Scented candles have their place. However, the ultimate aroma diffuser is a savory dish of goodness that has been cooking low and slow for hours – the kind of dish that permeates the whole house and causes everyone who enters to exclaim, “It smells so good in here!” Think of BBQ brisket and hearty beef stew, coq au vin and chicken adobo. These are all foods made by braising, a method of cooking that generally follows four easy steps:
Step 1: Sear main ingredient
It’s important that what you sear is as dry as you can make it. Color equals flavor, and one way to achieve good color is by using paper towels to pat dry your food before seasoning it and placing in a pan with hot oil. The idea is to make things sizzle, not steam. Don’t overcrowd your pan. Work in batches if you need to. And, take your time. It requires at least a few minutes per side to sear a large hunk of meat to golden brown perfection.
Some people lightly coat their ingredients with flour before they sear them. This creates a nice crust but isn’t essential. To be honest, searing isn’t essential either. If you’re short on time or feeling lazy, it’s okay to skip this step entirely. Mainly, searing is a way of developing extra flavor. It can also make the final product look a little more appealing. You decide what’s worth it for you!
Step 2: Sauté aromatics
Once your main ingredient has had its flash in the pan, remove it and set it aside. Now it’s time to lower the heat, soften onions, and stir in some garlic. Some recipes call for veggies like carrots and celery. Others ask for things like tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce. These all work to further develop flavor.
Step 3: Deglaze pan
Steps 1 and 2 can create quite a stuck-on mess at the bottom of your pan. The technical explanation for this is the Maillard reaction. These browned bits (called “fond”) are packed with delicious goodness. The trick is to scrape it all up, and the way to achieve this is by adding liquid to the hot pan. You can use broth, wine, or the juice of canned tomatoes. You can even use water if that’s all you have. Simply stir and scrape as the simmering liquid loosens everything up.
Step 4: Simmer in liquid
Now return your seared ingredient back to the pan (or add it if you skipped the searing). Just make sure that there’s enough liquid to come at least halfway up the sides of your main ingredient. Toss in any remaining items – like herbs, spices, or other veggies. Cover the pan and either cook low and slow on the stove top or transfer to a preheated oven. Cooking in the oven may take a little longer but generally cooks more gently and evenly.
In some recipes, like our Classic Beef Pot Roast, vegetables aren’t added until part way through the braising period. This is so they don’t turn to mush during the long cooking period.
[If you have the time, it can be beneficial to separate the main ingredients from the braising liquid after the cooking is over. This can serve two purposes. First, you can chill the liquid. This allows the fat to float to the top and harden, making it easy to remove and discard. Second, it allows you to convert brothy liquids into thicker sauces – either by reducing, adding thickeners or blending with something else.]
Benefits of Braising
Most braised dishes can be made in advance – and actually taste better from doing so. Also, beyond a little prep work, you mostly leave it unattended while it magically converts into something succulent, fork tender and flavorful. The other great thing is that once you understand the technique, you can easily adapt the same steps to use with an endless variety of flavor options. You can experiment with different main ingredients – like pork shoulder, chuck roasts, and even root vegetables. You can also try different flavor profiles. Check out our recipe for Braised Lemon Chicken. The recipe calls for braising thighs in chicken broth with lemon and thyme. Use the same directions but switch out these ingredients with teriyaki sauce when you feel like eating Asian – and canned tomatoes and chilis for when you’re craving Mexican. It’s all the same process. Just pick your flavor profile depending upon your mood!
Ubiquitous multi-cookers can be used for braising. Many of them have functions that allow you to sear before you slow-cook. Pressure-cooking also works and can cut a braise time in half. My favorite vessel for braising, however, is a Dutch oven. Its heavy weight conducts heat well, and it can be used for both searing on the stove top and slow-cooking in the oven. It comes with an oven-safe lid and is presentable enough to bring straight to the table. Whichever your preference, braising is definitely an easy, worthwhile endeavor that can exponentially expand your recipe repertoire!