Everything You Need To Know About Slow Cooking
Braising is a good cook's secret weapon.
Some of the best things in life take time, especially when it comes to food. The tastiest things often take a bit of patience to make, and stews are proof of that. While a great braise or stew may take quite a while to make, it may be one of the simplest things to put together, whether or not you have a bit of extra time on your hands.
Shake those stewing worries away and learn a few tips and tricks that'll get you braising like a pro in no time.
1 You don't always need a recipe.
Braising or slow cooking is a great opportunity to improvise. As long as you put a stew's basic components in the pot, you'll never really go wrong. Think of it as an equation:
protein + aromatics + liquid = stew
As a guideline, try to mix flavors that usually go well together. Think beef chuck + rosemary and thyme + red wine, shortribs + ginger and sesame oil + sweet soy sauce or pork shoulder + grainy mustard and pepper + beer. You can play around with the quantities as much as you like, just as long as there's enough liquid to cover the protein so it doesn't dry out over the long cooking process.
2 Use cheap cuts.
This is not the time to bring out the fancy marbled tomahawk steaks you've been saving all month. Slow cooking is a great way to use cheaper cuts of meat like oxtail, pork cheek, and even tripe! These cheaper cuts usually take a long time to cook because they are often hard-working muscles or organs that would be unbelievably tough if cooked quickly.
Prime cuts such as sirloin will only dry out if cooked for more than a few minutes. If you aren't too sure about your anatomy, ask your local butcher which bits and pieces are expensive prime cuts and which ones are better suited for a long braise.
3 Searing only adds flavor. Nothing else.
Contrary to popular belief, browning or searing meat before braising does not seal in its juices. The opposite is actually true, as heat has a tendency to draw out moisture from meat.
What searing does actually provide is flavor and lots of it. Cooking meat on a relatively high heat causes what is known as The Maillard Reaction, a chemical reaction between the meat's natural proteins and sugars the creates rich flavors and a deep brown color. Searing the meat will provide layers of flavor to your stew that you won't be able to get from any other ingredient.
4 Ovens, stoves and crockpots, oh my!
There are many ways to slowly cook your rich, sticky stew on low heat. Your options are practically endless, as are the pros and cons to each. The simplest and most obvious choice would be to slowly simmer it over a low heat on a stove. This option is the most accessible and doesn't need any additional kitchen equipment other than a stove, but it does increase the risk of burning thanks to uneven heat, requiring you to watch over the stew and stir every once in a while.
Placing the covered stew in an oven at around 300 degrees F or 150 degrees C is the safer bet, thanks to the even distribution of heat throughout an oven, though it might be a bit too expensive, electricity-wise, for some.
In the world of specialized kitchen equipment designed almost exclusively for braising, you have the crockpot or slow cooker, and the pressure cooker. The crockpot gives you the option to leave your stew to safely cook for hours, while you're out and about at work or doing errands. The pressure cooker, on the other hand, speeds up the braising process by applying immense pressure to tougher cuts of meat, thereby cutting the cooking time in half. It does, however, take a bit of practice to use.
All are valid options and it all really depends on how much time and effort you're willing to commit to braising.
5 Alcohol doesn't always burn off.
A stew's liquid component is often comprised of a mix of stock and liquor like beer or wine. While a bit of the alcohol from the liquor will cook off during the low and slow braising process, it will never fully cook off, even after a few hours.
A good percentage of the original alcohol will still be present in the stew after cooking but, unless you added two whole bottles of liquor to the mix, it won't be enough to bother anyone, including children. If alcohol doesn't exactly float your boat, you can omit it altogether and use an alcohol-free alternative like verjus or wine vinegar.
6 Think ahead.
Thanks to stew meat and offal's high fat and collagen content, a stew will always taste better the day after you make it. A stint overnight in the fridge will help your stew's flavors mingle, let the protein settle, and help to make a supple and slightly sticky sauce. You can either choose to make the stew a day ahead of serving or make more than enough for dinner and save the leftovers for a rainy day.
For a bit of inspiration, have a gander at a handful of our favorite stews: