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:
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.
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.
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.
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!