Braising relies on long cooking times at low temperatures. If you happen to get distracted for a half hour, it’s not going to ruin your roast. When you cook steak you typically don’t want the internal temperature of the meat to go above 145 degrees, or the finished product will be tough and dry. With braising, though, the internal temperature of the meat should reach 210 degrees for over an hour. By doing so, the meat will become tender and moist.

How does this work, and why don’t the high temperatures make the meat tough during braising? There are two reasons for this, moisture and collagen: When you grill or roast you rely on dry heat to cook the meat, but when you braise you rely on moisture to cook the meat, which also keeps it from drying out. Collagen is a little more complex. Collagen is the chewy connective tissue gives muscles elasticity. Tender cuts of meat such as tenderloin and ribeye have very little collagen, in part because these muscle groups do very little work for the animal, so they don’t need to have the extra connective tissue for strength. The chuck, however, which comes from the shoulder, obviously, gets plenty of exercise and needs collagen to keep the muscles working together. One plus of all that exercise, is that it actually increases the amount of flavor in the meat. Chuck has a much richer and more complex, “beefy” flavor than tenderloin, but we need to deal with the collagen to make it more palatable.

The long simmer that happens in braising helps to transform the collagen. When the meat temperature reaches 210 degrees the collagen begins to turn into gelatin. It takes about an hour at this temperature in a typical roast for the collagen to complete the transformation. That’s why good recipes will suggest a 3-4 hour cooking time, because it takes time for the roast to slowly get up to the proper temperature, and time to hold it there. When the collagen turns into gelatin, it makes the roast taste moist and succulent. It also gives your sauce a wonderful silky texture. Follow the following braising basics:

  1. Salt the meat a day ahead of time. This is optional, yet, it helps improve the flavor and tenderness of the meat. The salt will dissolve and will be pulled into the meat, so the flavor is throughout the meat, and not just on the surface. The salt also helps activate enzymes that tenderize meat. If you don’t have time to do this step, you can salt the meat right before browning.

  2. Choose a thick bottomed pot to cook the roast. Dutch ovens work well for this, especially enamel glazed versions. However, heavy bottomed stainless steel works well too. Make sure it isn’t too big for the roast. If it’s too big the steam won’t work properly to cook and keep the roast moist.

  3. Brown the meat which adds tremendous flavor to the dish. Dry the meat surface with a paper towel, as moisture on the surface of the meat prevents browning. Salt, if you have not done so already, and pepper the surface of the meat. Use just a small amount of oil, a tablespoon or two is all that is needed. Browning takes 3-5 minutes per side. Use medium high heat, not too hot, though, or the meat will burn. Don’t walk away. You don’t want the meat to burn. Aim for a nice deep brown on all sides of the meat.

  4. Deglaze your pan, or pot, after browning the meat and vegetables. You can use a good wine, stock or water to do this. Add the liquid to the pan and scrape the brown bits off the bottom. Add this liquid with the brown bits to your sauce. It will be a real flavor booster. If there are burned bits of fond on the bottom of the pan, use a wet paper towel to wipe them out of the pan, being careful to leave the browned bits, which add flavor. If you deglaze with wine or other alcohol let it cook for about 8-10 minutes. This will let the alcohol burn off and condense the remaining flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz works well. Use a good quality wine; it does make a difference.

  5. Remember to use the flavoring herbs and vegetables, or aromatics, in whatever recipe you use. These will combine during cooking to create delicious complex flavors.

  6. Your braising liquid should come up to about 1/3 the level of the roast. If you need to leave the roast to cook for more than several hours, add more liquid. Too much liquid, though, will make the sauce too thin and bland.

  7. You want the stock to come to a simmer and stay there during the remaining cooking time. So, check it, and turn the temperature up or down to ensure this happens.

  8. Turn the roast every 45 minutes or so, to keep the surface of the meat from drying out.

  9. Before serving, degrease the sauce by using a wide, flat spoon to scoop out the grease. You don’t have to get every last bit. Leaving some of the fat will add a little richness and flavor to the sauce.