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Introduction: The Truth About Braising

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The Truth About Braising

An eGCI seminar and lab

Truth: the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality (Merriam-Webster Online).

Seminar: a group of students engaged, under the guidance of an instructor, in original research in a particular line of study, and in the exposition of the results by theses, lectures, etc. (Webster's Revised Unabridged).

Lab: an academic period set aside for laboratory work (Merriam-Webster Online).

Braising: cooking with moist heat (James Beard, Theory and Practice of Good Cooking).

Participation in this seminar requires that you already know the basics of braising. I'd therefore like to begin this seminar with some quick remedial notes for those who do not yet know the basics of braising.

Basic braising, in James Beard's words, consists of “browning a piece of meat, adding liquid and flavorings, and simmering it in a covered pot.”

Okay, so now everybody is up to speed and ready for the seminar.

When planning for this course, I considered a few issues. For one thing, I realized that much has already been written about braising, including whole books, and there isn't much I should or can add to the pedagogical literature on its own terms. For another thing, there is no shortage of recipes for braised dishes out there in the world -- if you'd like to read a million of them, just use Google. And for still another thing, I think that the eGCI's unique form of online interactive culinary learning should and can be used to do more than repackage the materials that are already out there.

These considerations, and others, gave rise to “The Truth About Braising: An eGCI seminar and lab.” Over the course of a four-day period (Monday through Thursday, 14 through 17 February 2005) we will be discussing, in seminar format, the results of five different lab (your kitchen being the lab for our purposes) experiments designed to increase our knowledge of braising. I can promise you now that if you participate in these experiments, you will become more knowledgeable about several key elements of braising than most professional chefs and recipe writers.

In keeping with the notion of a seminar, I will not really be teaching you anything. Rather, my role will be to lead the seminar. I will participate in each lab experiment and share my results, and those who join the seminar will do the same. We will have discussion, we will share photographs, we will summarize what we have learned (and what we haven't) and then we will move on to the next experiment.

The five lab experiments we will be doing together cover:

Cooking vessel. Here we will compare results of braising in different types of vessels, ranging from premium enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens (such as those made by Le Creuset and Staub) to disposable aluminum foil trays.

Braising liquid. We'll test different types of braising liquids (stock, wine, water) as well as different amounts (meat partly covered, meat completely submerged) and discuss the pros and cons of each approach.

Heat. We'll compare items braised using different combinations of time and temperature, and we'll also compare the oven to the stovetop.

Browning. We'll look at the different ways to brown meat, and we'll also braise some unbrowned meat and examine the differences.

Reheats. The first four labs will occur at the rate of one per day, Monday through Thursday. The reheating experiment, however, will take place over the entire span of the seminar: we will be refrigerating and reheating Monday's results and tasting them every day to see how braised dishes develop over time.

The rules are as follows:

All are free to read along, but only those who actually do the lab work may participate in a discussion on a given day. It doesn't matter if you're the world's foremost authority on braising; from Monday through Thursday, you still may not post unless you're actively engaged in the lab work for this seminar. This isn't a lecture where those who know more teach those who know less; it's a seminar where everybody engages in learning together, including me (I will do the experiments with you in real time, and in each case it will be the first time for me) and you (no matter how much you think you do or don't know).

Partial lab work is fine: you may only want or be able to participate in one experiment, or in parts of a few. If so, the restriction is that you may only participate in discussion of the experiments you did. Extra lab work is also encouraged: you may have a type of cooking vessel I don't, such as a crockpot; or you may have sous-vide equipment and want to pursue that line of inquiry. Please feel free to do so. I ask only that you check with me in advance, so I can coordinate the discussions and rule out anything that's too far off axis.

Nor is it necessary for you to use the same meat I'm using. I will do every experiment with short ribs. If, however, there's a big sale on lamb shanks at your local grocery, go ahead and use those. If you're unsure about the acceptable range of variation (for example, it would not be okay to do all the experiments on turnips instead of meat) please ask. We will leave a planning topic open before and throughout the seminar for these sorts of questions.

I'm going to ensure a tight focus for our discussions during the four days of the seminar. The point is to share results, observations and photographs, and to ask questions of one another and draw whatever preliminary conclusions we can draw from our data. The point is not to engage in very much speculation, nor is it to inject a lot of information from other research or texts.

After the seminar is over, we will open the floor up to broader discussion: those who did not participate in the experiments can ask questions and offer comments, and participants will no longer be constrained by the seminar's focus.

The seminar will follow a structure like so:

This topic serves as the course introduction. With it, we will open a planning topic on which you can ask about logistics.

I will post the full procedure for the first experiment on Friday, but it is best if you do the actual cooking on Monday so as to be able to get into the rhythm of the class. Time zones and people's personal schedules will make full coordination impossible, but assuming you are on New York time the schedule would look like this:

Friday: posting of full procedure for Monday's lab work

Monday day: perform Monday's cooking lab work

Monday evening: discussion of Monday's lab work (discussion to remain open until the following evening's discussion begins); posting of full procedure for Tuesday's lab work

Tuesday day: perform Tuesday's cooking lab work

Tuesday evening: discussion of Tuesday's lab work (discussion to remain open until the following evening's discussion begins); posting of full procedure for Wednesday's lab work

Wednesday day: perform Wednesday's cooking lab work

Wednesday evening: discussion of Wednesday's lab work (discussion to remain open until the following evening's discussion begins); posting of full procedure for Thursday's lab work

Thursday day: perform Thursday's cooking lab work

Thursday evening: discussion of Thursday's lab work (discussion to remain open until the following evening)

Friday: open discussion

What you will need:

If you wish to participate in the full battery of lab experiments, and I hope you will, you will need enough individual pieces of meat, similar in size and composition, so as to have one piece for each experiment. My preliminary calculation (bearing in mind that we may have to make some adjustments to subsequent experiments based on what we learn in early experiments) is that you will need 20 such pieces of meat.

I will be using beef short ribs, because they are small enough that 20 of them is not such a huge amount of food (four people can easily burn through 20 short ribs as part of a meal). You may want to use lamb shanks or duck legs; it's really up to you. If you decide to use a larger piece of meat, like brisket or a chuck roast, I suggest you not buy 20 of them. Instead, buy two or three and cut them up into pieces that are as uniform as possible. When buying short ribs, try to get ones that are as uniform as possible. Some have a lot more meat on them than others. You want ones like the one pictured here on the left, with a nice fat piece of meat on it into which you can stick a thermomether; the one on the right is harder to work with and less useful. If you have to buy a few extras in order to perform some triage, rest assured we'll find uses for the non-conforming pieces.


You may also wish to double up and use 40 short ribs, for redundancy. This is what I plan to do.

You'll probably want to go shopping twice: once this weekend and once on Tuesday. I would rather not have you buy short ribs on Sunday and have them sit raw in the refrigerator until Thursday. I'm not terribly concerned that anything will happen to you, especially given how thoroughly one cooks a braised dish, but still it's best to have nice fresh meat.

I encourage you, also, to put one or two short ribs (I will always refer to short ribs, but you should understand this to mean whatever meat you're using) in the freezer right away, as soon as you do your shopping. Later in the lab work, we may throw in a comparison of fresh versus frozen braised meat.

Don't expect to be eating short ribs for dinner four nights in a row. We will be poking, prodding and testing the meat so much that you probably won't have much left in the way of whole, presentable pieces. We'll also be holding some over for the reheating experiments. My suggestion is that you save all your excess meat in a zipper bag and, on Thursday, we can talk about what to do with it: short rib hash, lentils with short rib meat, short rib panini . . . and you'll still have the bones for a nice stock.

In terms of equipment, it would be great if you had at least four different braising vessels. Here are the ones I'll be using:


Top right. An enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. The reason this is important is because it is the classic braising vessel recommended by the greatest number of sources. Le Creuset refers to its product line as French ovens, but the point is that it's a round or oval pot, with a lid and usually with high, straight sides, made from heavy cast-iron that has been coated with enamel to prevent chemical reactions between the metal and the food during long, slow, moist cooking. Maybe you have one of these, from Le Creuset, Staub or another manufacturer, or maybe you have something in a somewhat different shape, such as an enameled cast-iron pot with curved sides. Whatever you have is fine. Just please do me a favor: don't go out and buy a $200 Le Creuset pot for this seminar. I'd much rather see you borrow one from a friend (I borrowed this one from my friend Sam Kinsey). Because, when all is said and done, we might learn from our lab work that you don't need such a pot. Or we might learn that you do, in which case you can always buy one later.

Top left. A regular old metal Dutch oven. Who knows what a given cookware manufacturer is going to call this pot: a soup pot, a saucier, maybe even occasionally a Dutch oven . . . the terminology is diverse but the pot is the same. You may have one of these in stainless steel, aluminum or copper, or you may not. The idea here is not so much to have a specific item, but rather to have something that is metal and in the approximate shape of a Dutch oven, but that is not made of enameled cast-iron. I have two of these, the same, from Calphalon, which may be useful for some comparisons because it controls for the cooking-vessel variable.

Bottom left. A ceramic or glass casserole. This may be glass (such as Pyrex or Corningware) or glazed stoneware. These are not made of metal, so you won't want to do stovetop browning in them. That means you'll also need a skillet or something (such as one of the vessels listed above) in which to brown your meat.

Bottom right. Aluminum foil trays, with aluminum foil to cover. Here we are looking at the cheapest possible vessel for braising. Again, you will need to do your stovetop browning in something else.

The only other piece of equipment you will absolutely need is an instant-read thermometer. We will be taking a lot of temperature readings to ensure the consistency of our experiments. It will also be very helpful to have some tongs, because we'll be probing and manipulating hot items and tongs provide the best control. And if you have a kitchen scale, that will give you another variable to track, since meat is a natural and inconsistent product.


Ingredients-wise, in addition to the actual meat, you will need:

Stock. I will do most of the braising experiments (except for the ones that call for wine or water) with stock as my braising liquid. If you have several quarts of homemade beef or veal stock around, or if you can make some this weekend, that's great. If not, some store-bought will suffice for these experiments; just please be sure to get a low-sodium variety because later, if you want to make sauces out of reduced braising liquid, you will not want a surplus of salt. Other stock substitutions may work out as well: chicken stock is usable for braising beef, and even more usable for braising duck legs. Pork stock works too. You can also abandon the stock premise altogether and use, for example, water (flavored with aromatic vegetables) for all the experiments (except for the ones specifically calling for wine or stock). The comparisons will be just as valuable.

Wine. A bottle of cheap but not awful red wine will be needed for Tuesday's experiments. Or you can use an expensive bottle. Don't let me stop you.

Aromatic vegetables. Onions, carrots and celery. Please get at least one standard supermarket bag of each (in US supermarkets that's three pounds of onions, and one pound each of carrots and celery).

Click here to post any questions or comments about the logistics of the seminar.

Click here for the first lab assignment.

Click here for the Braising course Q&A.

See you next week in the seminar.

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