The Slow Cook (Part 1)
Last time, we talked about the concept and charm of the dying art of slow-cooked dishes, braises, stews and pot-roasts, in the context of two of my most favourite food books (check it out here). We discussed the overarching formula of all braises, and went through a glossary of some popular braises from around the globe (check it out here). This time, we start our cooking adventure, working our way slowly through the steps of making a braise.
A good braise or stew starts with choosing the right cut of meat. Tough, sinewy, relatively inexpensive cuts are perfect for this low and slow style of cooking. The parts that do the most work in an animal have the most connective tissue and vice versa, which is why the tenderloin, the muscle which hangs around in front of the vertebral column doing almost nothing, is such a tender and prized cut of meat. Such cuts take very little time to cook, and are the worst choice for braising.
Classic braising choices include the shoulder, think beef chuck or lamb shoulder. There’s also the beef brisket and round, from the lower chest and rear leg of the cow, pork belly and spare ribs. Shanks of lamb and veal make amazing pot roasts, notably the Italian osso buco made with veal shank. Cuts from the tail are especially gelatinous, leading to incredibly rich stews, a Jamaican favourite. These are all inexpensive cuts, but when cooked properly, can produce dishes that can give any filet mignon a run for its money.
During the long cooking time, the tough collagen in the meat breaks down into gelatin, thickening the sauce and lending it a luscious mouthfeel. This transformation is magical, and the only thing it demands is time. Of course, you could braise chicken thighs, as in the French coq au vin or Italian cacciatore, but it would take less time. Chicken breasts are way too lean to be able to stand up to the long braise without drying out completely.
According to Samin, any good braise starts a day or two before, with proper salting of the meat, and Pollan explains why. “As the salt draws the water out of the meat, a kind of osmotic vacuum forms in the cells. Once the salt has been diluted by the water it has attracted to it, this salty liquid is drawn back into the cells (along with any spices of other flavourings present in it), greatly improving the meat’s flavour.”
Salting works on the principle of osmosis and makes the meat moist, much like brining and curing. While the former involves soaking the meat in a brine solution for hours, the later involves covering the meat in coarse salt. Brining doesn’t really matter much when it comes to a braise, where the sauce provides enough moisture, but it works a treat in applications like roasting and grilling. Brining a turkey in a mixture of salt, herbs and whole spices ensures that the seasoning and flavouring penetrate deep into the meat, ensuring a flavourful, moist piece of roast turkey.
In the Indian kitchen though, a more common technique is marination. In a marinade, the acid takes center stage, denaturing the proteins and allowing the flavours to penetrate, but not nearly as much as in a brine. Marination is a very common practice in Indian dishes, where marinading the meat in a simple mix of lemon juice, ginger and garlic or a more elaborate one with yoghurt and numerous spices, often overnight, is usually the first step to any dish.
In the Western world, there is a lot of controversy about whether or not marination actually does anything. Some chefs maintain that it makes little difference to the end-product and is merely a waste of time. Doc Willoughby of America’s Test Kitchen mentioned in a podcast that “marinading actually does nothing”, something Adam Ragusea strongly refutes in a pro-marination video. While marination does penetrate meat less than salt or brine, it does help in “fixing flavour just below the meat surface”. Here are both sides of the argument.
Ragusea, with his more liberal approach to cooking (this is the guy who prioritizes flavour over looks in a French macaron, one of the prettiest desserts ever) also skips the step of salting the meat. Samin on the other hand, is a strict believer in salting the meat. There is a lot of controversy regarding these initial steps, and each person does it differently.
There is no controversy about the next step though, which is absolutely central to any braise or stew. It is step two of Samin’s braise, and is a major contributor to the flavour game. Next time, we turn on the flame and add colour to the party.