Braising is to winter what grilling is to summer: the best way to prepare meats when you want to capture the essential flavors of the season. As with any cooking technique and the right cookbook (Molly Stevens All About Braising is my bible), you can explore the world and really improve your culinary repertoire. Having made the beef Burgundy (the English name is so much easier to type than the French one) for Valentine's Day this year, I'm contemplating what to make next, perhaps braised ribs or sauerbraten. In fact, I just heard from my beef purveyor, Blue Mountain Beef, and I'll be getting another beef sirloin tip roast and anticipate making ropa vieja or daube de boeuf next.
Three things inspire me to cook: 1) watching cooking shows, especially those on The Food (-porn) Network, 2) learning to appreciate other countries through food culture, and 3) exploring cooking techniques that include the possibility of buying new equipment, such as a grill (gas or charcoal?), an ice cream maker, a Dutch oven (which Le Creuset refers to as a French oven not suprisingly!) etc. My partner bought me my first Le Creuset piece for Christmas years ago, and it is a true work horse in my kitchen helping me to turn out everything from gumbo to fried chicken (better than cast iron), to sauteed collard greens. But this heavy pot really turns out the best oven braised dishes, with its tight fitting lid and enameled cast iron. In fact to avoid scorching my simmering marinara on the stovetop, I've taken to simmering it using the Dutch oven in a 325 degree oven. I use this beloved piece of equipment so frequently that I don't even question how expensive it was ($140 6 or 7 years ago) and in fact owning this piece of cookware has certainly inspired me to explore recipes like pork loin braised in milk, real baked beans, and coq au vin. I even kept a Christmas gift I'd bought for my brother (Two Dudes, One Pan) because leafing through it I found the section on the Dutch oven and wanted to try the recipes myself, especially the braised lamb shanks! (Don't worry though. I did get him a gift that he seemed to love, the Watchmen graphic novel.)
The last time I made beef burgundy, I'm sure I made it in my slow cooker, which is another piece of invaluable kitchen equipment that I'll rhapsodize on someday. I followed the recipe in The Gourment Slow Cooker and consulted Julia Child and Jacques Pepin's version for notes. The dish turned out fine, but I think I may have been at a point of my culinary progression where I didn't fully appreciate the utility of the Dutch oven vs. the slow cooker. I mean it's just easier to make things in the slow cooker compared to the oven, but lately I'm starting to think that my slow cooker only cooks on high and I very much did not want to boil the meat but gently simmer it. Molly Stevens, my braising guru, doesn't even own a slow cooker and doesn't recommend making any of her recipes using one. (The cooking elites eschew convenience which is why you'll never see Ina Garten melt chocolate in a microwave let alone make a dish in a slow cooker! That's what Sandra Lee and Paula Deen are for!)
I was familiar with Julia's and Jacques' beef Burgundy recipe from Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home and recalled that the doyenne had written a recipe sidebar that recommended making the dish over the course of a few days so that it won't seem like so much work. "Simmer the stew the next day while you are eating dinner or playing tennis..." LOL!! However, anyone who's ever made chili knows that it tastes better the next day so I did want to at least cook the meat a day ahead. Plus, the less one has to do on the day the dish is served the more time spent with guests and the less stress all around. We should all strive to be happy in the kitchen, rather than striving to serve the perfect dish.
I also liked how the mushrooms and pearl onions are cooked separately from the meat. Because I knew we'd be out sightseeing all afternoon on Valentine's Day, I was pleased that I was able to saute the onions and mushrooms (as well as make profiteroles for dessert) in the morning and just add them to the pot and put the whole shebang in the fridge to steep and meld all day. Brilliant!
Finally, I'm somewhat surprised at how many foodies are blogging about Julia's boeuf Bourguignon from 1961's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as if a recipe from 1961 needs no enhancement. I'm sure Julia herself did not always make the dish the same way if she's like anyone else in the kitchen who's always tweaking recipes. I had to search high and low for someone who's following the more contemporary incarnation of this classic recipe found in Julia's and Jacques' collaboration, which is a pretty simple beef braise unlike Ina Garten's update on the classic found in her first cookbook using beef tenderloin (gasp!). I did find one blogger who's way more enthusiastic about the 1999 recipe than the 1961 version (and took great pictures), and he agreed with me after having made the 1961 recipe just once that the extra steps involved do not make the extra effort worthwhile.
I also cut out the step of boiling the salt pork because I started with plain old unsmoked bacon to prepare the lardons. I also used way less than a bottle of wine--perhaps a cup and a half at most--because from reading Molly Stevens and from following the steps in cooking my first ever braised dish the liquid should only come up 1/3 to half as high as the level of the meat so as to cook the meat partly by a gentle a simmer and partly by steam. Next time I might take an additional optional step to reduce a bottle of wine down to a cup and a half or so, but I just used an unfinished bottle of cabernet sauvignon, not the recommended Pinot Noir, but definitely a full-bodied red! I would estimate I added only about three cups of liquid to my Dutch oven, including the liquid from the canned tomatoes.
To keep the steam level no higher than the top of the meat, use a piece of parchment larger in diameter than the Dutch oven (or possibly foil but I wouldn't choose foil because the acid in the sauce can react with the aluminum and leech into your dish) to create a barrier that will collect condensation and drip back onto the meat, basting it as it cooks. Using this technique you'll want to turn the meat so that the parts in the liquid are exchanged with the parts outside the liquid every 45 minutes or so.
One last thing: the cut of meat is obviously very important in this preparation. Though chuck is recommended for its fattiness, connective tissue, and price, I used a beef sirloin tip roast which was recommended by my butcher and I was beyond pleased with the result. Because beef sirloin tip is not fatty and does not have a lot of visible connective tissue, I was quite concerned that my dish would be tough and dried out. Google led me to this chowhound thread that had some good cautionary advice and success stories as well as confirmation that slow cookers may not be the best choice for a braise like this.
As this is one of those dishes that tastes better the next day, I would recommend cooking it in stages, starting the evening before you intend to serve this dish, if not sooner. Without further ado, here is my take on this delicious recipe:
Adapted from Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home
Serves 4 to 6
2 tablespoons olive oil
5 or 6 slices of thick cut bacon (5 ounces), cut into half inch pieces [they recommend salt pork for the lardons which requires a ten minute boil to reduce its saltiness before cutting and sauteeing; see Belm Blog for reference]
One 3 to 4 pound beef sirloin tip or chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat and cut into two inch cubes, approximately 2-3 pieces per person [I used a fairly lean beef sirloin tip roast so I left most of its fat in place and used those pieces to nibble at various stages; packaged stewing meat is NOT recommended]
salt and pepper
1 large onion diced
2 large carrots, cut into 1/4 inch circles [they recommend peeling and dicing but there's no point to that because these veggies and herbs are all discarded]
6 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
3 bay leaves
A handful of parsley stems and leaves
10-12 garlic cloves lightly crushed with skins left on
1 large tomato, cored and chopped [I used a 14.5 ounce can of diced tomatoes]
1 1/2 cups sturdy red wine, pinot noir or chianti recommended [I used cabernet sauvignon]
1 to 2 cups dark stock [I used super dark homemade chicken stock, but beef stock makes the most sense]
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
8 to 12 ounces cremini, button, or shiitake mushrooms (or any combination), halved quartered or whole (uniform size); or all mushrooms sliced thick
20 to 40 pearl onions, thawed and drained if using frozen, otherwise you'll have to blanch and peel fresh ones (step 5 below)
1 teaspoon of sugar [optional IMHO and I did not use]
salt and pepper
3/4 cup braising liquid, stock, or water
1/4 cup brandy [not in J & J's recipe]
2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 cup red wine [optional IMHO, but frankly I forgot this ingredient]
1/4 cup chopped parsley
- Optional first step: While browning the bacon and prepping the meat, reduce your wine to 1 1/2 cups in a small saucepan placed over medium high heat. This step is not at all necessary but if you planned to use a full bottle of wine--which I think is twice the volume needed-- you could instead reduce a bottle of wine on the stovetop as you're cooking the bacon and meat. There's nothing wrong with heating the wine in any case because it will come to the boil more quickly when added to the braising pot. To kick it up a notch you could throw in some bay leaves, peppercorns, thyme sprigs, parsley etc., but that really is guilding the lily! (Strain out and discard the herbs before using the wine though!)
- Prepare the meat: In a 6 to 8 quart Dutch oven heat the olive oil over medium high heat and then add the bacon, stirring occasionally until the fat is rendered and the bacon pieces have become crisp, about 5 minutes. Remove the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels and set aside. Pour off all but two tablespoons of the accumulated fat in the pan and return the pan to medium high heat. Salt and pepper the cubed meat all over and add half the meat or so in a single, uncrowded layer and let the meat brown well on the first side without moving it, about 5 minutes. Check to see that a nice crust has formed, and then turn the pieces over to brown the other side, about another 4 minutes or so. Remove the browned meat to a platter and repeat with the second batch of meat.
- Prepare the veggies to add to the braise: Lower your oven rack to the bottom third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. While the meat is browning, in a large square of cheesecloth, pile the chopped onions and carrots, the smashed garlic cloves, the bay leaves, and the parsley and thyme sprigs. Tie this off by tying the diagonally opposite corners together. I had to unfold my cheese cloth to make a big enough square and as there were gaps in the bundle, I flipped it over onto another piece of cheesecloth the same size and tied it again to ensure no spillage of the veggies. It's important to tie tightly as these veggies will shrink as they cook.
- The braise: When the second batch of meat is done browning, pour in half of the wine to deglaze the pan. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the rest of the wine and the chopped tomato. (If using canned tomatoes add the tomato liquid as well.) Add the bacon and first batch of beef back to the pot, including any accumulated juices on the platter. Move the meat to one side of the pot and add the vegetable bundle to the pot. Add just enough stock to bring the level of the liquid no higher than halfway up the level of the meat and bring to a simmer. Cover the meat with a piece of parchment paper larger than the diameter of the pot. Push down on the paper so that it touches the top of the meat and cover the pot with its lid (the edges of the paper will overhang the pot). Place this pot into the oven and bask in the aromas of this dish as it simmers away. After 15 minutes, check the pot to make sure that it's not boiling too rapidly, which will toughen the meat. Adjust the oven temperature down or up to maintain a simmer. After another 30 minutes, check the meat again and stir it around so that the pieces on top are immersed in the liquid and the pieces immersed are now on top. The total braise should take between 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Check the meat at an hour and a half to see if it is tender by gently squeezing with your tongs. If you meet resistance, continue cooking another 30 minutes, but if it feels soft, your dish is done. Remove the pot from the oven and let cool to room temperature in its liquid, about two hours. Discard the parchment paper and place the pot into the refrigerator overnight. Check the meat the next day. It will likely have tenderized as it cooled in the liquid. Recall that through the process of osmosis, if the meat is dry, it will absorb liquid--and flavor--as it moistens in the liquid. This is yet another reason to make the dish a day in advance. Theoretically, you could start and finish this dish 3 hours ahead of serving it, but you'd miss out on letting the meat cool and steep in its cooking liquid. Grilled meats certainly benefit by marinating before cooking, and braised meats benefit by marinating after cooking!
- The mushrooms and onions: This step can be performed whenever you feel like it: a day before you do anything else, while the meat is braising in the oven, the next morning (worked best for me), or about half an hour before serving the dish. If using fresh pearl onions (as I had to), bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Blanch the onions in boiling water for 1 minute and remove to a bowl of ice water. Trim off the ugly part of the onion root, keeping the onion layers in tact as best as you can. Squeeze on the onion skin to pop out the onion pearl. You'll probably have to sacrifice a layer of onion, but it's not worth the frustration to try and peel just the outer layer. Trim the other end if necesary. Set the onions aside on paper towels to dry while you prepare the mushrooms. Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium high heat. Add the butter and when the foam subsides add the mushrooms, stirring to coat with the oil and butter. Let cook for 5 minutes undisturbed. Check a mushroom to see if it's browning nicely, and if so stir the mushrooms around and let them cook for 3 more minutes. Stir in the pearl onions and season the combination with salt and pepper (and the sugar if using). Let the onions caramelize and cook with the mushrooms for 8 more minutes, stirring once or twice so that the onions brown evenly. Deglaze the pan with the braising liquid, stock, or water, scraping up all the browned bits and bringing to gentle boil. Stir in the brandy and ignite if you're feeling dramatic, otherwise just cover and reduce to a simmer for 5 more minutes. (Note: NEVER pour the brandy directly from the bottle, especially if cooking over gas as the alcohol could ignite and cause an explosion. Best to pour off the measured amount and add just the amount needed.) Remove the lid, raise the heat and reduce the liquid to a quarter cup or so. Put the mushrooms and onions aside or in the refrigerator until ready to finish the dish.
- The finish: Remove and discard the bundle of veggies from the braising pot, squeezing out as much liquid as possible. Remove the chunks of meat to a dish and bring the leftover liquid to a boil. You should have about two cups or so. Combine the softened butter with the flour and stir to combine into a beurre manie, making sure there are no flour lumps. Whisk the beurre manie into the liquid and boil for a few minutes, thickening the sauce. Add the meat, mushrooms and onions back to the pot to reheat everything. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings with additional salt and pepper if necessary. Because beef Burgundy is a wine-based dish, you may want to splash a quarter cup or so of red wine into the dish right before serving to re-emphasize the wine flavor component. Use whatever wine you'll be having with dinner. Serve the meat with the onions and mushrooms on your favorite platter, garnished with parsley and pass the sauce on the side.