Dear Test Kitchen

What’s the Best Way to Braise—Dutch Oven, Slow Cooker, or Instant Pot?

Our test kitchen finds out.

January 18, 2019

In the middle of winter, I want everything in my life to be braised. Pork shoulder. And chicken. And short ribs and scallions and pineapple.

But what is braising anyway? According to Merriam-Webster, braising means “to cook slowly in fat and a small amount of liquid in a closed pot.” But this begs the question: Which pot?

Years ago, the answer would have been simple: a pot! Probably a Dutch oven, which has thick walls and a tight-fitting lid. But today, there are other electric options available. Namely, the slow cooker and electric pressure cooker (its most famous brand: Instant Pot).

Which of these options is the best when it comes to braising? In our latest episode of Dear Test Kitchen, hosted by our Test Kitchen Director Josh Cohen, we pitted three osso buccos against each other and found out. Here are the pros and cons of each:

Dutch Oven

This method won in flavor and lost in texture. Or did it? Josh loved how searing the meat, then caramelizing the chopped vegetables, created lots of browning and built deep flavor. The sauce was noticeably darker and thicker, too. But both Josh and Senior Editor Eric Kim agreed that the veal wasn’t as tender as the slow cooker and Instant Pot versions. What’s more: Eric actually preferred the milder, less-muddied sauces from the other two.

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Top Comment:
“I've never used an appliance like a slow cooker or instant pot (mostly due to lack of counter space! though I also feel regular pots and pans get me exactly what I'm looking for), but I do have a couple questions on the "analog" stuff: I have a Dutch oven, but I always see "braiser" pots and wonder what the specific use case is for those guys? I always think they have a cute squat little vibe to them, but are the just for shallower braises that dont require use of my big Dutch oven, or am I missing something? Also, for whatever reason (I have a hunch at the time it was price), I bought a cast iron dutch oven without any enameling years ago. I take pride in all my well-seasoned cast iron, but I basically only see people using enameled cast iron dutch ovens. Again, am I missing out on something (besides maybe easier cleanup :) )? ”
— Alexa M.
Comment

Pros: No instruction manual necessary, the Dutch oven is great for old-school cooks who would rather not add another appliance to their kitchen. Also, if you love the flavors from a super-intense sear, like Josh, a Dutch oven is your best bet.

Cons: This method is most hands-on—from searing to manually monitoring the heat. And while for traditionalists like Josh and me, the Dutch oven may be the most intuitive option, many others grew up with the slow cooker as their go-to kitchen tool.

Slow Cooker

While the other options allowed for a quick sear first, the slow cooker method was simply: Dump everything in the pot and turn on. This method produced tender, fall-apart veal. While most slow cookers have low and high cook settings, Eric prefers the high setting, arguing that cooking for a shorter amount of time, but with more intense heat, yields better meat. And despite its fuss-free method, Josh and Eric were both impressed by this osso buco’s flavor.

Pros: If you’re comfortable with a slow cooker, this is a wonderful way to simplify braising recipes. Its two settings allow some flexibility in your schedule (do you want to start it in the morning and have it ready by dinner? or are you in more of a rush?), but not so many options that you feel overwhelmed. It’s by far the easiest method, too.

Cons: If you aren’t comfortable with a slow cooker (like me and Josh), this appliance may strip you of your go-to cooking skills, like searing. This method also takes the longest.

Instant Pot

Even though Eric went into the taste test rooting for the slow cooker, the Instant Pot osso bucco turned out to be his favorite. (Go Instant Pot!) Josh and Eric first seared the meat, then used the manual pressure cooker setting. Is pressure cooking the same thing as braising, you wonder? As far as we’re concerned, yes. Though it may not be the traditional form in a pot on the stove, it still checks out with the definition above (“to cook slowly in fat and a small amount of liquid in a closed pot”).

Pros: This electric pressure cooker is famous for good reason: It has a slew of settings, all of which are designed to be user-friendly. Even though I’ve only had an Instant Pot for a few months, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well it’s going so far (so many beans). And of course, it saves a ton of time. While the other veal shanks braised for hours, the pressure-cooked ones needed only 40 minutes. Also: The Instant Pot shanks were definitively the softest of the three.

Cons: Like the slow cooker, this is an additional appliance to keep in your kitchen, and maybe your cupboards are stuffed as is. Moreover, while you can check in frequently with a pot in the oven—and even lift the lid of a slow cooker, though this is generally discouraged—you can’t open a pressure cooker midway. Which means whatever happens, happens.

What’s your preference between the Dutch oven, slow cooker, and Instant Pot? Tell us why in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Stella
    Stella
  • Catcook
    Catcook
  • Ana Inés Vivarés
    Ana Inés Vivarés
  • Eric Bancroft
    Eric Bancroft
  • Arthur J Goldman
    Arthur J Goldman
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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.

21 Comments

Stella June 17, 2019
I was initially hesitant about the Instant Pot. I didn't want to learn a new way to cook. But I've discovered that I love it for making broth. As compared to stove top, the broth comes out more flavorful and beautifully clear. Boiling on the stove top agitates the contents creating a more cloudy broth whereas the IP cooks it under pressure where it doesn't actually boil and agitate. The IP makes a big difference in my opinion.

What I don't like about the IP for braising is that sometimes you don't cook it enough but it's harder to check for tenderness the way you can with a dutch over. But I agree with the article that when adequately cooked, the IP cooks the meat to a more tender, juicy texture than the dutch oven.
 
Catcook February 16, 2019
While I love my new electric pressure cooker, the enameled cast iron dutch oven is by far the most beautiful way to serve the contents. So I dump the modern results into the classic cooking vessel LOL.
 
Holly L. May 22, 2019
Taking a tip from many Moroccan households, most of my Moroccan dishes are made in my pressure cooker . . . which I then serve in my tagine. lol
 
Ana I. January 31, 2019
I use the regular oven, and it's my favourite. I tend to buy 2-3 kilos of ossobuco and braise it from 2-3 hours in a really low temperature; this includes 2 sliced carrots, 1 large onion cut in quarters, 2 cloves garlic, a bunch of scallions, 1 glass of red wine, 1 glass of water o beef stock, salt and pepper. This goes into a pan that i completely seal with aluminium foil.
Once it's done, I let it rest before getting my hands into it and tearing the pieces.
I eat this with mashed potatoes: I set a 1 inch layer of the mashed potatoes in a large pan, add the braised meat, and on top of it another layer of mashed potatoes. You can sprinkle some shredded cheese on top of the last layer and put on the broiler no more than 7-8 minutes. It really saves the winter and the week, you can make little batches to freeze.
 
Eric B. January 23, 2019
Dutch oven, preferably in an oven.

https://www.seriouseats.com/2016/10/why-pressure-cookers-are-better-than-slow-cookers.html
 
Arthur J. January 22, 2019
So many bemoan the lack of counter space for the miraculous iPot. But, I can't help but think that many have their counters cluttered with nonessentials (junk). If space is so precious, I would think that logically, the iPot would free up a lot of space but eliminating the need for so much "essential junk". One could probably live with a good induction burner, an iPot, and a refrigerator. And, it would be a good life. last thought, the new blender from iPot sounds great alternative for those stunned by the price of a Vitamix. But it also is a "Big Foot" Sasquatch. Clear your counters! Empty your cupboards! Get rid of unused pots and pans, the new found space will set you free! Breath deeply again.
 
Steve January 22, 2019
A couple of thoughts...first, the Instant Pot isn't another 'toy.' Rather, it's an exceedingly useful (and safe) tool that produces great flavored food in much less time. Yes, it takes up some space, and that's an individual cost/benefit decision. But it does more than just pressure cook, and while 'life changing' might be extreme, 'game changing' isn't. Second, it's widely conceded that the Instant Pot makes better tasting food than a slow cooker. Let the debate go on; I'm sure it will.
 
Patty T. January 21, 2019
I would be interested in knowing how a stove-top pressure cooker compares to the other options - presumably it would allow for the higher-temp stove top searing and fond creation of the dutch oven, and also the faster cook time and more tender meat of the Instant Pot. Did the team try it?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 21, 2019
Hi Patty! The test kitchen didn't try that option in this particular experiment, but I'm curious to hear others' thoughts on how it would compare. (I don't have much experience with a stovetop pressure cooker myself, so hard for me to say.)
 
1 January 21, 2019
Did I miss the recipe in the article? I’ve scanned twice for a link to the recipe they are cooking but I can’t see it anywhere.
 
Josh C. January 22, 2019
Hello, for this video, we weren't working with a written recipe, we were eyeballing amounts (with the idea being that all braises will generally follow the same basic formula of searing meat, adding vegetables, adding (optional) aromatics, adding liquid, and then simmering until the meat is tender and the liquids have reduced to a sauce). However, if you want specific quantities, for every two veal shanks we used about 1 diced onion, 2 diced carrots, 2 diced celery stalks, 3 cloves minced garlic, and then 1 cup each of crushed tomato, red wine, and chicken stock.
 
Peter C. January 18, 2019
I believe "INSTANT POT" is short for "INSTANT POTBELLY!"
LOL!
Even though I am an Old-school, traditional cook (I still own and use My "Made in USA" Revereware), My INSTANT POT is quickly replacing everything except the microwave oven.
I enjoyed cooking before INSTANT POT, but the simplicity and time savings of IP is allowing Me to cook more frequently. So much so, I've gained 15 pounds withinb3 months. 😋
👍👍👍👍
 
Eric K. January 21, 2019
+1 Instant Potbelly
 
Chase January 18, 2019
You listed the slow cooker being the slowest method as a con. I would disagree. The idea of the slow cooker is you can throw the ingredients in it in the morning and go to work. Even if you have nothing to do that day you can just forget about it until dinner time.
 
Josh C. January 22, 2019
Hi Chase, this is a great point, you're right. Thanks for the comment.
 
Alexa M. January 18, 2019
I've never used an appliance like a slow cooker or instant pot (mostly due to lack of counter space! though I also feel regular pots and pans get me exactly what I'm looking for), but I do have a couple questions on the "analog" stuff: I have a Dutch oven, but I always see "braiser" pots and wonder what the specific use case is for those guys? I always think they have a cute squat little vibe to them, but are the just for shallower braises that dont require use of my big Dutch oven, or am I missing something? Also, for whatever reason (I have a hunch at the time it was price), I bought a cast iron dutch oven without any enameling years ago. I take pride in all my well-seasoned cast iron, but I basically only see people using enameled cast iron dutch ovens. Again, am I missing out on something (besides maybe easier cleanup :) )?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 20, 2019
Hi Alexa! I don't have a braiser myself, but this shape is great for shallower braises (say, chicken thighs simmering in a smaller amount of liquid); also great for a bunch of other not-braised things, from fruit cobblers to pan-fried anything. And my Dutch oven isn't enameled either! I have this cast-iron one from Lodge: https://shop.lodgemfg.com/dutch-ovens/7-quart-cast-iron-dutch-oven.asp. Obviously not very colorful...but it gets the job done!
 
Arthur J. January 18, 2019
I own 4 European pressure cookers of various sizes. I use at least one daily. Do I need an Instant Pot? Can’t I replicate what the IP does “manually”. I am sorely tempted by the IP. But I am doubting I need it. It is sexy though. Conflicted I am.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 20, 2019
Hey Arthur! I mostly use my Instant Pot for the pressure cooker feature, so if you already have four of those...maybe it's not necessary. A good way to decide could be: swinging by a bookstore and flipping through an Instant Pot cookbook; if there are a bunch of exciting recipes that you'd want to make—and couldn't make otherwise—maybe that's your answer!
 
Arthur J. January 20, 2019
thanks for the thoughtful response! If there's an Instant Pot "revolution" I don't want to be left out. I realize that's silly. I'm sure I could produce all of Melissa Clark's recipes from her two wonderful IP/pressure cooker cookbooks without the IP. But........when do we have enough cookbooks, when do we have enough kitchen toys? When is "enough" enough? Only the individual can answer that.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 20, 2019
I don't think that sounds silly at all—that's part of what led me toward an Instant Pot, too!