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Braising: Oven or Crockpot?

by Elizabeth Skipper January 8th, 2014 | Ask the Chef
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steaming potI have been reading about slow braised short ribs and other meats.  Can I braise in a crock pot while I’m at work, or is true braising only done in the oven?

Braising, a technique which cooks large pieces of food, usually meat, in a small amount of liquid, was traditionally done with coals. The French word “braise” means smoldering coals or embers. A covered pot called a braisière was set on a bed of embers and more were put on the lid. The lid of a braisière is recessed to hold the embers in place. Stoves, with built-in ovens, replaced cooking in or on coals, so braising’s now done differently.

You can braise in the oven; you can braise on the stove top. In addition to stoves, modern kitchens often have lots of smaller appliances, a crock pot being a familiar one. At heart, they’re slow cookers, which means they’re excellent for simmering, stewing, and braising. So yes, you certainly can braise in a crock pot.

Crock pots come in two basic shapes, round and oblong. The oblong ones are better for cooking roasts and whole birds, things of that size and shape. Short ribs will also snug down into an oblong crock pot better; you can move the bones around to fit. You want the food to stay down low in the cooking liquid; in a round vessel, enough won’t be submerged.

Braising should be done in a vessel which will contain the meat without a lot of extra room. So don’t try to braise a 1 lb. pot roast in a 6 quart crock pot. (This applies to braising done in other vessels, too.) However, if the difference isn’t that great, there’s an easy workaround. Simply cover the meat with a piece of buttered foil or parchment paper before putting on the lid. The amount of braising liquid shouldn’t come more than halfway up the side of the meat, and this will protect the top of the meat from drying out.

Crock pots lose less moisture to evaporation than Dutch ovens or braisers. Take into consideration that, as well as the meat, the bed of vegetables you’re braising on will exude moisture. Should you find there’s too much liquid in the pot when the meat is cooked, simply remove the meat and boil the juices down rapidly on the stove top.

I do think you get a slightly superior result in a braiser; somehow the flavors created seem a bit more intense. The trade-off is in the attention you must pay to the process. You can leave a crock pot on all day while you’re otherwise occupied, while you wouldn’t want to do that if you’re braising on the stove top or in the oven. Because there’s more evaporation with a Dutch oven or braiser, you’ll need to check and top up the cooking liquid as needed. However, the difference in the finished product is slight, and the convenience of a crock pot is a great benefit.

A braiser, a Dutch oven, a deep skillet with a tight-fitting lid, even a pressure cooker can be used for braising. Use whichever method suits your needs and schedule best. They’re all suitable for a “true” braise, a technique which produces a truly succulent dish with a little care.

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