Slow-Cooking vs Fast-Cooking
Last week we learned how to pan-roast meat, which is a fast-cooking method. This week we're going to focus on braising, a slow-cooking method.
I can already hear you, asking me "why would anyone take longer to cook?" If you can pan-roast a chicken breast in 15 minutes, why would you take hours to braise a beef rib? Who even has that amount of time to make dinner? What does "braise" even mean?
These are great questions. Let's take the last one first.
What is Braising?
Braising is a method of cooking in which food is submerged in a liquid, on a low heat, covered, for a long time. The reason we use this technique is that the slow application of heat gradually breaks down the connective tissue of tough cuts of meat, rendering firm collagen into puddles of gelatin. The liquid keeps the meat moist, as opposed to another slow-cooking method like smoking, which requires regular basting to replenish the moisture lost to heat.
While braising requires advance planning, the amount of actual labour is the same as most other cooking styles. You're going to chop ingredients and clean cutting boards just as much as you would for a grilled cheese sandwich. During the long cooking period, you don't need to do anything. You don't even need to be home. I frequently leave food to braise (the heat turned very low) while I'm at the gym, or sometimes overnight.
Another benefit of braised meat: it reheats very well. You don't need to time a braise to be ready for dinner (usually a bad idea, as you never really know how long it'll take). You can braise lamb shanks on Monday night, leave them in the oven while you do laundry, then reheat them on Friday night for dinner.
And that's the real theme of today's lesson: a little work today for an easy dinner tomorrow. It's not the way we're trained to think about food in our culture, where recipes come with time estimates and we won't tackle any project that's expected to take longer than 20 minutes. But it can reap big rewards: braising brings out rich, satisfying flavours from cheaper cuts of meat, and makes your life easier by creating materials in advance that will be ready in your fridge when you are rushed.
You can do this with nothing more than water. As always, there are little additional things you can do to make your braise even more delicious.
- Sear the meat
- Add aromatics, vegetables and herbs used to impart flavour and scent, but not served in the final dish
- Caramelize the vegetables
- Deglaze pan with wine
- Use stock instead of (or in addition to) water
But none are absolutely necessary. I have braised short ribs in nothing but water and they came out fine.
Things not to do with your braise:
- Season before it's cooked. You're likely going to reuse the flavourful liquid from your braise, to turn into a sauce or soup. If it's already seasoned, the liquid will be too salty when it is reduced or if other salty flavours are introduced (ie. a bit of miso will be overpowering).
- Boil hard. Raising the temperature high will cook the meat too fast and it will be tough.
On Cooking Beans
Beans are a delicious source of protein that adapt well to a variety of flavours. Canned beans cost at least twice as much as dried beans. But in a brief paragraph, I'm gonna tell you all you need to know about cooking with any dried bean.
- A large bowl, for soaking
- Slotted spoon
- Oven-proof pot with a lid
- Storage container
- Use any kind you like!
To start, soak your dried beans in water.
- If you use hot water, they will be ready sooner, in an hour or two. If you use cold water, leave them overnight.
- You can even leave them soaking in water for days, though you'll need to refrigerate the mixture and change the water once a day.
- In the morning, strain the beans; place them in a pot and cover them with new, lightly salted water.
Heat the pot to a gentle boil, cook until the beans are soft, then strain.
- Watch that you don't boil too hard, as this makes beans mushy.
- As they cook, a bit of foam may form on the surface of the water. Just scoop this away with a slotted spoon.
- The cooking time will vary, less for small beans (black, navy, cranberry) and more for big beans (kidney, lima, chickpea). Depending on how much water they've absorbed, you may be boiling your beans for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.
- Lentils, because they are very small, do not require soaking.
Recently I've started saving the bean water. I use it as you would stock, for deglazing pans (like we did last week with the chicken) or pureeing into soups. It has nowhere near the flavour of a chicken stock. But it's more than water. And why throw away any ingredient?
I like to always have some cooked beans in the fridge, ready to add to a salad. When I get low, I soak some new ones.
Choose your favourite bean to practice with. We'll use this simple recipe to turn them into a warm, quick, vegetarian meal. It's a good start, before moving into braising.
Shopping for Meat: Why Sourcing Matters
When shopping for meat, there are so many decisions that it can be paralyzing. Based on cooking styles, the muscles of a cow are broken down in different ways, with different names, from country to country.
For example, in Brazil, the paleta contains part of what in North America would be the brisket, chuck and rib.
Faced with having to learn about pasture-raised, grass-fed, hormone-free farming methods, plus the myriad cuts of meat with their arcane names (blade, chuck, picnic, bavette) can make us not want to buy meat at all, let alone cook it.
For simplicity, think of the variety of meat cuts as two categories: prime cuts and tough cuts.
The muscles of an animal that do the most work — legs, neck — are tough. While the midsection that just hangs all day is comparatively soft. This area, divided here into rib, sirloin, tenderloin (and subdivided various ways) comprises most of what we know as steaks: easy to cook, supple cuts of meat. Everything else requires longer cooking times and more care.
As for ethical sourcing, my solution is to shop at a real butcher store, where staff members have a strong understanding of the product and will take the time to explain where meat comes from and how to cook it. But not everyone has this option. And while some supermarkets have a variety of choices and knowledgeable butchers, they're not always available. So let me break it down as simply as possible.
Consumers like short, easy to understand labels, like organic or sustainable. But if we don't know what these buzzwords mean, we're easily manipulated by marketers. And we question why food with these labels costs more.
With produce, organic means that no pesticides have been used. Without pesticides, fields are more vulnerable to crop loss through an attack by an invasive species. And without pesticides, which are essentially a form of poison, to kill weeds, farmers have to employ humans to bend down and pluck the weeds from around plants. That labour is expensive.
With meat, the buzzwords are about how the animal was raised. Traditional factory farming adds growth hormones and antibiotics to feed, with the goal of reaching market weight in shorter time. They're usually raised in close quarters with little room for movement.
Raising animals outdoors requires more land and labour. Avoiding the shortcut of drugs means they take longer to grow, costing the farmer more in feed.
There are a jillion books and articles written on this subject. If you want to, you can take a deep dive into the ethics of factory vs. traditional farming, or the taste of grain-fed vs grass-fed beef. Do you care? Do you have time?
As a consumer, here is one simple thing you can do to circumvent the college course of meat sourcing: find a butcher who can answer these questions and put your trust in them. The next time you go to buy meat, ask your butcher where the animal comes from and how it was raised. The details of the answer matter less than that they have an answer. If they don't know, that tells you all you need to know.
Reheating Braised Beef Short Ribs
There are two good ways to reheat and serve these ribs. I’ll give you both options.
The easiest method is to warm up the ribs in their original broth.
- Oven-proof pot
- Slotted spoon
- Bring the braising liquid and the beef to a light simmer on the stove top.
- In about ten minutes the ribs will be warmed through.
Use a slotted spoon to remove them and season with salt and pepper.
- While the bone should almost be falling off, it looks nice on the plate if you can keep it attached.
Another method is to heat them in the oven.
- Oven-proof pan
- For the best results I’d sprinkle the ribs with salt first.
Place your ribs in a pan and warm them up at about 350F, then jack the oven to full blast (or a broiler setting if you have it) for a few minutes to finish.
- The first step will reheat and the second step will turn the surface a pleasing sticky texture. But you’ve got to stay on top of it to see that it doesn’t dry out.
- It’ll help to baste the meat with your reserved fat and/or stock. If you dust it with a bit of sugar or honey right before the broiling stage, the sugar will caramelize. But it’s a short distance between caramelization and burning. So watch it closely.
Basic Plating Theory
I've seen a lot of plating trends in my lifetime:
- 1990s: Food stacked into precarious Jenga towers that no one could eat without toppling.
- 2000s: Food arranged in neat piles, meat fanned out, with little dots of balsamic syrup between.
- 2010s: Nordic abstract, food queued against the plate's edge with lots of empty space, brushstrokes of sauce and sprinkles of coloured powder.
These are all silly and not what you want to be thinking about cooking at home.
The most important goal is to make something that tastes good. After that, we want variety in a dish, so our palate doesn't get bored. Our plate already has this, in colour, flavour and texture. The dish has red, white, green and brown. It's creamy (the beans), chewy (the beef) and crunchy (the pomegranates). All that's left is to make it look pleasing on the plate.
When plating, try to keep these (two basic philosophies) in mind. Keep it centred. And keep it clean, but not too clean.
By placing items in the centre of your plate, in order from largest volume to smallest, you'll build a loose pile, each item spilling a bit. Try to keep the edge of the bowl clean and dry. If you spill sauce or oil (or braising liquid) there, wipe it down before serving. It's a little thing but it sends a message about how you care, the same way you would change your shirt before going out, if it had a sauce stain on it.
Feel free to lean, stack or layer things around each other. But in general, spread out is messy, and keeping elements tightly together in the plate's centre just looks more appetizing. Think of the aesthetic of a mother cat with kittens piled and stacked around her.
If you want to line up all your beans in a row like a military parade, go for it. Have fun. It's your food and you can serve it however you want. It's more important that you be happy with what you've made, than slavish devotion to cooking instructions or the styling in a photo, which should only ever be inspiration.
Better to let go of the perfectionism that plagues amateur cooks, the desire to reproduce the work of professionals who have been cooking for 10 or 20 years. If it doesn't taste good, all the fussy plating in the world won't fix it. And if it's delicious, you won't care too much how it looks.