By Timothy Fowler
Braising will turn tough as tennis balls bear shoulder or moose shanks into the most delicious center-of-the-plate entrées fit for your best friends and close family, even if they are royalty. Michael Ruhlman wrote the book on braising: How to Braise: foolproof techniques for the home cook, published February 2015 by Little Brown and Company. Braising is a combination method of cooking that involves searing in pan then slow cooking in liquid.
A quote from the introduction of the book Braise by Michael Ruhlman: “To braise is to transform. A grilled salmon fillet or steak may be delicious, but these are, at their most basic level, heat and serve items; cooked, they’re pretty much exactly what they were, to begin with, only hot, with the flavorful exterior. A braise, on the other hand, is a metamorphosis.
“When you braise, you begin with a tough, often in-expensive cut of meat, and through your care and knowledge as a cook, you turn it into something tender and succulent and exquisite, the opposite of what you begin with. That is true cooking, cooking that engages both mind and soul. It’s why, of all fundamental cooking techniques, braising is my favorite.”
Perfect for Bear
Ruhlman said, “You need a pot and either a lid or some parchment paper. That’s all you need. I like Dutch ovens. Cast iron and enamel, heavy, durable, you know they really hold the heat. You can sear in them, and then you can braise in them. And they’re good for all kinds of things. You only need one your whole cooking career––your whole life in the kitchen. They keep forever, so it’s worth the expense for a great pot like that.
“The biggest problem in home kitchens is dull knives. It makes cooking so much more difficult for so many people. I wish people would have sharp knives in their kitchen -it certainly makes life easier. The food tastes better when using a sharp knife, you know, cuts cleaner. Sharp knives cut herbs better, cut vegetables better. There’s not a lot you need to braise. It’s really about technique. You need so few tools.”
Salt and Seasoning: Go Early
Ruhlman said, “I’ve always told people that if you want, you can salt your meats as soon as you bring it in the back door. If you salt just before you flour the meat, you can lose some salt. I like to salt at least 30 minutes to 60 minutes (or more) before cooking the meat. Braising allows you to really take pleasure in the cooking, to slow down, to salt your meat well in advance so that the salt gets absorbed. Pepper is always good on beef, then dust in flour. When that floured meat hits hot fat, that beautiful aroma of browning flour and beef is something I really appreciate. That’s part of the reason that I like to braise because it gives me that sensory pleasure when I’m cooking food, floured meat, and hot fat.”
It is worth noting that as of our interview, Ruhlman had never tried bear, but I can assure you these braising methods work perfectly with bear shanks and shoulder. We’ll get Ruhlman a braised bear sample as soon as possible.
The Ruhlman Blueprint for a Braise
Season and flour. “Salt and pepper the meat well in advance, then dust in flour. Shake off the excess flour, get the fat hot, and have plenty of fat in the pan, so that it doesn’t cool off too much––it just makes for a better sear, better crust. You’re looking for a flavorful crust, and the flour helps to thicken braising liquid. The flour browns, the meat browns, and you get a nice flavorful crust,” described Ruhlman.
Add Braising Liquid
He continues, “Then you remove the seared meat from the pot, and you clean out your pot. Usually, you’ll need to rinse out your pot because the flour that remains burns, and you don’t want that burned flavor in there. Then you will add your wine. You can start adding your vegetables if you want if you’re going to cook with vegetables. You would stir in some vegetables; you’ll sauté them so that they develop more flavor––the sweet vegetables like carrot and onion. You could sweat those then, and then you would add the meat back into the pot, and then you would add your braising liquid, whether it’s stock and tomato.
“Liquid is what will break down the collagen, which is the connective tissue in these tough pieces of meat. A shank that has been well worked in is full of collagen, and it’s in the joints as well. Cartilage is collagen, skin is collagen, and all the connective tissue within the muscles holding these muscles together...all that’s collagen, and it needs to melt. It can’t melt in a dry environment and needs (braising) liquid. When it melts, it turns into gelatin, a protein that enriches our sauce and gives it more body.
Make a Lid
“The next step would be to cover the braise with a parchment lid––the perfect type of lid. You don’t want it to boil because that can overcook things; it can tear apart vegetables and overcook the meat. You just basically cut a circle; that’s very easy. Just fold it in quarters, basically, and cut it into a circle, and cut a little air hole in the middle. You’ve got a beautiful lid that prevents too much evaporation but also does not overcook or overheat your sauce.
(Check out Ruhlman’s link how to make a parchment lid, just cut the tip off for a 1/2” vent that works out to the middle of the lid. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtFS6R93UWY)
Braise at 300F
“As they tell you in culinary school, braise at 300F until fork-tender––until a fork inserted into the meat meets no resistance. Then it should be completely tender. Remove the meat from the sauce and finish the sauce. I remove the sachet filled with herbs and peppercorns and other flavoring things in there. Then I will often puree the rest with a hand blender to make a sauce. It yields a nice, elegant sauce for the braise you’ve taken such care over. That is how it serves––you would always serve it hot, often with some fresh herbs at the end. They’d benefit from that, often with something very bright like lemon zest, lemon juice or lemon zest and parsley or gremolata, (lemon zest, and garlic and parsley). And there is your braise,” Ruhlman said.
Truc is the French culinary word for a trick––our little culinary secret.
Ruhlman shared a couple of braising trucs he has picked up along his culinary journey. “They’re little tricks that I found really valuable that I hadn’t known. I was hanging out in the kitchen with a chef, and he was adding some honey to a braise, and he said, you know what? Always add honey to a braise; something about adding honey really rounds out the flavors.”
Now, I always add honey to a braise.
“Another one of those ingredients was fish sauce. Asian fish sauce. I learned this from my first instructor at culinary school, Michael Pardus. He noted that you could put fish sauce in anything and improve the flavor. You can put fish sauce in your mac and cheese, and it will improve the flavor. Wow, it just enhances the umami in a dish, which gives just a more satisfying well-rounded depth that some foods often lack. So the fish sauce is a great salt component that you can add to braises for depth and umami balanced by the honey. It’s just beautiful,” said Ruhlman.
You can check out everything about Ruhlman here: https://ruhlman.com Buy his books, sign up for his newsletter and generally bask in the culinary glory of a world class expert. Now, back to the kitchen.
Note: I interviewed Ruhlman a few weeks back, and you can catch the full interview on my Elevate Your Game podcast. Follow the link on my Instagram @timothydfowler page.