In mid-winter, when the cold chill is upon us, heart-warming casseroles, stews and braises are the order of the day. Your butcher can offer great value on cuts that are perfect for slow cooking. Shin, neck, brisket and chuck are ideal cuts of meat for slow food dishes. A little time spent on preparation and pre-planning pays dividends. Prepare stews and braises ahead of time to reheat to serve.
Slow cooked meals are generally easier to make and very cost effective. Choose cuts of meat that improve in texture and flavour when cooked for long periods of time at lower temperatures. These tough cuts of meat contain large amounts of connective tissue (collagen) which require long cooking times to break down into a rich gelatine.
When cooking meat, collagen begins to melt at about 72 C and this gives a lot of flavour to meats. Collagen also gives a wonderful silky texture. During the cooking process, it is important to liquefy the collagen. This is a kinetic process and is a function of both temperature and duration of heating. The longer cooking times allow the collagen to melt and this adds the lovely flavour to the dish.
Develop a caramelized crust before slow cooking by searing the meat either in a dry pan or with a small amount of oil or fat (tallow is ideal). This adds to the final flavour. Contrary to popular opinion, browning or searing the surface does not seal in meat’s juices. It does, however, produce new and complex flavour compounds as the proteins and sugars react under high temperatures. The surface colour deepens as a result of these reactions. This browning process is known as the Maillard reaction.
Taste And Texture
The meat is usually browned briefly before braising to produce coagulated residues that will enrich the flavour, body and colour of the dish. Then aromatic vegetables are added, and frequently a bouquet garni: thyme, bay leaf and parsley wrapped in cheesecloth or tied in a leek leaf. The bouquet garni is removed when cooking is done. The vegetables may be replaced with fresh ones toward the end of the process.
The quantity and quality of the liquid used are all-important to the character of the finished dish. Meat may be braised in only a few spoonfuls of liquid or it may be completely immersed. The less liquid you add, however, the more the flavours will concentrate. Always choose a braising vessel that holds the ingredients snugly, thereby minimizing the amount of liquid you need. If your liquid is a good gelatinous stock, your braise will certainly have body. But if you use a thin moistening agent, such as water or wine, the consistency of the sauce will be improved by including a thickening element such as flour or a particularly gelatinous cut such as pig’s foot. Or you can boil the cooking liquid in a separate pan to reduce and thicken it just before serving.
When the meat is cooked, always take the trouble to purify the braising juices, to remove as much as possible of the fat. Fat detracts from both flavour and appearance. Thus purified, the finished dish-whether simple or ambitious-will do justice to one of the most rewarding methods in the cook’s repertoire.
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