Braising and Brining

09/27/2018

This time of year excites me on every sensory level.  The sights, smell and flavors, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, are hard to beat. Perhaps it was best stated by my younger cousin as the first stormy breeze blew by, “It’s starting to smell like Halloween.” An innocent statement that holds so much truth! The falling leaves, the scent of rain in the air and the faint wood smoke coming from a neighboring backyard confirms the shift of seasons. With the cooler weather and the winding down of a busy and festive summer, the comforts of home are calling.

When I think of the Fall, the first thing that comes to mind is food and deciding which earthy and robust dishes will make their appearance on my table. Some favorites include slow-cooked short ribs, stuffed pork chops and savory stews. With so many unique flavors acclaimed to this time of year, this really is the season for creative cooking.

Two techniques I use frequently during the comfort food season are braising and brining. Braising is a cooking method that imparts significant flavor and tenderness to a less tender cut and creates the base for fantastic finishing sauces.

Brining is a technique to impart flavor and seasoning to meat while preserving juiciness of the final product. Although typically associated with turkey at Thanksgiving, I find myself brining in the Fall for most of my oven roasted or fried pork recipes. This is an essential step home chefs should utilize with all pork and poultry.

 

BRAISING

Here are the simple steps to master the delicious art of braising.

Select a cut that is typically slow-cooked such as the short rib, a shoulder cut, or shank. Season it generously with salt and pepper.

Add enough vegetable oil to form a nice coating in the bottom of a cast iron or ceramic pot. Heat until the oil begins to ripple. Medium-high heat usually does the trick as you don’t want it so hot that the oil begins to smoke or you’ll burn, rather than brown, your meat.

Place the seasoned beef or pork in the hot oil and let it form a nice golden crust on all sides, adding more oil if needed.

Remove the meat and toss in coarsely chopped vegetables, typically equal parts onion, carrot, and celery – a combination of which is called mirepoix (meer-PWAH). Fall presents more options you can to change the flavor profile of the dish. Root vegetables such as parsnips and salsify or different types of onion-like produce such as leeks, shallots, or fennel are also great options.

Sauté the mirepoix until the vegetables begin to soften and become fragrant.

Add a spoonful of tomato paste and continue to cook until the mixture turns a rust color and begins to stick to the pan’s bottom. The subtle tomato helps to deepen the flavor.

When the mixture starts to stick to the bottom, it’s time to deglaze the pan. Options to perform this task include dry red wine, white wine or sherry depending on the flavor profile preferred. The alcohol in the wine or sherry will help loosen the drippings stuck to the bottom and disperse the flavor throughout the dish.

Cook until the alcohol evaporates and the sauce is noticeably thicker. Add the seared meat back to the pan and add additional liquid, about 2/3 of the way up the side of the meat. My liquid recommendations are a rich veal or beef stock for beef dishes and ham or chicken stock for pork.

Add any aromatics to finish off the flavor profile you envision. I like to make a sachet by wrapping fresh thyme, parsley and bay leaves in cheesecloth and tying with kitchen cord. Other spice elements to consider are clove, peppercorn and mustard seed. Again, the fun of a braise is to use your personal taste and creativity to develop a complexity of cohesive flavors.

When all the magic has been added to your pot, cover it with a parchment paper sheet cut to fit the inner diameter of the pot and placed directly on top of the food. Place the lid on the pot and allow the braising liquid to reduce and the flavors to concentrate. Place the pot in an oven at around 275 degrees and allow it to braise until the meat is fork tender.

Now get ready to impress the people gathered around your table!

 

Pro Tip:
For best results, braise the day prior to serving. When you allow the meat to sit in the braising liquid overnight, it will absorb all the delicious flavors you’ve worked so hard to develop. An added bonus, the excess grease will rise to the top and solidify, so It’s easy to skim it off. To serve, just place your pot on medium heat and base liquid over the top until the meat is hot. To create a nice finishing sauce, strain the liquid, return it to the pot heat until it reduces and the flavors concentrate.

Basic Beef Braise

Snake River Farms Black Grade beef short ribs   
Coarse salt and pepper
Vegetable oil
½ cup Yellow onion, coarsely chopped
½ cup Carrot, coarsely chopped
½ cup Celery, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons Tomato paste
2 cup Dry red wine
3 cups Beef stock
Herb sachet of fresh thyme, parsley, rosemary and bay leaf

Basic Pork Braise

Snake River Farms Kurobuta Short Ribs
Coarse salt and pepper
Vegetable oil
½ cup Yellow onion, coarsely chopped
½ cup Carrot, coarsely chopped
½ cup Celery, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon Tomato paste
2 cup Dry white wine
3 cups Chicken stock
Herb sachet of fresh thyme, sage, garlic, rosemary

BRINING

Making a brining solution is the first step for this flavor building process. For every gallon of water add equal parts salt and sugar elements, about 3/4 cup of each, and any additional seasoning.
To make a brine, boil the water and add the salt and sugar, stirring until dissolved. Try crystalized sugar, brown sugar, honey or syrup to create different flavor profiles. A good rule of thumb is to match the flavors of your brine with the topical seasonings you add prior to cooking. After the salt and sugar are dissolved, turn off the heat and add the flavors you want to add to the meat. Some of my favorites are peppercorn, garlic, thyme and lemon peel, but the options are only limited by your imagination.
After the solution has cooled completely, add the meat and place in the refrigerator. Allow the meat to stay in the brine for at least 20 minutes, but ideally, schedule several hours. The solution will soak into the product and disperse flavor throughout the muscle.
After brining, quickly rinse under cool water, pat dry with paper towels, apply topical seasonings and cook as you normally would. You should notice a significant difference in flavor and juiciness when compared to the same recipe that didn’t utilize the pre- brining step.

Basic Brine for Herbed Pork

1 gallon Water
¾ cup Kosher salt
¾ cup Granulated white sugar
1 tablespoon Peppercorns
3 Garlic cloves, smashed
1 sprig Thyme
Peel from ½ of a lemon

Basic Brine for BBQ Pork

1 gallon Water
¾ cup Kosher salt
¾ cup Honey
1 tablespoon Red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon Smoked paprika
3 Garlic cloves, smashed
2 Bay leaves

These are the simple steps to incorporate braising and brining in your home cooking. It won’t take long for you to get comfortable with these flavor-enhancing techniques, so you can bring the comforts of Fall to your table. Get creative, experiment with different spices and seasonings and you’ll perfect some signature recipes you and your family will love.