Braising brings to mind long-simmering stews and mom's pot roast, but braising can be used for slow-cooking vegetables, too. Braising takes several hours, but most of this time is unattended so you can throw some meat, vegetables and liquid in the pot and leave them to do their thing. Make sure to get the ratio of liquid right. Too little liquid causes the food to dry out or burn, but too much might dilute the flavors.
Whether you're braising meats or vegetables, the liquid should only cover about one-third of the food. After all, you want the liquid to steam and simmer the food, rather than boil it. Two unpleasant things can happen if you have too much liquid. The sauce will be thin and bland while the meats will be tough. Boiling vegetables causes them to become mushy.
To prevent the problem of having too much liquid, add only a portion of the liquid to the pot when you deglaze it before returning the meat. Add the meat and vegetables next. Pour the liquid into a measuring cup and add it slowly to the pot so you can gauge how much liquid is already there. Accidents happen, of course, and if you've added too much liquid to the pot, don't worry. Remove the meat and use a ladle to remove some of the liquid. Don't throw this liquid away. It contains flavorful bits of seared meat and vegetables and might be useful later. Cover and refrigerate it for use in soups or casseroles. Put the food back in the pot, cover it and place it in the oven or on the stovetop.
Sometimes you might not realize you've got too much liquid until the food has braised for several hours. It's harder to fix the problem at this point, but not impossible. Transfer the meat and vegetables to a serving dish and ladle out some of the liquid. Place the pot on the stove and turn up the heat so it comes to a simmer. Simmer the sauce for 20 minutes or so, or until it reduces by half. Taste the sauce. Reducing it concentrates and intensifies the flavors somewhat, but if the sauce tastes bland, you may need to season it again. Add some salt, pepper and herbs or stir in a bit of cream.
Getting the ratio of liquid to food right is only one element of creating a delicious braised meal. The most important steps happen before you ever pour any liquid in the pot. Meats that will be braised should be salted 24 hours ahead of time to allow the flavor to permeate the roast. You should also allow the meat to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to one hour before cooking it. Pat it dry and brown it well in a bit of oil. This step adds flavor to both the meat and the sauce. Any seasoning vegetables, such as fennel, celery or onion, should be sauteed too.
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Julie Christensen is a food writer, caterer, and mom-chef. She's the creator of MarmaladeMom.org, dedicated to family fun and delicious food, and released a book titled "More Than Pot Roast: Fast, Fresh Slow Cooker Recipes."