The Sweetest Simmer

Now we’re fully settled into the bland, grayest days of winter—a time when I seek to imbue my life with more flavor. After all, woolen sweaters and bestsellers can only go so far in fighting the battle of the blahs. If I’m to be trapped indoors, then the kitchen had better be sending forth seductive smells of warm, satisfying dishes that make me happy to be holed up at home. That’s usually why, particularly at this time of year, the Sunday meal becomes a big braising event.

Braising is one of those cooking terms that sounds technically daunting to the uninitiated: Do I need a special pan? Will it require kitchen string or a unique thermometer, neither of which I have on hand? But in truth, braising is so easy that, once you’ve mastered it, it starts to feel like cheating. Better yet, braising consistently produces soulful, and even good-looking, Sunday meals—meals that come for far less money and with a lot less mess than your typical fried, roasted, or sautéed productions.

The basic technique requires slowly cooking a cut of protein while it is semi-immersed in liquid in a covered pot. But don’t confuse braising with stewing; braising relies more on the combination of liquid and steam to bring out the best flavors.

Typically, braising is done with tougher, lesser-quality cuts of meat. In fact, braised classics like osso buco and coq au vin were invented for the very purpose of enhancing the flavors of such meats. The moist heat of braising breaks down the connective tissues in tougher cuts, melting the collagen and contracting the fibers. Those tissues then absorb some of the liquid along with the melted fats and flavors, giving the meat the tender, fall-apart quality that is the hallmark of a braised dish.

Preparing the week’s capstone meal in a single vessel cuts down on clutter—and saves time. In the same pot, you can quickly sear the meat (giving it a nicely caramelized crust), add the liquid, and toss in some vegetables. Cover the whole thing and put it in the oven on low temperature. For the next few hours, while your meal develops many layers of flavor and your kitchen fills with warm and comforting aromas, you’re free to read a book, do your taxes, or just get on with your life.

Cuts of meat that braise well include lamb and veal shank, poultry legs and thighs (think chicken cacciatore), country-style pork ribs and beef cuts including chuck pot roast, short ribs, flank steak, and eye or top round roast. That’s not to say you must have meat; sturdier vegetables like cauliflower, endive, leeks, and rutabaga braise quite well, as a matter of fact. The liquid component can also be varied. While most recipes call for a base of stock, the addition of wine, port, and beer is also common. During the coldest months, I like to braise pot roast with rosemary and Guinness. But the moment I sense the light of spring, I switch to braising chicken with citrus, white wine, and stock.

In the meantime, as cold days continue to keep the family cooped up together all weekend long, there is likely to be a bit of sniping. But by braising a huge pot of short ribs, the cook can gently infuse the domestic surroundings with the smell of subtle spices, working a little homespun magic against the winter blues.

Spiced Braised Short Ribs

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa
6 pounds bone-in beef short ribs,
cut into 3-inch sections
1/4 cup butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ginger
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 3/4 cups beef stock
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup Sriracha (or chili sauce)
1/3 cup tomato paste
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce

Combine flour, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and cocoa in a large zip-lock bag. Add ribs in batches and shake to coat. Melt butter in a large pan and brown ribs on all sides. Remove ribs to a larger baking dish.

In the same pan, over medium heat, sauté onion with ginger until translucent and soft; add garlic, stirring until fragrant. Add stock and vinegar and bring to a low boil. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Add remaining ingredients and bring back to a low boil. Remove from heat and pour over ribs. Cover dish with foil. Cook in a 300-degree oven for four to five hours, or until the meat is easily pulled from the bone.