The Truth About Braising, Lab Assignment 1
An eGCI seminar and lab
Braising lab number 1 will seek to ascertain the nature of the differences between braising in various types of cooking vessels, ranging from premium enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens (such as those made by Le Creuset and Staub) to disposable aluminum foil trays.
In the introductory materials, I went over the four types of vessels that I think will be ideal for this lab. A quick recap:
Top right. An enameled cast-iron Dutch oven; the classic braising vessel recommended by the greatest number of sources. In Le Creuset vernacular, it is a French oven, but everyone else calls it a Dutch oven. I hope you have or can borrow one of these.
Top left. A metal Dutch oven, not enameled. Various cookware manufacturers may call this a soup pot, a saucier, a Dutch oven or something else. I hope you have some sort of metal pot in the approximate shape of a Dutch oven, but not made of enameled cast-iron.
Bottom left. A ceramic or glass casserole, such as Pyrex, Corningware or stoneware. Warning: do not use these on the stovetop, as they can crack when exposed directly to high flame. When browning meat, you will want to do it in a piece of metal cookware.
Bottom right. Aluminum foil trays, with aluminum foil to cover. These are readily available at just about every supermarket, for a couple of dollars. Again, you will need to do your stovetop browning in something else.
You may have other cooking vessels. For example, some people swear by unglazed clay pots. Or you may have depth in a given category. For example, maybe you have both a Le Creuset and a Staub Dutch oven, or maybe you have both Calphalon anodized aluminum and All-Clad stainless Dutch ovens. If so, please feel free to do “extra credit” work by using additional vessels. (Note: you may also have a crockpot or a pressure cooker. That's great, but not for Lab number 1. Save those for Lab number 3, when we will be looking at issues of temperature, time and related phenomena.)
In terms of the specifics of our braising process, because we are looking at the braising vessel as our main variable, the important thing is that we take steps to minimize the number of variables other than the braising vessel. This is the process I recommend:
Weigh. If you have a scale, weigh each sample (by “sample” I mean a short rib or whatever unit of meat you're using for these tests) before cooking. Note the weight of each piece. You may find it helpful to number your samples and cooking vessels.
Brown. To eliminate unwanted variables here, be sure to brown using similar burner settings and similar amounts of oil. Visually, you should try to have your browned samples look as similar as possible. For the metal pots, try a tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. Let the oil heat up, then add the sample. Give it a minute or so per side, rotating so as to brown all sides. When the sample is nicely browned (the photo below, with the ruler, shows two sample browned to what I consider a good color, with two raw pieces for reference; you're just trying to brown the exterior, not actually cook the piece of meat), add the braising liquid. For the ceramic/glass and foil vessels, you will want to do your browning in a separate skillet or in one of the metal pots. Be sure to transfer not only the sample but also the bits and pieces that are clinging to the skillet. Do this by adding a quarter cup or so of your braising liquid, scraping the skillet so as to gather up all the bits, and pouring it all into your braising vessel before adding the rest of the braising liquid.
Liquid. Each of your braising vessels is likely to have different dimensions, so putting the same quantity of braising liquid in each is going to result in different levels of liquid. Instead, go by depth. I suggest half an inch of liquid in each vessel. That may be anywhere from a cup to a quart, depending.
In terms of what liquid to use, the important thing is that you use the same liquid in every vessel. I will be using veal stock. You may want to use that (if you have time to make up a batch this weekend, it will serve you well all week), or you may want to use some other kind of stock. Store-bought low-sodium stock in a carton or can is acceptable for these purposes. Or you may want to use wine. For Lab number 1, I suggest that you not add any aromatic vegetables. The meat and stock alone together should provide a straightforward flavor profile that makes evaluation and comparison clearer.
Braising. I suggest you start with your oven preheated to 325 degrees F. Place all the vessels in there, covered, and give everything about 20 minutes to come up to a nice simmer. You want to see small, slow bubbles in your liquid throughout the cooking process, kind of like a stock slowly simmering on the stovetop; not the large bubbles you'd see when boiling. Once you've reached a state of gentle simmering, note the time elapsed and take a temperature reading on each sample. To measure temperature, holding each sample with tongs, insert the instant-read thermometer into the fleshy part, going deep in and close to the bone (but not touching the bone). Keep modulating the temperature of your oven so you maintain that gentle simmer, and take temperature readings every half hour.
Finishing. You don't want to cook the meat to mush. Rather, you want it to be tender but still have some structure. One good test is that a fork goes in easily, and when you pull the fork out the meat grips ever so slightly but releases pretty easily. Note the temperature reading and elapsed time when this happens, and take the sample and its vessel out of the oven at that time. Your samples may not all cook at the same speed. Don't go by time. Go by tenderness and temperature.
Re-weighing. Once the samples have cooled a bit, weigh each sample.
As you do all this in your four (or more if you can pull it off) vessels, focus on three types of observations:
Results. When all is said and done and every sample is cooked and weighed, please line up your samples, keeping careful track of which is which, and taste a bite or two of each (don't eat the whole thing; we need it for the reheating experiments over the next three days). Make note of any differences you can detect. If you happen to have a willing partner, have that person mix up the samples (keeping track of which is which, but without telling you) so you can taste them blind.
Progress. Please keep track of times and temperatures throughout the cooking process, and take photos if you can. If you can take a reading every half hour, that's best.
Process. Take notes about your experiences, even subjective ones, with each piece of cookware. Did one piece or another have features or properties that made it more usable or enjoyable for you? No detail is too small.
When you're done with all your braising, please be sure to label and save, separately, three short ribs so that we can do reheating experiments on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. If you have three extra containers, save some braising liquid separately for each of the three samples. If you have even more extra containers and a few extra short ribs, you can also save some together with their braising liquid, so we can compare how reheating goes when ribs and liquid have been stored together and separately. Just be sure to label everything very clearly.
Please do your actual braising on Monday if at all possible, because that will help the reheating experiments. Sunday is okay too, however. Saturday would be pushing things.
In terms of discussion, if you have any questions about the logistics of this lab, please ask them on the logistics topic. Please do not post any of your results (go ahead and write them and save them in a word processing file, but don't post them) until Monday evening when we start the discussion topic for Lab number 1 results.
See you then.
Click here for the discussion of Lab #1 results.
Click here for Lab #2.
The Truth About Braising
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