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This article is part of Change The Way You Cook part 2, the next installment in our series to help anyone (yes, you!) become smarter, faster, and more freewheeling in the kitchen.
The hardest part about braising is waiting. Which is to say, it’s not hard at all. Several hours in the oven—or on the stove—transforms meat from tough and chewy to tender and melty, like a caterpillar crawling into a cocoon and emerging as a falling-apart pork shoulder. Beautiful! your guests will remark. So tender, so flavorful! You’ll accept this praise, humbly, as you are: Thank you! Thank you to The Academy and my amazing family—Mom, Dad, this one’s for you!—and, of course, to my braising liquid.
Braising liquid, it turns out, is the unspoken hero, what gives your main ingredient its distinct personality. Often, that’s meat—and a large, on-the-bone cut. But it could also be a sturdy green, hearty vegetable, any bean, even fruit. For the sake of example, let’s talk beef brisket.
First things first: Lavishly salt. Then sear until the outside is browned and crusty, transfer to a plate, and let it can hang out while you sauté some vegetables—say, onions or celery, carrots or fennel—in the rendered beef fat. Or don’t. Anything beyond your main ingredient and its braising liquid is optional (but encouraged!). Get that brisket back into the pot. Add some aromatics, like a cinnamon stick, bay leaf, or sprig of rosemary, then enough liquid to rise halfway up the meat, almost like the beef is an island and the liquid is the sea. Then cover and simmer—on the stove or in the oven—until it’s so tender you just can’t stand it.
Wait, what liquid, though? This is where things get fun. (Yes, fun!) The braising liquid not only helps cook your ingredient, but flavors and seasons it, too. You could use water, sure, but there are way better alternatives. Here are five of our favorites:
The humblest of the bunch. If you have homemade stock on-hand in your freezer—for stock emergencies and occasions like this—you’re halfway there. If not, boxed works, too—opt for low-sodium, which will give you more control over the dish’s saltiness. Go heavy on the vegetables and aromatics, like garlic and herbs. A splash of umami-rich soy sauce never hurt. And spices, like paprika, turmeric, and saffron, go a long way. This chicken, braised in chicken stock, is beloved by over 4,000 community members and counting.
Full-bodied red wine is signature to beef bourguignon, where beef joins bacon, carrot, onion, and garlic, turning into the coziest stew. You’ll find this technique in a lot of other French classics, like coq au vin. Opt for something dry versus sweet (the latter will turn cloying by the time it reduces). And if you don’t want to drink a glass of it, don’t braise with it! I like to cut the wine with a little water or stock, to stretch what can be an expensive ingredient and balance intensity. Beer is less common, but just as wonderful with rich meats such as beef or pork. Like wine, beer is super complex in flavor, and there are so many options to choose from. Go for something darker and malty, versus hoppy, which can become too bitter once concentrated.
If you’ve ever wanted to jump into a pot of puttanesca—just us?—chicken thighs (and fennel bulbs and pork shoulders) know how you feel. Because you’re starting with a thicker liquid than stock or wine, you’ll end with a thicker sauce. You can use whole, peeled tomatoes, then crush with your hands or a wooden spoon. Or just use crushed to start. Avoid the diced ones, though: These are reliably underripe so they hold their shape in the can. Try adding in some anchovies when you sauté the vegetables and a pour of syrupy balsamic to finish.
Oh, doesn’t this feel scandalous? Joy the Baker put this technique toward a can of chickpeas a couple years back, and beans have never felt so spoiled. Because you’re working with pure fat—and a lot of it!—incorporate bright, salty, briney ingredients for balance. Joy calls on capers, cured olives, and fresh lemon. This treatment is especially lovely with ingredients that invite some richness. Think other beans, any vegetable, even stone fruit.
Milk? Really? It sounds odd—until you try it—then you’ll be smitten, like us. In Marcella Hazan’s masterpiece Essentials of Italian Cooking, she writes about the history behind Pork Loin Braised in Milk, Bolognese Style: “If among the tens of thousands of dishes that constitute the recorded repertory of Italian regional cooking, one were to choose just a handful that most clearly express the genius of the cuisine, this would be among them.” And you know how seriously we take the word genius. Why? “The milk disappears to be replaced by clusters of delicious, nut-brown sauce.” Cluster and brown are key here. As the milk reduces and its water content evaporates, the milk solids take center stage. This isn’t the prettiest gravy at the party but it will be the one that everyone recipe-requests afterward.
- 2 pounds beef brisket
- 4 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 medium yellow onions, thickly sliced (about 3 1/2 cups)
- 3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
- 3 cups whole milk, plus more as needed (4 to 5 cups total)
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 1 pound small, waxy, yellow potatoes, halved
- Chopped flat-leaf parsley, dill, and chives, for serving
- Prepared horseradish, for serving
What’s your favorite braising recipe? Tell us about it in the comments!