harold McGee claims that braising in a closed pot keeps the temperature too close to boiling. He advocates leaving the lid ajar, so evaporation will keep the temperature below 200 (or even 180). Longer lower temperatures are supposed to produce a more tender, moist meat.

              This top heat idea may allow you to have the best of both worlds - the browning plus lower liquid temperatures.

              1. re: paulj

                Most likely, the air/steam temperature in the pot for much of the cooking time is a little above boiling (except obviously for the liquid part). I don't think this method will be ideal for super long, slow, melt-it-to-mush type braises. I love McGee, but low temp, long time is only one way to go IMO. Obviously, starting with cold liquid could stretch out the cook time and keep the temp lower for a while, but you also have to be concerned about scorching. Obviously, a lot of this is conjecture still.

                Turning the meat sounds like it may well be very smart, especially with longer braises using this method.

                Like I said above, I'm not skeptical that 'normal' braising produces a maillard reaction, but in my experience, it has been to nowhere near the same degree.

          2. This is interesting. Do I understand that you left the broiler on the entire cooking time, and that you did not turn the chicken? I hope you will share any other of these experiments. I have a glass-lidded braiser. I think I would not put it under the broiler, though. And another question: did you use convection broil or regular broil?

            3 Replies
            1. re: sueatmo

              You understand correctly. I used regular broil, set to low. I don't have convection. I did heat the pot on the stovetop to a simmer before putting it in the oven, mainly to save a little time.

              I would be very hesitant to try this with anything other than a CI pot, or maybe a ceramic.

              1. re: cowboyardee

                I have an infrared broiler that seems to get wicked hot, would it work for that?

                1. re: escondido123

                  It might. My broiler seems to get pretty hot too, though this is the only time I can think of where I used it on low. One of the things that I feel helped was keeping the food on the bottom rack (the broiler is at the top of the oven). Im not home right now, but I'd guess that the top of the dutch oven was a foot or so from the element.

            2. Thanks for the report. I'd be interested in reading more of your experiments with this method, too. I wonder if you'd get similar results if you braised it at low temp but in the end, removed the lid to broil.

              1 Reply
              1. re: chowser

                It might be similar. Obviously, there will be a bit more evaporation that way. Theoretically, the lid-on under-the-broiler braise should create a different flavor in the sauce/braising liquid. But like I said, I probably used more liquid than I need to first time around.

                Shame I don't have multiple ovens and CI pots to try side-by-side comparisons. I'll update though.