Often meat, poultry and even vegetables are browned in oil or fat in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat before the actual braising begins. In most cases, meats should be trimmed of excess fat and seasoned with salt, pepper and herbs or spices before browning.
By caramelizing natural sugars present in food, browning develops a rich surface color and deep flavor that enhance the finished recipe. Resist the temptation to lift pieces of food as they’re browning; doing so can lead to a loss of moisture and sticking. When you’ve finished browning, it’s a good idea to transfer the food to layered paper towels to absorb excess fat before continuing with the recipe. You may also want to pour off any excess fat from the pan or Dutch oven before you deglaze.
Deglazing, Reducing & Boiling
During browning, meat juices and small food particles form brown deposits that stick to the hot surface of the cookware, sometimes forming a glaze. Boiling liquid is the best medium for dissolving, or deglazing, those rich deposits of flavor and color. Add broth, wine, beer, spirits, juice or even water to the cooking vessel in which the food was browned and bring it rapidly to a boil. Stir and scrape the pan deposits with a wooden spoon, causing them to dislodge and dissolve in the liquid.
Some recipes call for boiling the deglazing liquid briskly for several minutes until it reduces in volume. This is done to concentrate the flavor and thicken the body of the liquid, and also to evaporate any alcohol. Finally, this stage calls for adding any other liquid ingredients and bringing the whole mixture to a boil to jump-start the braising process.
Assembling & Cooking
If you’re using a Dutch oven, return the browned food and other solids to the boiling liquid. Cook the mixture in a preheated oven for even heat.
If using a slow cooker, put the main solid ingredients in the crock first (these items take longer to cook, and heat comes primarily from the bottom). Then transfer the crock to the slow cooker base and add the boiling cooking liquid. Cover, set the heat and cooking times, and walk away — your work is mostly done!
Many braised dishes are ready to serve just as they are, straight from the cooking vessel. Others require additional steps; recipes with fatty meats may benefit from skimming fat off the top with a spoon or ladle.
Bonus: most braised dishes taste even better when reheated the next day. Start a day or two ahead when cooking for guests, or make a big batch for the whole family to enjoy!