Braising and the Dutch Oven



Braising and the Dutch Oven

In cooking meat, one struggles continuously to develop flavor, to retain moisture, and to cook to the appropriate level of doneness. This set of objectives always comes with compromises. Cooking processes that brown will also tend to dry out meats. Those that retain moisture risk making meat soggy, stringy, and tasteless - remediable only with the help of a good sauce. Grilling, for instance, browns the outside of meat but leaves the inseide moist, hopefully. Roasting can brown the outside of meat, but if it is not done with care it can dry meat out. Boiling will definitely deliver tender and moist meat, but it will make things soggy and tasteless. Braising, depending on how its done, either manages to capture both strengths or both weaknesses of roasting and boiling.

In our essays about chicken and turkey we talk about how to properly roast both of these birds. All that is needed is an oven, a roasting pan, and some vegetables.

Roasting vs Braising

In the preparation of roasted beef or lamb, one might start the process by carefully browning the outside of the roast over the highest heat possible. This has two hidden advantages. One is that searing helps to seal the surface. It causes the proteins in the meat to contract and this will generally serve both to push moisture into the meat away from the surface, and to seal the surface and make moisture more difficult to get out. The second is that it develops a much richer flavor. Searing may be done with the roasting pan or Dutch Oven on the cooktop, or it may be done with the meat uncovered in the oven at very high heat. Each produces a different result.

In some small cuts of meat such as tenderloin roasts, and ones that one wishes to cook to a fairly low internal temperature such as 135F, it may be that thoroughly browning the outside will provide enough heat that, if the process is conducted in a very heavy cast iron Dutch Oven, the whole thing can be put into a slight warm oven or even left on the stove wrapped in towels to finish cooking. I recently read just such a recipe in Red White and Greens.

A so-called roasting technique popular when I was a child was to coat a roast with some magic concoction, then heat it in the oven wrapped in aluminum foil. The advantage of this process is that the juices that come out of the meat stay in contact with it, preventing it from getting dry. Meat can come out stringy and flavorless this way. The latter problem can be managed by coating the roast with magic concoctions. One such magic concoction was a mixture of condensed cream of mushroom soup and instant onion soup. What was ingenious about this mix is that it added flavor without adding much moisture, and the flavors it added were completely consonant with the flavors of the roast. Technically, the roasting of a hunk of meat confined in its own cooking juices, is best considered to be braising; for it results in a rather different outcome than roasting or steaming or grilling or barbecuing or broiling or boiling.

Dutch Ovens

The kitchen tool ideally suited to braising is the Dutch Oven. The obvious choice is the enamelled sort, a la Le Creuset. This always seems like an expensive proposition, but if one is braising meats - browning them, then cooking them in the moisture of their own juices and some vegetables, nothing works half as well as an oval Le Creuset Dutch oven. One can quickly and easily create one-dish meals that are absolutely delicious, and packed with nutrients. Braises and fricassees are, arguably one of the more neglected kinds of fare because stews have been done so badly in places where they have been done.

The reason for selecting an oval Dutch oven is that it accommodates oval roasts and oval poutry: things one roasts are rarely round. The only real disadvantage of a Dutch Oven is that it works best for moderately sized roasts, but will not accommodate monstrous ones. This is a disadvantage when one is trying to feed more than a half dozen people with a single dish, but it is actually an advantage if one is cooking for a sort of average single family.


Eat well and prosper.

Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.