It’s raining, I’ve turned the heating up and dark clouds are swallowing up the light. In the space of a few weeks I’ve gone from roasting trays of tomatoes to making stews. The fact that there’s a casserole in the fridge is making my day.
I’m more of a roaster than a braiser. Roasting is low-effort. Bunging things in the oven has been my modus operandi since I had children, but the braises I’ve been cooking recently have made me realise that, however much time they take, I can do them on autopilot. There are hundreds of culinary techniques you can master if you have a mind to. I’m good at risottos and terrible at strudel pastry. But roasting meat and making a casserole were the first things I learnt. They’re cornerstones.
I’ve written the instructions for braising so often I can hear my own voice as I do it: ‘Brown the meat in batches… As each batch is ready transfer it to a bowl.’ First, before the browning, you need to dry the meat with kitchen paper. Dry meat browns, wet meat steams. Your pan needs to be hot, too, but it’s important not to overcook the meat. Browning gives flavour but if you take too long over it the meat becomes tough.
After that, if you’ve grown up cooking European dishes, you usually sauté an onion in the same pan – sometimes with diced celery and carrot too – adding garlic and spices if they’re required. Then you pour on whatever liquid you’re using, bring this to just under the boil, add the meat back to the pan, turn the heat down, cover and cook gently, either on the hob or in the oven.
One of the advantages of braising on the hob is that you can easily adjust the lid, so that the liquid around the meat can reduce (or not). This nudging of the lid is one of the most important parts of braising and it can’t be written into a recipe. The temperature inside the pot will be lower, the cooking therefore gentler, if the lid is slightly askew. The liquid will also evaporate, creating thick juices around the meat and vegetables. The cook decides how to position that lid, and when.
Ingredients that would collapse during long, slow cooking – dried fruit or cooked beans – are added later, when there’s still enough time left to allow them to suck up the flavours in the stew.
Not every braise calls for browning. You don’t brown the lamb for Irish stew and north African tagines don’t require it either (though modern tagine recipes often direct you to do it). In some Vietnamese dishes, meat is cooked in a sweet-sour caramel (made from palm sugar and fish sauce) instead of being browned in fat.
With Indian braises – if you can make generalisations about the cooking of such a vast country – whole spices are usually cooked in oil first, then the onions go in, then any ground spices and spice pastes. The meat is added after all this and its flavour and colour are enhanced by the spices, garlic, ginger and onions around it. The trick, so you don’t burn anything, is to keep the meat moving and to add splashes of water so the masala doesn’t catch.
Braising isn’t quick. Even if you don’t brown the meat, stews take time to cook. Onions don’t soften in five minutes and flavour is built up gradually. But in the past week I’ve made spiced beef in stout with prunes, Greek giouvetsi and rogan josh.
Using the same framework but producing different dishes is one of the joys of cooking, but there’s something else. Braising creates a presence in an otherwise quiet house, a presence that needs tending and which, as family or friends arrive in dribs and drabs to eat, will eventually pull everyone together. A stew is a presence as well as dinner.