Tenderizing Tough Cuts


Braising presents a savory solution for less-expensive cuts of meat.

The age-old method of simmering foods in liquid to tenderize tougher cuts of meat has made a comeback. Amid serious sous-vide fervor, some say braising fell into the shadows. Yet, with rising protein prices driving whole animal butchery and value-centered sourcing, the textbook braising technique has found a new niche among tradition-minded, local-food-focused chefs.

In fact, the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 What’s Hot chef survey found braising earned top-trend status with 39 percent of the vote. Combined with the 57 percent of chefs who view inexpensive, underused cuts of meat such as brisket, shoulder, and skirt steak as worthwhile options, braising’s renewed appeal will likely continue.

“Braised dishes fell out of fashion at one point because there was a perspective that they missed that freshness and vitality so popular today,” says Bill Briwa, chef-instructor at The Culinary Institute of America Greystone Campus in St. Helena, California.

“The truth is, there is almost no downside to braising,” Briwa says. “You end up with an incredibly flavorful, tender piece of meat that’s inexpensive, readily available, and easy to put on a plate.” Add some acid and herbs as in a gremolata, and the freshness returns.

Braising combines the best of two worlds, Briwa says: “On one hand, you get the benefit of flavor from perfectly browned meat, and gently simmering over lower heat until the connective tissue breaks down helps tenderize any toughness while the melting gelatin creates that rich mouthfeel. The meat actually tastes better the longer it cooks because braising helps fully develop that savory flavor.”

Move over, pot roast, as chefs get more creative with their braising techniques. Tougher cuts like lamb shanks can easily be tenderized first, then finished on the grill for a smoky flavor and caramelized crust in a backwards, braising-browning approach.

At Ox in Portland, Oregon, chef/owner Greg Denton rubs lamb shoulders with cocoa powder for a smoky richness, soaks it in leftover whey from homemade ricotta for two days to tenderize and clean the meat, then browns and braises it in a tomato and white wine mixture with mirepoix, garlic, and dried herbs for two hours in a 350-degree oven. The liquid, skimmed of its fat, is used to top off the dish with red-wine-soaked prunes, fresh herbs, and seasonal vegetables.


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