Welcome to Set It & Forget It, a series about all the ways we rely on our Crock-Pots, Instant Pots, and ovens during the colder months.
There are times when lazy cooking and delicious cooking overlap. They don’t always overlap, but when they do, it’s glorious. The Venn diagram of this relationship would show lazy cooking as one circle, delicious cooking as another circle, and firmly inside their small shared overlap, “slow weekend braises.”
In order to achieve peak laziness alongside peak deliciousness, the trick is to know which rules are essential and which can be ignored with impunity.
This first rule needs to be followed: Choose a tougher cut of meat that requires at least three to four hours of cooking in order to taste moist and tender. I generally gravitate toward beef short ribs, lamb shanks, oxtail, or pork shoulder, but there are many other possibilities. Just stay away from lean cuts like tenderloin or white breast meat, as these will dry out and taste like shredded cardboard by the time you’re through.
Next, break a rule: You don’t need to sear the meat before braising it. Most chefs and home cooks would agree that seared meat has more depth and flavor than meat that’s just been simmered in liquid, due to the Maillard reaction that takes place when you apply high heat to protein and create browning. But you don’t need to sear meat in order to generate tons of savory flavor in a slow braise. You can (and will) achieve a deeply satisfying meal without the hassle of searing and splattering oil all over your stovetop.
How to do it: Just drop your meat into a large pot or Dutch oven, and add enough water to cover the meat by about two inches. If you have some stock in the back of your fridge or freezer, go ahead and use it instead of water, but if not, don’t stress. The water will become flavorful stock, simply by virtue of the meat that’s about to simmer in it for hours, letting off its fat, flavor, and collagen. For what it’s worth, choosing a bone-in cut of meat will produce more flavor here, but it’s not necessary. Plus, we’re about to add some other flavor-boosting ingredients to the water, so don’t worry.
In order to compensate for the fact that you’ve just added unseared meat to a pot of water, it’s time to dip into your pantry and enhance the flavor of your braising liquid. You could have started this process by dicing some carrot, onion, and celery and sweating them in olive oil. But when you’re lazy-cooking, the truth is: It’s just not that necessary. Instead, rifle through your pantry and grab a few of your favorite dry spices. Any combination of bay leaves, dried thyme, dried oregano, or red chile flakes will work well, but please don’t feel limited by these options. There are no wrong choices, and anything from smoked paprika to Chinese five spice to Old Bay Seasoning can add depth and flavor to your braising liquid.
Depending on the flavor profile you’re going for, you could also consider adding a small amount of either tomato paste, miso, or even fish sauce to boost the umami notes of your braise. Sometimes I’ll also Microplane in a clove of garlic or a nub of ginger for added savoriness. Follow your instincts and trust that you’re going to have a deeply flavorful braise regardless of which pantry items you use.
The next rule I love to break when making a slow weekend braise is to add dried beans that haven’t been presoaked. Some dried beans take longer to cook than others, so if yours are relatively large (such as gigante or lima beans), then you can add them to the pot around the same time as when you add your meat. But if you’re adding a smaller variety of beans or lentils, you can add them later in the cooking process. Ideally, the dried beans will finish cooking just as the meat is becoming meltingly tender. You can also skip the meat entirely, of course, and just cook a pot of beans for a lazy weekend vegetarian project.
The dried beans will soak up that flavorful braising liquid, and also add body and depth to the broth. Cook the beans at a gentle simmer while stirring occasionally so they can cook evenly, and eventually they’ll end up with perfectly intact skins and delicately tender insides. I love this texture. As for seasoning, I’ll generally add a little salt when the beans first start cooking, and then season more to taste when they’re nearly finished cooking. At any point, if you feel like too much liquid has evaporated from the pot, just add more water.
When the meat is perfectly tender, I like to remove it from the pot, shred it, and add it back to the braising liquid, letting its natural juices create a hearty, brothy stew. At this point, I also like to look through the fridge to see if I have any fresh herbs or leafy greens that need to get used up before they go bad. Give them a rough chop, add them to the pot, and let them wilt slightly.
You can eat your delicious stew the moment it’s done cooking, but if you store it in the fridge overnight, any excess fat will harden on top, making it easy to remove it. This step has two solid benefits: First, you can save that excess fat and cook with it later in the week (use it to fry eggs or sauté veggies). Secondly, with the excess fat removed, your brothy stew will now taste cleaner and more refined.
A slow braise is guaranteed to feed a large group, make your home feel cozy on a crisp winter day, and produce maximum flavor with minimum effort. You could use an Instant Pot to speed up the process or a slow cooker to truly set it and forget it, but I prefer to have a Dutch oven slowly simmering on the stovetop. It’s calming and fills your home with a nice aroma, which is just the ambiance you need for the laziness you’re trying to cultivate and lean into.