How to braise anything: A crash course with Sohla El-Waylly

From pork to cabbage, just about any hardy ingredient will love this technique

Published March 14, 2021 2:01PM (EDT)

Prop stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (Rocky Luten / Food52)
Prop stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. (Rocky Luten / Food52)

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Every month, in Off-Script With Sohla, pro chef and flavor whisperer Sohla El-Waylly will introduce you to a must-know cooking technique — and then teach you how to detour it toward new adventures.

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What comes to mind when I say the word braise? A big, honkin' piece of meat cooked until wiggly and tender. That's because braising gets the most out of tough cuts like lamb shanks, short ribs, and chicken thighs. But don't let those beefy hunks hog all your attention. This gentle method works wonders for hearty vegetables like carrots, mushrooms, and winter squash.

This month, I'm giving you a crash course on how to braise anything, from a collagen-streaked brisket to a snappy stalk of celery. Once you've gotten to know this essential technique, you'll be able to take it off-script and bask in your own saucy, supple recipes.

What's a braise anyway?

You can cook with dry heat, like roasting a chicken in the oven until the skin is burnished and crackling. Or you can give in to moist heat, like gently simmering a stew on the stovetop. But with those powers combined — the browning from dry heat and chill spa vibes from moist heat — you can braise.

The terms stew and braise are often used interchangeably, but there are critical differences between these techniques. In a stew, the stuff you're stewing (whether it's beef chuck or button mushrooms) are cut into small-ish pieces and fully covered in liquid. A stew is all about moist heat, resulting in something really saucy and spoonable.

On the other hand, braises involve hefty, burly chunks of meat or vegetable, like a bone-in lamb leg or head of cauliflower, which are only partially submerged in liquid. The braising liquid creates steam and provides moisture, breaking down tough connective tissue and tenderizing dense vegetables. At the same time, the half that's uncovered can go to brown town. And the braising liquid reduces to a sauce, so you've got a glazy fork-and-knifer instead of soup.

Technically, you can toss a pork butt in a pot, add enough water to come halfway up its sides, and your braise is ready to roll. However, by following these simple steps, you can build even more flavor.

Start with a sear

Yes, some browning occurs while simmering, but I like to give my braise baby the best possible start to its life. By taking time to develop a rich sear (and even some char when it comes to vegetables), I know I can max out on flavor. When we brown food, we're creating countless new flavors through the Maillard reaction. In this process, proteins and sugars reconfigure themselves into so many new tasty forms that scientists stopped trying to name them all. That browning can happen slowly through indirect heat or quickly with direct heat, the kind you employ to sear.

I like to use a Dutch oven or cast-iron pan with plenty of fat for the best sear. Next, I make sure the pan is preheated over medium-high — direct heat doesn't mean high heat, which can often lead to an uneven sear and burning, so be patient and avoid cranking the dial. Then it's just about giving the ingredient some time alone to develop color and flavor. If I'm searing something lightweight or wonky like a stalk of broccoli, I'll weigh it down with a heavy skillet, press, or even a brick wrapped in foil. This ensures direct contact with the pan and proper browning.

How brown, you ask? Great question. Dark meats, such as lamb and beef, can grow a chocolate brown, while white meats, like pork and chicken, will have toasted nut vibes. Vegetables can really handle a char. Instead of becoming bitter and acrid, they grow nutty and sweet, so go ahead and push them past brown into blackened.

Build a fond-ation of flavor

Once you've seared your pork shoulder or cabbage wedge, set it aside and take a moment to appreciate the glorious layer of flavor you've built. Those brown bits stuck to the pan's bottom are called fond, and they contain pure, concentrated flavor. You can keep it simple and deglaze the pan with a splash of water, using a sturdy wooden spoon to scrape up the fond. I prefer to build another layer of flavor with some aromatic vegetables.

This is where to add diced onions or shallots, carrots or celery, sliced scallions or garlic, and let them sweat. As they cook, they will release moisture, which will help you scrape up the fond. If you want to add spices, now is the time. As they sizzle, you'll draw out the fat-soluble flavors, and the spices won't taste gritty. Next, add a splash of wine, sake, vermouth, or even water with a spoonful of vinegar to dissolve any remaining fond and add a bright note to the dish.

Kick back and relax

Most of the hard work is done. Now it's time to give the braise some time. I add enough liquid to come halfway up whatever I'm braising before bringing it to a simmer, covering, and transferring to the oven. The liquid can be plain water, my preferred choice for meats because they create their own stock as they simmer. You can also get crazy with bone broth, milk, or a whole bottle of wine. I opt for more flavorful choices when braising vegetables, like the cashew milk in my braised cabbage.

I've found 350 degrees Fahrenheit to be the sweet spot for almost any braise.It's hot enough to keep the braising liquid simmering and promote gentle browning, but not so hot that the liquid evaporates too quickly and burns. If you're scaling a recipe up or down, the temperature will remain the same, while the cook time will need adjusting.

Cabbage, is that you?! Just wow. (Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog.)

Yes, you can cook a braise on the stovetop, but you will need to check it more often as the liquid can quickly simmer away before the braise is done. With the heat coming at it from all sides in the oven, the braise will cook more evenly, the liquid will reduce more slowly, and the top will have better browning.

When is the braise done? When everything is tender. Tough cuts of meat should easily shred with a fork, and vegetables should be spoon-tender. You can serve it right away, but I prefer to allow meaty braises to chill in the fridge overnight for best results. All the fat in the braising liquid will float to the top and congeal, so I can scoop it off the next day for a cleaner tasting dish.

Add a fresh finish

As your ingredients simmer away, they will develop deep and rich flavors — that's why I like to finish the braise with a little something extra to add textural contrast and a pop of brightness. A squirt of fresh lemon juice or a handful of torn parsley can go far, but since I have all that downtime while the braise is doing its thing, this is my garnish moment.

To finish my braised pork shoulder: crackly gremolata bread crumbs. Gremolata is the traditional topper for osso buco, the Italian dish of braised cross-cut veal shanks. It's a mixture of chopped parsley, lemon zest, and garlic that cuts through the gelatinous, fatty meat. I mix up that gremolata combo with olive oil–toasted panko — a garnish worth doubling up on because you'll want it on everything.

For my braised cabbage: a quick cashew-chile crisp and lots of crispy shallots. Chile crisp is a spicy Sichuan condiment with crunchy bits of garlic, onion, and dried chiles in oil. I keep mine very simple with chile flakes and cashews sizzled in oil, but feel free to use your favorite hot sauce instead.

Take this time to have fun with different toppings. Think: brown butter–toasted nuts, a quick salsa, or even a citrus-dressed cabbage slaw.

Go off-script

Now you too can braise in three easy steps: sear, sweat, and simmer! Try my Garlic-Studded Pork Shoulder with Anchovies and Calabrian Chiles or my Cashew Milk–Braised Cabbage With Crunchy Chile Oil. Or go off-script with some of these ideas:

  • Lamb shanks braised in kefir with garam masala
  • Short ribs braised in beer with lots of garlic
  • Charred carrots braised in bone broth with shallots and thyme
  • Kabocha squash braised in milk with hot peppers
  • Cauliflower braised in coconut milk with ginger and scallions

Which will you try first?

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