The following is reposted with permission from a friend. If you want to make really good soup or turn cheap meat into fan-tast-ic food, read on.
Braising is a slow cook method that could be likened to how a crock-pot cooks. I've also heard it described as a way to cook meat immersed in the marinade. I kind of like both descriptors.
So my technique is pretty set, even though the ingredients change from dish to dish.
1. Start with cheap or cheap-ish meat. Whatever you use has to be able to tolerate long cooking methods, so good cuts of beef or chicken (the two things I've braised) kind of melt during the process. That's bad. For beef, I've had good luck with uncured brisket, flank steak and on Saturday I used Top Round that I cut into 2.5 (or so) inch thick steaks. For chicken, I like dark meat. Skin on and bone in is best. A whole leg (drumstick and thigh attached) makes for a good looking presentation.
2. Season the meat. Have some seasonings stuck to it. For Saturday I used Montreal Steak seasoning. Chili powder and cumin work well on chicken and makes for kind of southwest thing. Everything gets salt and pepper, of course (though most of what was in the Montreal Steak seasoning was coarse salt and pepper).
3. Sear the meat. Some people worry about drying, but by using an immersed cooking method there's really no worries with that. A lot of what we are doing with the searing is setting up the taste profile for the next ingredients. I sear in batches, so it's into the frying pan, brown on both sides then straight into the braising vessel (Which for me is an eight quart, enamel on iron dutch oven. Mine is, in fact, a Le Crusset knockoff with Martha Stewart's name on it.). The braising vessel is room temp, just sitting on the stovetop waiting for the dish to be assembled. This weekend I did something fancy. I put the meat onto potato slices to elevate it and stop sticking. It made cleanup easier, too.
4. Cook the braising liquid. Do not clean out the pan you seared the meat in. Just cook everything right down on the oil and meat bits and whatnot. For Saturday I cooked two onions (Vidalias), a load of mushrooms (canned (rinsed and drained) because I wasn't up for cleaning and cutting mushrooms), a can of black beans (rinsed and drained) and a couple of tablespoons of minced garlic. I let all that cook until it was soft. While that was cooking I dissolved a couple packets of onion gravy mix in half of a beer (I cook with cheap pilsner. This time I used Miller High Life.). Once the veggies were soft, I stirred in the beer and crushed tomatoes (the beer plus the tomatoes deglazed the skillet) and allowed the gravy the thicken some. Once it thickened up, I poured it over the beef.
5. Submerge the meat. Now is the time to make sure the meat is all under the fluid. I added beer to make sure it was all totally submerged. I also added steak sauce at this time (People who make steak sauce used to treat chipotles as some kind of secret ingredient. Now the cat's out of the bag.). Adding other flavors now is totally appropriate.
6. Cook in a 225 degree oven. Cover the pot and put it on the middle rack. I check on the beef at the 4 hour mark and it was done but still tough. Between hours 4 and 5, something magic happened that the beef tenderized itself nicely. For me, timing is a guideline. I will keep cooking until whatever I'm making is tender.
7. Pull the meat out of the liquid and rest it. While it is coming down in temp, get a stick blender and have at the braising liquid. I rough chop everything because this step renders it all a waste of time anyway. Also, some people might try to skim the oil off of the braising liquid now but I find that leaving it in acts as a thickener, like drizzling oil into a blender to make mayo or salad dressing. The stick blender emulsifies everything in the braising vessel, so the oil is suspended and nothing tastes 'oily'.. If you cooked with fresh herbs, re-season now to kind of perk the herb flavor up. Again, just rough chop and let the blender do your work for you. If you are serving now, portion out the rested meat and then spoon some of this gravy/sauce/whatever onto it when you serve. I stored the meat in the sauce over night then heated them all back up together.
[and from a second email]
The stick blender:
First off, a deep pot is a must. The more space between the liquid surface and the top of the pot, the greater the chance of avoiding mishaps. The stick blender needs to be in about 3 inches of liquid to keep the 'output' from breaking the surface. Not breaking the surface = No splattery mess. Never put it into the fluid or remove it from the fluid running (obvious once you do it the first time). I put the blender flat on the bottom of the pot and pulse it to test before I really go to town. I actually am guided by sound on this. If the blender cavitates (sucks air into the blades) I know it is putting air into the mix, which is fine if you want something whipped and airy. If I don't want air, either I need more liquid or I need to pulse and not run the thing for any amount of time. Once it is safe, I'll tilt the blender some to pick up large chunks. I also use it like a potato masher where I push down chunks with the blender off then pulse it to break up the things I have trapped under the blades.
Newest braising event:
Earlier this week I started a turkey soup by braising turkey legs in beer and chicken stock. I peeled and rough-chopped potatoes and put them into the pot before the turkey. Then I rough-chopped celery, onion and carrot and used all that as the braising veggies. The seasonings were salt, pepper, rosemary, thyme, sage, tarragon and herbs de provence. Once the braising was done, about 3 hours, the legs were removed and allowed to cool. The stock got a dose of stick blending so now I have all the traditional flavors of turkey noodle soup in a really thick stock. We shredded the turkey off the legs and chopped it then put it in the fridge in tupperware with enough thick stock on top to keep it moist. The rest of the thick stock went into it's own tupperware in the fridge. When it's time to make soup, I'll saute some nicely chopped onion, carrot and celery and boil some noodles. Then I'll combine turkey, thick stock, newly sauteed veggies, some fresh herbs (parsley and sage, mostly), noodles and a certain amount of check stock to cut it. This makes it more 'soup' and less 'stew'. That will burble for about a hour to let the flavors meld. All the preview tastes tell me it's going to be good.