Thursday, June 23, 2011

Get More Bang for Your Food Budget Buck Series Part III: Turning Cheap Cuts of Meat Into Stellar Meals.

The Art of Braising

Meat is usually the most important expensive part of an entire meal. However, you don't have to live off ground chuck and bulk boneless, skinless chicken breasts to save a few bucks on meat. We've already talked about turning your single chicken breast piece into 2 portions by making cutlets, but we can do better. Let's talk a little about braising.

Braising is a fancy term that basically means cooking a piece of meat at a low temperature for a long period of time. (Low and Slow). Braising is not the technique you want to use when you are trying to whip out dinner in thirty minutes. However, if you are going to be working around the house all day, say on a weekend, putting a hunk of meat in the oven to braise all day will result in an awesome meal by dinner time. What's also cool as this big effort will likely produce leftovers you can eat on a couple days, or freeze for another time. You also don't have to constantly be checking on these meals. Check on them every hour or two only! Here's the low down.

Braising was developed as a method for cooking cheap, otherwise unpalatable cuts of meat. Some cuts of meat that are commonly braised are roasts, briskets, pork butt (which is really the shoulder by the way), stews, dark meats on birds, or meats that have lots of connective tissue. These meats are tough because they are big muscles that the animal uses a lot. Think of a man with 6 pack abs, if you punched it really hard, it would be really tough. Same concept. 

So how does braising work? Think of braising as similar to a hot sauna. When you first walk in you are totally shocked by the heat and you tense all up, but after awhile your muscles relax and you just turn to putty. That's basically braising.

So what special tools do you need to braise? Truth be told, you don't need any fancy equipment to braise; however, there are a variety of ways to do it if you do have gadgets gathering dust. You can braise in a cast iron dutch oven, corning ware (ceramic dishes), earthen ware pots with lids, and a crock pot. Lost the lid? We can work with that, too.

Okay, I am not going to do any specific recipes for this post. Don't be scared though, I will provide you with the basic steps that will get you through any braising process.

10 Steps for Braising:
1.  Don't even THINK about doing this technique if you only have an hour to cook. Just a friendly reminder.

2.  Season the meat with a dry spice combo that you enjoy. Don't know much about spices? Use salt and pepper. Cover the whole dang thing really well.

3. Heat a few tablespoons of oil or butter in a heavy pan or your Dutch oven.

4. Sear your meat in the pan on medium-high heat until the meat browns on the outside only. Make sure to brown all sides. DO NOT freak out if it sticks a little. That crusty crud is important for later!

5. After your meat is seared, move it in your braising pot or crock pot. If you seared it in your dutch oven, disregard this step.

6. This sounds fancy but don't panic! You are going to deglace the pan. WTH does that mean? You are simply going to get the crusty crud off the bottom of the pan by pouring broth, beef stock, wine, water, or juice and scraping with a spatula. Why? Because brown food is delicious and that crust = flavor, flavor, flavor.

7. If you notice a bunch of oil floating to the top, don't worry, we can skim that off later. Pour the liquid and crusty bits into your braising pot, careful not to rinse off all your meat's seasonings.

8. Add a cooking liquid (water, stock, wine, juice or some combination) to the half-way point of the main ingredient.

9. Add some chunky cut, aromatic veggies to the pot. Perhaps an 1-2 quartered onions and 3-4 rough cut celery stalks. Cover and place the meat on the middle of a rack in an oven that has been pre-heated to 200-300 degrees Fahrenheit. Lost the lid to that pot? Simply wrap the top tightly with foil. Remember, we want a sauna!

10. Cook until completely tender. This can range from 1 hour to 6 hours, depending on the type of meat you are using. Check on the meal every hour or two. If the liquid has boiled out, turn down the heat and add more. It will be tough and dry without the liquid. Feel free to spoon some liquid over the top of the meat when you check it, just for fun. Beef takes the longest to cook, followed by pork, then birds.

Here are 2 braised meals I made one day Chopped style because I was at Jon's parents. (Chopped contestants have to plan and cook an meal with the basket of mystery ingredients). The meal fed 13 people for only $30. The sides were rice and mashed potatoes. In The bulk of the cost was 10 chicken thighs with legs. The remaining was for the celery and a sack of potatoes. Everything else, I thought on my feet and pulled from their pantry. No recipes, just thinking on my feet. Total cost per person: Less than $3.

Seasoned with rosemary, salt, pepper, and butter, seared in butter, and braised at 300 with celery carrots and onion. Covered with foil. Total cook time: 2 hours. Results: A rich buttery flavor and velvety texture.

Seasoned with salt, pepper, and brown sugar. Seared in olive oil. Covered with onion, BBQ Sauce and Bacon bits!!!! Braised at 3oo degrees covered in foil. Total cook time 2 hours. Result: A sweet and salty BBQ flavor, tender and moist.

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