The first time I braised short ribs was a milestone in my culinary education. Braising encapsulated so much of what I enjoyed about cooking: in this case, searing the meat, gently sautéing the carrots, onion, shallots, and garlic that perfumed the kitchen with their aroma, then giving everything a long, tenderizing bath in good red wine.
The ribs I made were from The Balthazar Cookbook, and that recipe is a mix of hands-on time and letting a slow process work its magic, one that has a lot of wiggle room built in and a high wow factor, leaving you with an incredibly tender, decadent dinner.
At its core, a classic long braise is the OG version of a high-end chef’s goal of making a food taste “more like itself.” With the flavor-creating sear, along with a long bubble in flavorful stock or wine and its own juices, braising does this by default. Your food becomes fall-apart tender, the cooking liquid becomes a sauce, and a parenthesis is carved from winter’s cold.
Back in the early 2000s, when Balthazar came out, I missed out on one of its contemporaries, Molly Stevens’ All About Braising, which is too bad, as it would have become one of my favorite reference cookbooks far sooner.
A risk of revisiting any cookbook that’s pushing 20 is that people might have changed the way they eat and cook since it first arrived. Many of us, myself included, now eat less meat for environmental, ethical, or health reasons. Yet All About Braising has aged quite well in that regard. To my surprise, 60 of its first hundred pages are devoted to braising vegetables. Brace yourselves, carnivores—I spent a nice, long time testing in that zone.
I started with the first dish in the book and immediately began improving my game. It’s the kind of five-ingredient recipe you go into thinking, I know where this is heading, when it takes a pleasingly sudden, smart turn. I put a pound of little red potatoes in my Essential Pan with olive oil, brought some stock up to their equators, tucked in some garlic and bay and shut the lid, letting the little orbs wobble around in the moist heat for 20 minutes.
When they were tender, I removed the lid, cranked the heat, and let the sauce bubble down into a garlicky glaze and—voila!—that was it, spuds so good I don’t even remember what I served alongside them.
The next day, I braised escarole and cannellini beans, something I’d never have thought of on my own but which makes perfect sense when you have a bite. There’s no searing here, but the escarole is wilted in a generous amount of sliced garlic and red pepper flakes, then combined with the beans and some broth, creating a simple but sophisticated dish. I immediately thought of two ways to eat it: served with a chunk of crusty bread for a nice solo lunch or as dinner for two with a sausage and a glass of wine.
Next came braised leeks, which I wanted to cook just because the book also had a recipe for quiche that used them on the following page, but they turned out to be quite a thing on their own. Stevens calls leeks “the tallest and most appealing member of the onion family,” as if describing a favorite nephew, and she’s an excellent and thorough explainer at how to deal with them; Trimming and cleaning leeks get two steps in the recipe, excellent help for novices and a nice refresher for more experienced cooks.
Unprovoked, my wife Elisabeth declared that quiche “my favorite of your recent braising dishes,” a top slot it held onto for just a couple of days. My favorite part of this was how Stevens used a bit of the leek braising liquid in with the eggs and cream for the filling, the quiche-making equivalent of a dirty martini.
Even lowly celery gets its own braise in the book, cooked along with a mixture of shallot, vermouth, and fine-chopped celery hearts, tops, and leaves. Sprinkled at the end with bread crumbs and Gruyère, it’s like a magic coin trick, making a lovely side dish out of ingredients in a near-empty fridge.
Stevens shares a ton of information, delivered in ways that will stick with you long enough to actually put it into use. Sometimes she uses direct language: “Never abandon a pot when you are reducing a liquid.” In other places, the guidance is more poetic, or just plain smart. Her chicken stock specifies the length of thyme and parsley sprigs, so they can easily be tied into a bouquet garni. In a recipe for Mediterranean squid and shrimp, she counsels to serve it “in shallow pasta bowls. If you’ve got guests with raging appetites, ladle the braise over linguine.”
I finally moved into the meats and seafood, beginning with pork chops over cabbage, the kind of quick braise where the chops are seared then nestled into the sautéed cabbage, stock, and vermouth, and you pull them out as soon as their internal temperature hits 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a quick braise where you’re not shooting for fall-apart tender, but searing the meat, then allowing the slow simmer to bring it gently up to the point where it’s still pink inside. Like with the leeks and celery, I took a bite, closed my eyes, and immediately had a vision of driving down a twisty route nationale in rural France. The old Citroën with yellow headlights immediately breaks down in front of a French grandmother’s house, and she serves this to me while we wait for the tow truck.
On one day, I made Moroccan chicken with green olives and preserved lemons, and soon after, Moroccan spice-rubbed lamb shoulder chops. They’re that kind of restorative food that helps you get through a day, a pandemic, or the recent prediction based solely on a chubby marmot’s behavior that winter’s going long this year. I also braised black cod (aka sablefish) in place of monkfish in a dish with cherry tomatoes, fennel, and basil, creating an out-of-season shot of summer. Elisabeth declared it her new favorite and we went nuts for this one, a light-handed recipe achieving a higher plane.
As good as it was, I realized that, after almost two decades of braising, I still would run into a point in a long braise where I’d check on the food after a while and I couldn’t tell where it was in the cooking process. So I decided to call Stevens for help.
“Any time you’re cooking meat, you complain about it when it comes out dry,” she says. “You can overcook it. Just because it’s in a moist heat environment doesn’t mean it can’t dry out.”
She explained that there’s magic around the 180- to 185-degree mark, where the collagen in those tougher, braise-friendly cuts melts down into gelatin, which gives the dish the fantastic texture we crave. It needs to be in that zone for what she calls “an extended time,” but how long depends on what you’re cooking and how high the heat is.
I had the assumption that all meat can be braised to fall-apart tenderness, and that’s just not the case. So you watch it as it cooks, you poke it with a fork to see if it’s getting tender, and when you hit the point of succulence, stop cooking.
“Don’t assume that the longer it goes the more tender it’s going to get,” Stevens says, reminding me in the same breath not to belabor the point too much, considering how much leeway braising affords. “Your window of doneness is so much wider than in a high-heat or dry-heat technique. It’s much more forgiving than grilling, roasting, or sautéing.”
I finished out with her wine-braised beef short ribs, which gave me a full-circle-journey feeling. I brought this one over to eat on my sister’s deck one sunny February afternoon, and as soon as she lifted the lid and inhaled, she wanted to know if they were the Balthazar ribs—immediate high praise.
“No,” I said, “but I think I’ve found something even better.”
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