Slow CookingSlow 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 TextureThe 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.
- Never try to speed up slow-cooked dishes (except when pressure cooking); if they get too hot, the moisture is squeezed out of the meat, leaving it tough and dry.
- Only dust meat in flour if you want a flour-thickened gravy. Make sure the meat is almost dry and use only a very light dusting or the gravy will be too thick.
- Don’t use flour if other starchy ingredients, such as potatoes, are included in the dish.
- If there is flour in the dish, don’t cook it on top of the stove as it will stick to the bottom of the pan. Cook it in the oven.
- If a broth is too watery at the end, strain off the meat, reduce the broth and return it to the meat. Don’t boil meat in the broth or it will fall to pieces.
- Adding vegetables improves the texture and flavour. Vegetables are especially helpful for dishes containing lean meat, and also make the dish go further, which reduces the cost.
- Chopped bacon adds flavour to a stew.
- Although herbs and spices are cooked with the meat, only add salt near the end of cooking otherwise the dish could be too salty. The result is a deep, rich gravy surrounding meltingly tender pieces of beef. This is the epitome of the perfect stew.