On a very long road trip, I listened to a 6-hour recording of a traditional foods cooking class. Annie Dru was the teacher (her blog recap here). It was wildly interesting to me on many levels. One of my take-aways from listening to her teach was to get my hands on a cookbook she kept raving about.
All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking helped me understand a few simple steps that kicked up my pot roast a few notches. Seriously.
This could be one of my new favorite cookbooks. If you are new to "grass-finished" beef and find it tough, braising is the answer for such culinary woes.
What is braising?
Simply, think of your crock pot: low and slow heat with some moisture. However, usually when people use a crock pot, they omit a very important step. Or, at least, I was guilty of this. I was too lazy to first sear the meat because it was one more pan to wash.
Braising usually begins with searing meat at high temperatures then finishing in a covered pot at lower temperatures.
The first several pages of the cookbook lays the foundation and explains the art of braising. She gives some simple do's and don'ts. Then the rest of the cookbook is full of yummy recipes.
I took notes on some steps that I didn't want to forget. You can grab a copy of this book at the library --or read my cheater's notes below. But I think you'll want to see the book. :)
1. Braising works well with bone-in meat and/or tough cuts. Because all muscle contains some amount of collagen (this is what binds the muscle together), by slowing cooking the meat the collagen "melts" out of the meat. Collagen is in highest concentration nearest to the bone and in coarsely grained meats...or the muscles that are used most in the animal. Think: shoulder, arm, neck, legs. This collagen is very soothing and healing for the gut.
2. The size and type of pot is important. (The cookbook author was almost anti-crockpot ... get a copy of the book to find out why.) The pot should fit the size of your meat so that it holds the food snugly and the lid fits securely.
The cycle of steam is important with braising. The smaller the pot, the tighter the cycle of steam, the more concentrated the juice becomes.
If your pot is too large, or too tall, use a piece of parchment paper to "lower the ceiling." Cut a piece of paper larger than the opening of your pot. Crumple it into a wad then open it back up. Fit it concavely (so there's a dip in the center, but not touching the food) and secure the lid on the top of the pot.
3. Browning or searing at a medium/high heat. The surface of the meat must be dry, use paper towels to remove excess moisture once meat is out of its package.
Use just enough fat to cover the bottom of the pan. Too much will make the dish greasy, too much will result in spotty browning. I like to use lard (find it at the farmer's market) for this.
Give food space - especially veggies. As they brown they throw off moisture which causes food to steam, not brown.
Be patient with this step. I am guilty of pushing food around. I want to get the good, brown bits on the bottom of the pan in this step. If I am pushing food around it will never sear properly. Conversely, don't walk away or set the heat too high.
After browning, evaluate drippings. Pick out any burnt, black specks.
4. Aromatics are the foundation of a braise: onions, carrots, celery, herbs, bacon...some of these you add half way through the cooking time.
5. The braising liquid: wine or stock. Use up to 1/3 way up the sides of the main ingredient.
6. Deglazing and reducing are the two keys to maximum flavor. I like to deglaze with 1/4-1/2 cup wine and get the yummy golden bits off the bottom of the pan. Then add more broth/stock and reduce them together.