Braising is cooking in a small amount of liquid. One of the more complicated techniques facing the cook, there are a lot of tricks to braising and several distinctions that need to be made. There are four kinds of braising–long or short and brown or white. A long or short braise can be brown or white.
Brown braising simply means that the food being braised has been browned before any liquid is added. A white braise is just cooked in liquid without any preliminary browning. Short braising is braising in which the food is simply heated through such as when braising seafood, except squid and octopus which are long braised. Long braising is really classic braising per se when foods are exposed to long cooking in a small amount of liquid. I combine the kinds of braising into white-short, white-long, brown-short, and brown-long. Braising is distinguished from poaching because a small amount of liquid is used (typically enough to come halfway up the sides of whatever’s being braised) versus the large amount of liquid used (typically enough to cover) in poaching.
To white-short braise a fish, a technique that works especially well for flat fish, simply put the fish in the pan (ideally a pan that matches its shape and size) with enough liquid to come halfway up its sides. (Hence the importance of the pan fitting the food–if the pan’s too large, too much liquid will be required for the braising and the resulting braising liquid will be insipid.) When the fish is done, simply transfer it to a platter and make a sauce out of the surrounding liquid. One of the easiest methods is simply to swirl in a little butter or add a little cream. When cream is used the sauce can be reduced so it will coat the fish. When butter is used, the braising liquid should be reduced before the butter is swirled in—once the butter is in, the sauce can no longer be reduced or it will break.
White-long braising is typically used for veal. It works especially well for osso buco. The food is gently simmered, the pot covered, and surrounded with liquid, ideally something tasty such as good broth. Again, the pan should fit the food as closely as possible to minimize the amount of braising liquid required. I usually cover the pan with aluminum foil before putting on the lid or at least turn the cover upside down so that moisture condenses on the underside and bastes the meat. The surrounding liquid must never boil or the meat will dry out and the fat released will get churned back into the liquid leaving it greasy. The meat is done when a knife or skewer slides easily in and out without the meat “gripping” it. (When long braising don’t bother to check the temperature to determine doneness since it’s necessarily high. It’s the prolonged contact with high heat that accomplishes the braising.) Transfer the meat gently–it may be falling off the bone–to a platter and keep it warm in the oven while you’re finishing the sauce. The best sauce for a long braise is usually the unadorned braising liquid. To concentrate the liquid, simmer it gently on the stove with the pan on the edge of the flame. This causes the liquid to simmer only on one side and pushes the fat and scum to the other, making the liquid easier to skim. Skim off the fat and grease as they float to the surface. When the liquid gets slightly syrupy it’s ready to serve. Now of course you can get fancy and manipulate the braising liquid by adding truffles, wild mushrooms, herbs, , star anise, lemon grass, cream or butter…
When brown-long braising, the meat is browned before it is combined with liquid. One of my favorite brown long braises is an eighteenth century veal pot roast. Because of the long cooking (I cook this roast à la cuillière which means it’s been braised long enough to be served with a spoon) the meat must first be larded (see page 000).
Tie it up and brown a larded veal shoulder “roast” in a medium to hot oven by roasting it until all the juices release and caramelize on the bottom of the pot, about 90 minutes. Add enough broth to come halfway up the sides. I use my special Le Creuset braising pot with the stalactites under the lid (the stalactites help the steam condense and drip down and baste the roast) but if you don’t have one of these, first cover the roast with aluminum foil, the foil pressed down slightly above the roast so the moisture condenses in the right place. Cover with the lid turned upside down and braise in a low oven or on the stove over the slightest flame for about an hour so a bubble pops up on the surface every second or so. At this point, turn the roast over so that part that was submerged is now above the liquid and braise about an hour more. Gently transfer the pot roast to a platter and keep it warm in the oven. Simmer down the braising liquid, skimming off fat and scum, until about half gone. Put the pot roast back in the pot (clean the pot first) or in a new, smaller pot, and put it back in the oven. Turn the oven up to high and pour over the reduced braising liquid. Baste every 10 minutes for about a half an hour until the roast is covered with a shiny mahogany glaze. Serve the meat using two spoons, surrounding each portion with the braising liquid. If you like, finish the braising liquid with dried or fresh morels (I actually prefer dried morels to fresh–I think they have more flavor) or truffles or both, but these additions are superfluous as the braising liquid speaks for itself. While this may seem like a complicated method, it produces some of the most delicious dishes on the planet.
Brown short braising is, unfairly perhaps, the least common of the four braising techniques. The best known of these dishes–called “sautes” in France–is beef stroganoff. Tender meat (not stew meat) is cut into pieces and quickly browned (the browning must be quick to prevent the meat from cooking through) before being combined with a sauce (in the case of beef stroganoff, made with mushrooms, stock and cream) and immediately served. The effect of brown short braising is of a stew except that the meat isn’t long-braised, but simply heated through. This is a particularly fun effect because who ever digs into the dish will be expecting stew meat and will encounter rare or medium rare tender meat instead. (Beef stroganoff is typically made with tenderloin or other tender cut.) To try this technique (other than by making beef stroganoff), make a stew and serve the meat without the liquid (try serving it cold with a little homemade mayonnaise). Use the reserved liquid to make your special “stew”. Cut tenderloin or some other tender cut into cubes. Don’t cut them too small or they might overcook when you brown them. Brown them quickly over the very highest heat and reserve. Don’t keep them in a pile or they’ll overcook. Heat the liquid from the authentic stew and, just before serving, add the cubes of browned meat. Keep on the stove just long enough to heat through the meat without overcooking it. Serve immediately.