Braising. Man, I can only think of a few other techniques that have been so horribly bastardized. When people think of cooking slow and low, usually they take a hunk o'meat and throw it in the crock pot all day covered in water. The end result is often an overly tough or slimily moist mystery. But braising, oh buddy, braising is special. The principle is not all that different from crock potting but the end result isn't even in the same league.
At the core of braising is cooking with a low heat for an extended period of time (usually 250-300 degrees for 3-4 hours). It is the same principle actually as slow barbecuing. You want a slightly moist heat. This technique has been used for hundreds of years to make lower quality cuts more palatable. But we're not doing this just to use up that freezer burned chunk of chuck in your freezer. No way, braising can produce flavors and textures that you only hope you could taste let alone reproduce. And guess what, you can. Even better? It's actually quite easy.
Imagine a pot roast that you can cut with a fork AND slice with a knife (and have it not fall apart) all the while being perfectly juicy and tender. Or a weird cut like oxtail or shanks that is impossible to cook any other way and comes out so rich that you'll get all poetic at the table.
So here's the rules, just don't violate them and everything will come out peachy.
1) Slow and Low - Just have to reiterate it, it's kinda integral.
2) Sautee your cut and veggies - this produces "Fond" or the tasty charred bits at the bottom of the pan
3) Deglaze (add liquid) - bring to a boil to release the fond. Reduce to half (this is your brasing liquid)
4) Cover and Cook (yup you guessed it) Slow 'n' Low.
The end result can be devoured right off the bone, or pulled off and shredded for sandwiches. Give it a try, you'll be so happy you did.
Braised lamb shanks fresh out of the oven, ready to devour!
*See "On Braising" for more info on this time (not labor) intensive technique*
Poor shanks, no one likes them cause they think they are hard to cook. They're not, in fact, if you have the time. They are one of the easiest ways to have a positively heavenly meal without breaking a sweat. The reason they are so maligned is because they are all tendon and hard muscle. However, given a long, slow cook with just a little moisture, the tendons not only break down but the joints release that magical substance, collagen, that does seductively savory things to your palate. I daresay that braised shanks are my very favorite winter dish.
Serves 4-6 people; Prep Time: Total cook time: about 3 hours
2-3 lbs shanks - this should be about 4 shanks (I like smoked pork but you can use fresh pork, beef, lamb... anything with ankles really)
2 cups liquid (White wine goes good for pork, red for anything else. I've used tomato juice (with Italian seasoning to give an Italian flair). I've also had great success with apple cider.
1 cup stock (optional though really gives a much greater depth of character to the dish, oh, and it really doesn't even matter what kind you use though it will taste more "porky"/"beefy" etc if you use the corresponding stock to the meat you are braising)
1 large yellow onion (chopped to about 1/2" pieces)
Kosher Salt and Fresh Pepper to taste
Equipment wise, you'll need something that you can use on your stove top and bake with like a dutch oven or an all-metal frying pan with a top (no plastic or rubber!!)
Pre-heat your oven to 300 degrees.
Heat pan on high and add approximately 1 to 2 tbsp of a high heat, temperature-stable oil (pure coconut is best, NEVER cook with EV Olive Oil at a high heat, it is very unstable at those temperatures and becomes carcinogenic).
Rub shanks with about 2 tbsp kosher salt and sear on all sides. You want a nice crust on the shanks. This should take about 1 1/2 minutes per side and up to 10 minutes total.
Remove shanks and add onions. Saute at med/high heat until the onions are browning and soft.
At this point there should be a good amount of dark charred bits at the bottom of the pan. This is called "fond" and learning how to use it can help you create some amazingly rich and deep flavored dishes.
Add the two cups of liquid (deglaze). Once added, use a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan as it boils. Your goal is to release all the fond and get a clean pan.
When the liquid has reduced by half you can add your stock. Bring back to a boil and add shanks to the now dark and lovely smelling onion liquid. Depending on what type of pan you are using you do not want more than 1/2" of liquid in the pan at this time. The shanks will drain as they cook, enriching your braising liquid.
Give the liquid a taste at this point. You want it to be a little on the salty side. The salt will penetrate the meat as it cooks, tenderizing and flavoring. Add more if necessary.
Add pepper to taste, cover and place in pre-heated oven. Set timer for 30 minutes. At the end of 30 minutes remove the pan (with mitts! Don't roll your eyes, I've done it more than once) and flip the shanks. Return to oven for another 30 minutes.
Repeat the process FOUR (4) more times (yes four. Yes it takes 3 hours. Yes it's worth it.)
Remove from oven after 3 hours of cooking (6 flips) and serve. Feel free to thicken the braising liquid to use as a gravy or leave it thin and serve in a bowl as a rich broth.
* Variations *
With Beef and Lamb add 1 cup diced celery and carrots to the onions (this is called a Mirepoix "Meer-Pwah") when sauteing. Deglaze first with 1 cup diced tomatoes. Let them reduce until there is no liquid and then deglaze with 2 cups red wine. You can add a couple tsp of any Italian Spices (fresh basil, mmmmmm).
Using any type of shank, add 1 cup diced apples or pears and 1 tsp cinnamon to the onions and deglaze with apple cider. The final result will be a little sweeter but have an intoxicating aroma. This is a great one for entertaining because it makes the house smell dreamy.
Best with beef, add 1 tsp fresh rosemary to onions and deglaze with 2 cups dark beer (drink remainder). Guinness is a great standby but if you can find a unique micro, it will taste much more interesting. Halfway through cooking, add thickly chopped peeled potatoes and carrots.