The beginner’s guide to a tender, juicy braise

Braising sounds like a fancy French technique reserved for master chefs. But it began from humble origins as a cheap and efficient way to transform tough meats and vegetables into tender, flavorful dishes. Learn the basic process for braising to make restaurant-quality one-pot meals in your kitchen.

What is braising?

Braising is a French cooking technique (braiser in French) where you sear meat and vegetables, then simmer them with aromatics and liquid for a long time on slow heat. Home cooks love braising because of its magical ability to turn tough meats and vegetables into hearty, juicy dinners. While braising requires more time than quicker-cooking methods, such as stir frying, you’ll fall in love with it because you can make large amounts of food with minimal additional effort (mini batch cooking!).

My goal is to empower you to try braising this weekend.

Although braising sounds advanced because competitive home cooks like to dig into the details with aromatics, cookware, and the science behind it, let’s focus on the basics of braising to get you started without fear of complexity.

Once you learn the basic process of braising with a couple of tries, you will be amazed at how easily you can customize the technique with different ingredients to satisfy your taste buds.


When can you braise?

Braising is ideal for cold-weather cooking and times when you crave belly-warming comfort foods. Because braising requires cooking for a long time on low heat, you get the side benefit of a hot stove or oven heating your home for hours.

I recommend braising meat for the first time on the weekend or when you’re working from home. Although braising doesn’t require a lot of attention when it is simmering, you need to be around for a few hours.

To get around this problem, I often braise in the mornings to allow it to cook all day. Or I begin after dinner, let it simmer for a few hours before bedtime, so it is ready for dinner the next day.

Braising vegetables takes less time, usually 30 to 60 minutes. This means you can braise vegetables anytime throughout the year to mix up your dinner game.

Why learn how to braise?

Braising comes from the centuries-old French tradition of putting hot charcoal (les braises) under and on top of tight-fitting pots to stew meat over long periods of time. There are many famous French dishes that use braising as the foundational cooking technique, including coq au vin and beef bourguignon.

Braising is economical and efficient. You can save money on groceries by buying less expensive cuts of meat and braising them until the meat falls off the bone. These cuts are less desirable because home cooks are intimidated by them. Since you’re learning how to handle these cuts, braising offers you a way to reduce food waste and save money.

Why efficient? Many home cooks love braising because it’s a classic one-pot meal. You can braise meat with vegetables and serve the dish with bread or noodles. Dinner done!


Ingredients needed for braising

The main ingredients needed for braising are:

  • Meat (optional if braising vegetables)
  • Aromatic vegetables, herbs, and spices
  • Hearty vegetables (optional)
  • Braising liquids

Let’s dive into each section to learn more and how to substitute these ingredients.

Cuts of meat with connective tissue

Braising is designed for tough, gristly cuts of meat with a lot of connective tissue (e.g. beef shanks) or thick muscles that control movement (e.g. lamb legs and pork shoulders). Cooking on gentle heat for hours with moisture turns the collagen into gelatin, which is rich and silky.

WARNING: If you braise pricier cuts like chicken breast or beef tenderloin, you’ll turn tender meat into dry, stringy rubber. Reserve them for grilling, searing, and stir frying.

These cuts of meat, packed with collagen, are ideal for braising.

Cut
Lambshoulder, leg, shanks*
Beefbrisket, short ribs, chuck, bottom round, shanks*, oxtail*
Porkshoulder, belly, ribs, trotters, shanks
Chicken/ Poultryold hen, rooster (coq au vin), bone-in thighs or legs, wings
Offal**tongue, cheek, ears, tripe, hearts

*Bone-in meats like shanks with the middle bone are fantastic because you get the connective tissue and the bone marrow. The marrow adds flavor and body to your braise.

**Part of the practice of eating less meat without being vegetarian by reducing food waste.

TIP: You’ll often read that any cut of meat that tends toward toughness is a good candidate for braising. This isn’t always true. For example, flank steak can be dry if not correctly prepared (marinated, sliced against the grain, etc.) but it doesn’t have enough collagen to do well in a braise. Pork belly has plenty of fat so it rarely tastes dry no matter how you cook it. Yet, it’s a common cut of pork that Chinese people love to braise because pork skin has plenty of collagen. Use the table above to guide you when it comes to choosing a cut for braising.

Aromatics

Aromatics are added in 2 phases: 1. vegetables, 2. herbs and spices.

Phase 1: The most common aromatic vegetables used for braising are the classic mirepoix combination: chopped onion, carrot, and celery. Another favorite combination is garlic, green onion, ginger, and shallots (especially in Chinese braises).

Phase 2: After deglazing (fancy term to describe adding liquid to browned bits in a hot pan), you can add aromatic herbs and spices to infuse your braise with flavors. Here are common combinations of herbs and spices for different cuisines:

  • French: bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, garlic, tomato, black peppercorns
  • Italian: sage, rosemary, basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme
  • Chinese: bay leaf, ginger, cinnamon, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, chili
  • Indian: cumin, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves

TIP: Use a spice sachet to hold your spices to avoid fishing them out later.

Experiment: For a creative twist to the usual braise, consider adding orange peel or lemon zest to the French or Italian mix of aromatic herbs. Play around with fermented bean paste or miso paste for extra umami.

Hearty vegetables

If you’re vegetarian, you can skip the meat and braise vegetables. Even if you’re not vegetarian, adding vegetables while braising meat is an efficient way to bulk up your one-pot meal and infuse the vegetables with meaty flavors.

The best vegetables for braising are root vegetables, winter vegetables, and hearty vegetables with tough fibers that benefit from “low and slow” cooking to soften or to coax out the sugars. Here are ideas of vegetables you can try braising:

  • Root vegetables
    • Beets
    • Carrots
    • Celeriac
    • Parsnip
    • Potatoes
    • Rutabaga
    • Sweet potatoes
    • Turnips
    • Sunchokes
  • Winter vegetables
    • Fennel
    • Leeks
    • Winter squash (acorn, butternut, kabocha, pumpkin)
  • Hearty green vegetables
    • Artichoke
    • Brussels Sprouts
    • Cabbage
    • Chard
    • Kale
    • Romaine lettuce
    • Endive
    • Escarole
    • Mustard greens

Braising liquid

Braising liquid is critical because 1. it adds flavor to your braise, and 2. moisture is necessary for transforming collagen into gelatin.

The ideal combination of braising liquid is 1. cooking alcohol to deglaze the pan and add acidity (helps to tenderize the meat), 2. a flavorful liquid to provide moisture.

  • Deglazing liquids (acidic)
    • Wine: white wine for poultry, red wine for beef and chicken (that’s why it’s called coq au vin), shaoxing wine (for Chinese braises)
    • Beer: lighter lagers for pork, dark beer like stout for red meat (and for Guinness-braised cabbage)
    • Vinegar (less is more): balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, red wine vinegar, apple-cider vinegar
  • Flavor-adding liquids
    • Soy sauce: dark soy sauce and light soy sauce
    • Broth/stock: chicken stock, vegetable stock, beef stock, etc.
    • Tomato: tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, or tomato paste
    • Milk: Inspired by Bolognese sauce, some cooks use a small amount of milk for braising

Equipment you need for braising

Most food writers love to advocate a Dutch oven for braising. Why? Because cast-iron enameled cookware retains heat well, heats evenly and can go from stove to oven safely.

Did you know the French don’t use a Dutch oven for braising? They use a shorter pan with rounded sides called un braiser. It’s smaller and shallower than a Dutch oven.

You can use a lot of different equipment for braising — a slow cooker, a cast-iron pot like a Dutch oven, or a plain soup pot. You can braise on the stovetop or in the oven.

3 main options for braising: stovetop only, stovetop and finished in the oven, slow cooker

How do you pick which equipment is best for you?

Let’s dive into the pros and cons to decide.

Pressure cooker method: Pressure cooking is not truly braising because pressure cookers operate at higher temperatures and cook quickly — the opposite of braising. Some recipes claim to use a pressure cooker as a shortcut to long cooking times.

To be honest, I’ve never tried pressure cooking for braising. I understand that it can work but there’s a risk you’ll end up with dry, chewy meat. Please leave a comment below if you love pressure cooking and think works for braising.

Stovetop method: The benefit of stovetop braising is that you don’t need to move the braise to the oven (which I like because of my kitchen ergonomics). I don’t own any cast-iron cookware so my pots are not oven safe. I also like the control because I can check and stir the braise easily.

The downside to stovetop braising is that you may struggle to control the temperature. This leads to less predictable results. The heat from the cooktop might be more variable compared to the oven where you set the temperature.

Oven method: Most braising recipes instruct you to use the oven. The benefit is that ovens keep the temperature constant. You don’t get tempted to open the lid frequently, which causes steam to escape and dries out the meat.

The downside of the oven is that some ovens have hot spots or the temperature dial is miscalibrated. It’s a hassle to check the braise in a hot oven towards the end of the cook time. The biggest disadvantage for me is the difficulty of moving a heavy pot from the stove to the oven.

Slowcooker method: A slow cooker for braising seems like the best method because you don’t have to watch over it for 8 hours.

The downside of slowcookers is that you lack temperature control unless you have a very fancy model that allows you to set the temperature perfectly at 165ºF/75ºC. I’ve read that the newer slow cooker models can heat up to beyond 180ºF even on the lowest setting because of food safety precautions. Imagine braising at 200ºF for hours, getting excited for a fork-tender chuck roast, and finding overcooked meat. Slow cookers are worth trying but make sure you have an appliance that won’t lead to disappointment.

BOTTOM LINE: If you have an oven-safe pot like a Dutch oven and don’t have issues moving a very hot and heavy pot from stove to oven, you can try the oven method first because it’s supposedly more reliable and easier for a beginner. If you have constraints on your movement like me or you don’t have a Dutch oven, try braising on the stove-top with a thick-bottomed soup pot and use a meat thermometer to keep the temperature as constant as possible.


How to braise meat

A cross-sectional guide on how to braise. For vegetarians, skip the meat stages and following the remaining steps for the vegetables.

This is the basic process of braising meat:

  1. Choose the correct cut of meat (rich in collagen). Consider marinating or salting your meat the day before if appropriate.
  2. Sear the meat on all sides on high heat. (You can also broil for bone-in meats like shanks which are oddly shaped and hard to sear in a pan). Remove the meat from the heat.
  3. Sweat the aromatic vegetables until softened.
  4. Deglaze the pan with an alcoholic braising liquid and/or vinegar (phase 1). Allow the alcohol to evaporate.
  5. Add the meat back to the pot.
  6. Add the phase 2 braising liquid (e.g. vegetable stock) until it reaches halfway up the meat.
  7. Add more aromatics like herbs and spices.
  8. Cover the pot with a tight-sealing lid. Turn the heat to low on the stove or transfer to a preheated oven. Simmer the braise for hours until the meat breaks apart when cut with a fork. It could take 3 to 8 hours depending on the size of the meat and the temperature.
  9. Add hearty vegetables towards the end of the cooking time.
  10. Check on the braise every 30 minutes until the meat is “fork tender”.
  11. Turn off the heat and allow the braise to cool in its liquid. This locks in the moisture. Spoon the braising sauce over the meat.
  12. Optional: Reduce the braising liquid over high heat in a separate pan to make a concentrated sauce. It’s ready to serve.

TIP: Rest the meat after you turn off the heat to give it chance to reabsorb lost moisture from the braising liquid. I read that French chemist Hervé This recommends injecting the braising liquid into the cooked meat to boost moisture.

The browned bits at the bottom of the pan after searing the meat (a.k.a. “le fond” in French — it means the “bottom”). Ready to deglaze!

How to braise vegetables

The key difference is that vegetables require significantly less time to braise.

If you are braising root vegetables, like carrots, potatoes, and parsnips, they need about 30 to 60 minutes. Green leafy vegetables, like kale, cabbage, and romaine, require less time maybe 15 to 45 minutes depending on how soft you want them.

There are two ways to braise vegetables:

  1. Add vegetables to a meat braise: You can sear the vegetables after searing the meat and add them at the same time that you add the meat back into your cooking vessel.
  2. Braise vegetables alone.

This is the basic process of braising vegetables (either vegan style or with a little meat for flavoring):

  1. Cut the vegetables into wedges, slices, or bite-sized chunks depending on the vegetable.
  2. Sear the vegetable in hot oil. Remove from the heat.
  3. Sweat the aromatic vegetables. If you’re a meat eater, you can add pieces of bacon or sausage for extra flavor.
  4. Deglaze the pan with alcohol and/or vinegar. Allow the alcohol to evaporate.
  5. Add aromatic herbs, spices, and the braising liquid. Bring the mixture to a boil.
  6. Add the seared vegetables back to the pan.
  7. Cover the pot with a tight-sealing lid. Simmer the braise on the stovetop or in a preheated oven. It could take 30 minutes to 2 hours simmering depending on the vegetable, heat, and quantity.
  8. Turn off the heat and allow the braise to cool.
  9. You can make a sauce by thickening the braising liquid to serve with the dish.
While not a vegetable, block tofu is a great vegetarian protein to add to braises. I put in cubed tofu towards the end of braising and allow it to soak the flavorful braising liquid.

What is the best temperature for braising?

The million-dollar question. For the best braise, your goal is to keep as much water in the meat as possible and convert collagen to gelatin.

But you also don’t want to wait for hours if you can finish braising in less time. Let’s learn more about how to balance temperature versus time.

There’s no consensus on “what internal temperature is best for braising meat,” according to Marjorie Penfield and Ada Marie Campbell in their textbook Experimental Food Science. Some cookbook authors recommend setting the oven as high as 350ºF (175ºC) for braising meat. Others, like the reputable Harold McGee, recommend starting at 200º and increasing to 250ºF (93-121ºC).

The good news is that the temperatures at which meat denatures are well understood according to Mark Gibson and Pat Newsham in their textbook Food Science and the Culinary Arts. An optimal range to turn collagen into gelatin is to keep the internal temperature of the meat within 144 to 149ºF (62 to 65ºC) according to Barham, Skibsted et al. in their article Molecular Gastronomy: A New Emerging Scientific Discipline published in Chemical Review in 2010. This recommendation coincidences with FoodSafety.gov meat safety temperature guidance (165ºF/73ºC for poultry, 145ºF/68ºC for pork and red meat) as well as this experiment run by Cooks Illustrated on chicken thighs.

The lower the oven or stove temperature, the longer it takes the meat to reach the optimal internal temperature range.

This means if the oven is set at 200ºF/93ºC, you may need to braise for 10 to 12 hours to reach the target internal temperature. That’s why some recipes start at 350ºF/175ºC. Even though you are sacrificing tenderness at the higher temperature, it speeds up the cooking time significantly.

The lower the heat of your oven or stove, the longer it takes the meat to braise. However, it’s more likely to be tender and juicy if you keep it at a lower temperature.

Now you understand the trade offs, as you look for a well-tested braising recipe, you know how to balance time and temperature to decide if you’re willing to compromise on tenderness to speed up cooking time. You also know to skeptically evaluate any recipe which instructs you to boil the meat.

TIP: Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature. I wish I could give you a magical formula but there’s none. Your first braises may not turn out perfectly. But you’ll get better the more you do. Soon, you’ll have an intuition of what temperature to braise which meat or vegetable and for how long.


How to thicken the braising liquid to make a sauce

It’s common to reduce the braising liquid to make a sauce. After so many hours of gentle cooking, the flavor-packed liquid has plenty of body to make an excellent sauce. If you want to transform it into a sauce, remove the meat and vegetables from the pot. Strain and boil the sauce over a high heat. Stir occasionally. It is ready when it thickens to a syrupy consistency, coating the back of a spoon.

How to serve a braise

The main challenge to presentation is that most braises are brown and look like a dark clump of wet food. Here are a few ways to bring color back to your dish.

What is the difference between braising and stewing?

They’re very similar techniques. Some people use the terms interchangeably. From my understanding, stewing uses more liquid where the meat can be almost completely submerged in the stewing liquid. Stewing usually entails chopping all the meat and vegetables into approximately the same-sized chunks. And stewing may not be cooked at such a low heat. You can’t go wrong with either braising or stewing. Try both and learn which method is your favorite.


Common braising mistakes

As braising is more advanced than other cooking techniques, you may run into roadblocks. Don’t give up! Here are common braising mistakes plus how to avoid or fix them.

Mistake #1: The meat is dry and stringy.

Potential causes: Braising for too long dries out meat. The ideal pot for braising has a tight lid to seal in moisture and is not too big. If you’re opening the lid too frequently, too much steam can escape. Finally, did you rest the braise before serving? Did you store the braise in its braising liquid?

Solutions: Stop cooking the meat as soon as it is “fork tender”. Check on the meat every 30 minutes after it has braised for 2 hours. Don’t use an oversized pot — try to find one about the same size as the meat. Keep the liquid level halfway and replenish the braising liquid if it falls below the halfway level. Rest the braise in the liquid before serving to allow it to reabsorb some moisture.

Mistake #2: The braised meat is tough and rubbery.

Potential causes: Are you using cuts of meat with plenty of connective tissue? Are you braising at too high temperatures?

Solution: Use the right cuts of meat. If braising on the stovetop, simmer. That means bubbles are periodically floating to the surface. There is no roiling boil. In the oven, start at a lower temperature.

Mistake #3: The braise tastes bland.

Potential causes: Bland braises can result from not searing the meat or vegetable to get depth and richness (the Maillard reaction). If you crowd the pan when searing, you may be steaming instead of browning. Are you using water to deglaze the pan? Are you adding aromatics?

Solution: Avoid crowding the pan when searing. Sear in batches if you have to. Use flavorful braising liquids instead of water to deglaze. Add plenty of aromatics.

Mistake #4: I’m 8 hours in and the meat is still resistant to a fork.

Potential causes: How big is the chunk of meat? Do you need to cook for longer because the heat is very low? Are you on a slow cooker?

Solution: The most common situation where this can happen is when the heat is too low and you haven’t allowed the meat to cook for longer enough. Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature. If it’s below 140ºF/60ºC, increase the heat slowly until the internal temperature reaches 140ºF/60ºC and keep testing the meat every 30 minutes until it is fork tender.

If the temperature is beyond 190ºF/87ºC, the meat is probably overcooked and won’t tenderize. You should stop braising it. Find a way to shred it and slathered it in sauce to bring back moisture before serving.


FAQ about braising

How can you prepare a braise ahead of time?

Yes. Because braising takes a long time, I like to break it into sections. For example, if I’m strapped for time, I brown the meat and deglaze. Then I resume the next day when I have more time to simmer. You can braise the day before and make the sauce the next day for serving. Braises taste better after resting overnight anyway.

How can you tell when a meat braise is ready?

You can tell the meat is done when you can cut into it with the side of a fork, hence the term “fork-tender”.

Can you braise too long?

Yes. It will dry out the meat if you braise too long.

The rule of thumb is braise meat for about 1 to 5 hours, about an hour for a pound of meat (that’s two hours for every kilo).

Timing varies depending on the type of meat (chicken vs. beef vs. pork) and the temperature.

Check every 30 minutes after 2 hours of simmering to avoid overcooking (but not more frequent because you don’t want the precious steam to escape).

How well do braised meats freeze?

Meat braises freeze very well. I make a big braise and always freeze the leftovers for later. Braised vegetables freeze well because cooking for a long time has changed their texture to be soft. We usually eat all the braised vegetables too quickly for there to be leftovers to freeze.

How should you store braised meats and vegetables after cooking?

Rest the meat in the braising liquid. You can leave it in the same cooking vessel and store it in the fridge once it has cooled. If you’re freezing it, portion the meat and liquid into plastic containers.

Braised vegetables can be stored in the same cooking pot resting in the braising liquid and left in the fridge. Cooked meat and vegetables last for 3 days in the fridge.

How do you know when the stove temperature is too hot for the braise?

Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat when braising. Braising vegetables is less sensitive to high heat but you still want to keep it simmering rather than boiling.

If stovetop braising is too hard when it comes to temperature control, consider using an oven to finish a braise.

Can you braise in a skillet?

Yes for vegetable braises, especially if you have a lid to cover the skillet. Meat braises are more challenging because the cut of meat is probably taller than the skillet, which means you can’t cover it with a lid for a tight seal. As long as you can cover the braise with a tight lid, you can probably use the skillet or pan for braising. It should be oven-safe if you decide to transfer it to finish in the oven.

Can you braise in a baking pan?

Avoid it if possible. Baking pans and roasting pans make it hard to keep liquid from evaporating out, which drys out the braise. If you don’t have better options, you can try to cover the baking pan with foil to keep the moisture in.

Can you add water to a braise?

Some water is OK. But water will turn out blander compared to using flavorful braising liquids. Try to add flavorful liquids like stock and top up with water if you need it.

READ NEXT: Aromatic lentil soup that even lentil haters will love 🍲

What are your favorite braising recipes? Share in the comments below.

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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