We are all familiar with sauteing, grilling, frying, boiling and steaming. But braising is elusive to most home cooks.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines this technique as to cook meat or vegetables by browning in fat, then simmering in a small quantity of liquid in a covered container. In culinary school, instructors taught us to sear in a small amount of fat and then cook in liquid barely to cover until tender.
Braising is usually associated with tough cuts of meat, however it works perfectly with vegetarian ingredients as it allows natural flavors to shine. It is also simple and requires little pot watching. Essentially all the ingredients are placed in a pot and simmered slowly.
Choosing a pot to braise in is crucial. It needs to be heavy so it conducts heat uniformly and gently. I use a cast iron one. A tight-fitting lid is a great advantage. Earthenware pots and enameled cast iron are also good choices for this technique.
The size of the pot is also important. Choose one that can hold all the ingredients, but is not too large. You do not want a lot of extra space on the bottom. If the braising pot is large, the liquid evaporates too quickly rather than becoming a concentrated sauce. The side of the pot should be at least a few inches high to hold all the liquid.
Brown the ingredients first. Some example might be tofu, greens, root vegetables, eggplant, portobello mushrooms or cabbage. This adds eye appeal and sweetness to the finished product.
Try to have your ingredients dry so they brown quickly. Also make sure the oil for browning is hot before you add whatever you are cooking. The burner should be medium high to high. I use canola or olive oil for browning. You can also add butter to the oil if you want a richer flavor. Use just enough fat to barely cover the bottom of the pan.
Once your ingredients are seared or browned, add a bit of water, wine or stock to deglaze the pan. This dissolves the concentrated bits of flavor cooked onto the bottom of the pan and helps form a flavorful sauce. Once your ingredients are browned and the pot is deglazed, a liquid must be added so that you can simmer the ingredients.
Stock, water, wine, beer or a combination of these are commonly used. Aromatics can be added such as fresh herbs, garlic, spices and chopped vegetables such as onions, celery or carrots. Sometimes cream is added depending upon the dish.
Another benefit of braising is that braised dishes keep 4 to 5 days, and they freeze well. A friend and fellow author, Molly Stevens, has a helpful book titled All About Braising (W.W. Norton, 2004). Reading it inspired me to write this article and sample several of her recipes. I offer you my vegetarian version of one of her recipes. It's one of my favorites.
—By Chef Steve Petusevsky