Braised meat used to sound fancy to me. Difficult. Above my level.
Then last summer I took a cooking class, and learned the principles of braising. Suddenly "apple braised pork shoulder" wasn't a final product, but a series of discrete, replicable steps.
- Sear meat on both sides with high and dry heat.
- Remove meat and deglaze your pan with wet heat.
- Return meat and cook low and slow in wet heat until fork tender.
(See a new edit, created 5-11-15, which explains wet and dry heat, at bottom of post!)
If you just do those steps, you can braise anything from pork to celery.
Braising transforms the tough to the delicious. And I mean literally - often it is the toughest cuts of meat that benefit the most from the process.
Braising also happens to be among the most economical approaches to cooking, as you can transform the cheapest meat into the most gourmet.
From tough and cheap to delicious and luxurious.
Sometimes, when a goal seems too big, too hard, too far away, it is because we only see the destination. The saddest part of a daunting destination is that often we don't even start.
Instead of the destination, focus on a sound process and the right principles.
When you focus on process and principles, it is easier to take the first step and keep going.
I can't write about braising without including a recipe. Here is one I created from scratch without a recipe, based solely on a knowledge of process and principles.
Braised Leg of Chicken
Time: 1 hour
4 legs of chicken - patted dry (and if you have time, brought to room temperature)
Juice of 2 lemons
1.5 cups chicken broth
4 cloves garlic
fresh herbs: thyme and rosemary for example
olive oil or if you have it, a good high heat oil like grapeseed
Put a pot over medium high heat. Cast iron is great if you have it - if not don't worry.
Chop up onions and carrots.
Add oil so it just coats the bottom of the pan.
Throw in carrots and onions. Let them fry for 1 minute, then mix around and let them brown for another minute. Remove and set aside.
4.5 (Optional) For extra flavor, rub salt on both side of the raw chicken.
Add chicken to the pot, cook 2-3 minutes per side. Don't flip until first side does not stick to pan and is golden brown, same with second side. At that point, remove chicken from pan. You don't want to crowd the legs, since you want to brown the entire side, so you may need to do this step in two batches.
Go ahead and squeeze lemons, crush the garlic cloves, and chop up the herbs while the chicken is browning.
Turn heat down to low, add lemon juice and chicken broth and scrape bottom of pan to remove all the sticky brown bits.
Return chicken to pot - just set the legs in the middle of the liquid - and then surround with the carrots and onions, plus garlic and herbs. Cover and let it simmer for the next 30 minutes or so. The beautiful thing about braising is how forgiving it is. Error on the side of going long, which will just make it more tender. If you really like to get scientific, chicken is safe to eat at an internal temperature of 165° F.
Put everything on a plate, season with salt and pepper to taste, and eat! Great with a fresh salad and red wine.
EDIT MAY 11 2015: Some of my readers said "what the hell is dry heat and wet heat?" That's a great question. Wet heat means cooking with anything that has water in it, such as broth, wine, juice, or just water. Dry heat means cooking with no water, which generally means cooking with oil. So Step 1 - when it calls for "dry heat" there's just oil in the pan. Steps 2 and 3 include broth and lemon juice (AKA "wet heat"). Hope that clears it up!