Although it seems counterintuitive, some of the toughest and cheapest cuts of meat make the richest, tenderest meals. The secret is long, slow cooking, which breaks down dense muscle fibers and dissolves the tough connective tissues. One of the best slow-cooking techniques is braising, which immerses the meats partially in a flavorful cooking liquid. Many recipes call for wine, but it should be only a small part of the liquids used.
Basic Braising Technique
Cookbooks differentiate between dry-heat cooking methods and moist-heat cooking methods. Frying and baking are dry-heat methods, using no water, while steaming and simmering are moist-heat methods. Braising combines both techniques. The meats are seared first to brown their surfaces and create rich, savory flavors. Then the cook adds enough liquid to cover the bottom third or half of the meat. The meat is then slowly simmered on the stovetop or baked in the oven until it is fork-tender. The cooking liquid is usually strained, concentrated and thickened to create a sauce, so it's important that its flavors are balanced.
Choice of Liquid
The choice of a braising liquid helps determine the final flavor of both the meat and its sauce. Plain water is a valid choice, especially for venison, beef shanks or other richly flavored meats. The sauce is tastier if it's based on a suitable stock, such as vegetable, veal or chicken stock. Some recipes call for fruit juices, beer or other liquids. Wine is also a common choice, but it can produce a harsh and overbearing flavor if it's the primary cooking liquid.
Ratio for Wine
A small amount of wine can transform a sauce from pedestrian to extraordinary, but more can easily be too much of a good thing. Braising recipes from the classical culinary tradition usually call for one part wine to three or four parts stock, and sometimes less. As a rule, milder-flavored meats need less wine and stronger-flavored meats can benefit from more. For example, you might use a relatively small quantity of wine when braising veal or lamb, but correspondingly more for game. Ultimately, your own taste is the deciding factor.
Balancing your Sauce
Often, you won't know if you've gotten the ratio of wine right until you have finished cooking your meat and begin to prepare the sauce. Strain and simmer the sauce until it's close to the right consistency, then taste it. If the flavors are well balanced, you only need to bring your sauce to a suitable thickness before serving it. If there isn't enough wine flavor, simmer 1/2 cup or more of wine in a separate saucepan until it's reduced down to a tablespoon. Add the concentrated wine to your sauce a few drops at a time, until it tastes right. If the wine flavor is too strong, add a bit more stock or swirl in a few chunks of cold butter to enrich the sauce and moderate the wine's harshness.