Braising may well be my favorite way of cooking. Not only does it concentrate flavors and tenderize tough foods, it actually keeps delicate foods moist and succulent.
While it's ideal for winter and for the hearty but tough cuts of meat that we favor in cold weather, this versatile method really knows no season. I turn to it year round. It's really ideal for this strange time in our lives, too, since any quantity of food, large or small, can be braised.
But probably the best thing about braising is that it's easy on the cook: Once you get past the initial browning (if, indeed, there even is a browning step), it pretty much finishes itself with almost no further effort or attention.
That doesn't mean, of course, that you can completely forget the pot. Although the liquid is kept low (sometimes it's nothing more than the food's own natural juices), moisture is critical, so the pot has to be checked every now and again to make sure that it never completely dries out.
And while this method involves low, gentle heat, it's a mistake to presume that braising necessarily takes a long time. Most fish, shellfish, and delicate vegetables such as carrots and parsnips, young greens, and summer squash like zucchini are done in just a few minutes' time.
Here is how to get the most from this versatile cooking method:
Choose the right vessel: my go-to pan in my kitchen is a shallow enameled iron casserole that's specifically designed for braising, but a deep, heavy-bottomed, lidded skillet, sauté pan, or Dutch oven will all do the job. If the braising liquid has a lot of acid, you may want to opt for enameled iron or stainless steel rather than un-coated seasoned cast iron.
The really key component is less the pan, however, than its lid, which should be tight-fitting and have a lip around its edge to prevent steam from escaping. Ideally, it should also be slightly domed so that it traps the steam and helps it to condense and fall back onto the food, essentially making it self-basting.
Most braising recipes begin with an initial browning, which adds both color and flavor. But have a care with this step: Over-browning will impart a harsh, scorched taste that you won't be able to cover up. Use medium-to-medium-high heat and stay over the pan.
Though rare, sometimes a recipe won't call for an initial browning. If it doesn't, don't assume it's a mistake and add it: If the moisture is kept low, the food will naturally brown as it cooks. Try it first as written: you can always add the step the next time if you feel it will improve the results.
When the moisture needs replenishing, use water, not more of the flavoring liquid. Because this technique concentrates flavors, overdoing wine, broth, or fruit juice can result in a sauce that overpowers rather than enhances.
Oven-Braised Chicken Breasts
Throughout the pandemic, this has been a reliable standby that I make at least twice a month. Because there are only two of us here, it provides at least two hot meals (plus cold sandwiches if the breasts are very large). The leftover chicken is great for salad, chicken casseroles such as chicken divan, pot pie, creamed chicken, chicken à la king, and soup.
Serves 4 (2 with leftovers for a second meal)
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium-sized bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts (or 4 whole, bone-in, skin-on thighs or 2 leg quarters), about 1 pound each
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Crumbled dried thyme
Crumbled dried sweet marjoram
1 large or 2 small yellow onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced
2 large ribs celery, washed, strung, and diced the same size as the onion
2 large carrots, washed, peeled, and diced the same size as the onion
About 1 cup chicken broth or dry white wine or about ½ cup each
1 rounded tablespoon all-purpose or instant-blending flour
1. Preheat the oven to 425° F. Wipe the chicken dry and rub it well on all sides with salt, pepper, and herbs. Rub the bottom of a deep lidded 10-12-inch skillet, braising pan, or oven-safe lidded sauté pan with butter. Cover the bottom of the pan with the diced vegetables and lightly season them with salt. Sprinkle with herbs and lay the chicken breasts on top, skin-side-up.
2. Dot the chicken with butter and bake until the skin is lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Pour enough broth or wine (or combination of the two) over the chicken until the vegetables are almost covered with it. Tightly cover the pan with its lid, or if it doesn't have one, foil. Return it to the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Bake until the chicken is fork tender, about an hour longer.
3. If you want the skin to be crisp, uncover, baste with pan juices, and bake another 10-15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the chicken to a warm plate or platter and loosely cover it with foil. Strain the cooking juices from the vegetables and set both aside. I often serve the vegetables as a small side dish with the chicken, but they can also be stored, covered and refrigerated, for up to four days, for adding to a soup or casserole.
4. Put the pan over direct medium heat and add about ½ cup broth or wine, stirring and scraping the bottom to remove any cooking residue. Add it to the reserved pan juices and return the pan to the heat. Add a generous tablespoon of butter, and when it's hot but not browning, whisk in the flour. Stir until it's bubbly and smooth and let it cook 1 minute. Slowly whisk or stir in the pan juices and, stirring constantly, bring it to a simmer. Simmer, stirring often, until it's thickened and the flour has lost its pasty raw taste. Taste and adjust the seasonings and simmer a minute longer. Turn off the heat and pour the gravy into a warm bowl or sauceboat.
5. Slice the chicken as you would a roast chicken and serve it with the gravy passed separately.
Recipe and story copyright © by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved