In Praise of Braise Forget molecular gastronomy. Braising may not be cutting-edge technique in today's kitchen, but the ancient cooking method brings top-notch flavor to meats and vegetables.

In Praise of Braise

Short ribs braised in Guinness Stout is just one way to enjoy this ancient cooking method. Howard Yoon hide caption

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Howard Yoon

Short ribs braised in Guinness Stout is just one way to enjoy this ancient cooking method.

Howard Yoon

About the Author

Howard Yoon is the editorial director of the Gail Ross Literary Agency in Washington, D.C. He has written and edited numerous nonfiction books.

Forget molecular gastronomy. Ditch your fancy sea salts and clean out those squirt bottles of flavored oils. You want real evolution in food? Then consider braising.

This ancient method of cooking a meat or vegetable — with liquid in a covered dish using low heat — has been around for at least 300,000 years, since man learned to prepare food on the hearth. It may not be considered cutting-edge cooking in today's top kitchens, but I would pit the flavor and satisfaction of a braised shank or short rib against any dish that's been vacuum-sealed or frozen in liquid nitrogen.

Braising even may have played a critical role in the development of homo sapiens, and I would argue that it belongs in the pantheon of greatest human achievements, up there with the invention of the wheel and the secret formula for WD40.

Half a million years ago, before they tamed fire, hominids ate raw fruits, tubers and the occasional wild game. This involved constant foraging and endless chewing. Raw foods have fewer calories than cooked foods, and all primates need a minimum daily caloric intake to survive. So a caveman's feast on the carcass of a wild animal would have involved hours of chewing. This was no tenderized beef carpaccio or tartare.

Once humans learned to cook, everything changed. The heat in cooking breaks down the fibrous collagen in meat and the stringy fibers in plants, making chewing easier and providing the luxury of consuming way more calories in far less time.

We became "cookavores," according to Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham, the leading thinker in this cooking-evolution theory. The extra time we saved from eating and chewing, he argues, led to the evolution of larger brains; smaller, sculpted teeth and jaws, rather than the spiked teeth of carnivores; and more compact bellies. This all helped us to walk upright.

Halfway in and halfway out of water, like Darwin's evolutionary amphibian, braising represents a breakthrough for cookavores, because it can turn a chewy piece of meat into a fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth meal.

When done with the proper liquids (stocks or wine) and the right aromatics (root vegetables and herbs), braising carries more flavor than boiling or stewing and doesn't dry out or burn food the way roasting can.

Braising usually begins by searing the food to develop flavor and to caramelize the meat. Then liquid is added – usually a stock coupled with acidity from tomatoes, wine or vinegar – and the dish is cooked, covered, for at least an hour or two.

The braising liquid never drowns the food. Instead, there is just enough liquid to help break down the toughness of the food, to penetrate and season it with juices, and to make the foundation for a flavorful sauce.

Braising is good for any tough or semi-tough cut of meat, such as pork flank, oxtail or beef ribs and shanks. It also works well with poultry and vegetables such as cabbages, fennel or artichokes.

Two of the best-known braised dishes are coq au vin (French for "chicken in wine") and osso bucco (Italian for "bone with a hole," a veal shank with delicious edible marrow in the center of the bone).

Braising also can be used to cook firm-fleshed fish such as salmon or monkfish, which is why you'll find "monkfish osso bucco" on some menus.

Like our ancestral cavemen, we understand the goodness of standing around a hearth in anticipation of a hot meal. It not only defines us as a species, but reminds us how far we have evolved in the kitchen.

Read last week's Kitchen Window: potpies.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Coq Au Vin

If you're looking for straightforward French bistro recipes, try celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. His Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking (Bloomsbury USA 2004), which includes the recipe below, lacks the pretension and unnecessary complication you might find in other French cookbooks.

Makes 4 servings

1 bottle plus 1 cup red wine

1 onion, cut into 1-inch dice

1 carrot, cut into a 1/4-inch slices

1 celery rib, cut into 1/2-inch slices

4 whole cloves

1 tablespoon (about 14) whole black peppercorns

1 bouquet garni (1 sprig flat parsley, 2 sprigs fresh thyme and 1 bay leaf, tied together with string and used for flavoring (usually in stews or sauces); tying the bundle in cheesecloth makes it easier to retrieve from the pot)

1 whole chicken, 3 1/2 to 5 pounds in size

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

6 tablespoons butter, softened

1 tablespoon flour

1/4 pound slab country bacon, cut into small oblongs (lardons) about 1/4 inch by 1 inch

1/2 pound small white button mushrooms, stems removed

12 pearl onions, peeled

Pinch of sugar


3 large, deep bowls

Plastic wrap

Fine strainer

Large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot


Wooden spoon

Small saute pan

Small saucepan

1 sheet parchment paper


Deep serving platter

The day before you begin to cook, combine the bottle of red wine, the diced onion (that's the big onion, not the pearl onions), sliced carrot, celery, cloves, peppercorns and bouquet garni in a large, deep bowl. Add the chicken and submerge it in the liquid so that all of it is covered. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, remove the chicken from the marinade and pat it dry. Put it aside. Strain the marinade through the fine strainer, reserving the liquids and solids separately. Season the chicken with salt and pepper inside and out. In the Dutch oven, heat the oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter until almost smoking, and then sear the chicken, turning with the tongs to evenly brown the skin. Once browned, remove it from the pot and set it aside again. Add the reserved onions, celery, and carrot to the pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until they are soft.

Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and mix well with the wooden spoon so that the vegetables are coated. Now stir in the reserved strained marinade. Put the chicken back in the pot, along with the bouquet garni. Cook this for about 1 hour and 15 minutes over low heat.

Have a drink. You're almost there...

While your chicken stews slowly in the pot, cook the bacon lardons in the small saute pan over medium heat until golden brown. Remove the bacon from the pan and drain it on paper towels, making sure to keep about 1 tablespoon of fat in the pan. Saute the mushroom tops in the bacon fat until golden brown. Set them aside.

Now in the small saucepan, combine the pearl onions, pinch of sugar, a pinch of salt and 2 tablespoons of butter. Add just enough water to just cover the onions, then cover the pan with the parchment paper trimmed to the same size as your pan. (I suppose you can use foil if you must.) Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the water has evaporated. Keep a close eye on it. Remove the paper cover and continue to cook until the onions are golden brown. Remove the onions and add the remaining cup of red wine to the hot pan, scraping up all the bits of food stuck to the bottom of the pot. Season with salt and pepper and reduce over medium-high heat until thick enough to coat the back of the spoon.

Your work is pretty much done here. One more thing and then it's wine and kudos...

When the chicken is cooked through — meaning tender, the juice from the thigh running clear when pricked — carefully remove from the liquid, cut into quarters, and arrange on the deep serving platter. Strain the cooking liquid (again) into the reduced red wine. Now just add the bacon, mushrooms and pearl onions, adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, and swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Now pour the sauce over the chicken and dazzle your friends with your brilliance. Serve with buttered noodles and a Bourgogne Rouge.

Braised Guinness Stout Short Ribs

Howard Yoon
Braised Guinness Stout Short Ribs
Howard Yoon

One of the beautiful things about braising is that you can be creative about what you put in the pot. This is my adaptation of a basic short-ribs dish, but with Guinness beer as the liquid instead of wine or stock. The tomato paste provides the acidity, while the Guinness adds a pleasing malty taste to the meal. Serve this with a side of steel-cut oatmeal and a pint of Guinness, and you have the perfect, cold-weather Irish meal.

Serves 4

5 to 6 pounds beef short ribs


3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 carrots, cut in 2-inch chunks

2 stalks celery, cut in 2-inch chunks

1 large white onion, chopped roughly into 1- to 2-inch pieces

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs fresh thyme

4 tablespoons tomato paste

2 bottles Guinness Stout

Salt and pepper to taste

Parsley, for garnish

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Dredge the short ribs in flour, coating lightly. Remove any excess flour from ribs.

Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat on the stove. In batches, brown the short ribs, a few minutes per side, making sure not to crowd them too closely in the pan. This allows the ribs to develop a nice crust.

Remove the cooked ribs and all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pan. Add carrots, celery, onion, garlic, bay leaf and thyme and stir, making sure you scrape any residue off the bottom of the pot. Cook for several minutes, until vegetables start to get tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add Guinness and tomato paste to the pot and stir mixture until incorporated. Add ribs back into the pot, cover, and place in oven.

Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the meat is fork tender. Add parsley as garnish.

Braised Baby Bok Choy

I have adapted this standard bok choy recipe by adding oyster sauce, which seems to round out the Asian flavor. The cornstarch thickens the sauce and also gives the bok choy an appealing shimmer.

Serves 4

4 baby bok choy

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/4 cup chicken stock or water

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon cold water

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Trim the base of the bok choy, then slice each lengthwise into four quarters or halves, depending on your preference.

In large wok or frying pan, heat vegetable oil over medium heat. Add bok choy and let simmer for 2 minutes.

Turn over pieces. Add chicken stock, oyster sauce, soy sauce, garlic and ginger. Stir until sauce is mixed, then cover pan and lower heat. Simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.

Mix the cornstarch and water in separate bowl. Stir cornstarch mixture into the pan along with the sesame oil. Simmer with top off for one more minute at medium-low heat. Remove bok choy and cover with pan sauce. Serve with rice or as a side dish.

Stuffed Calamari

Howard Yoon
Braised Calamari
Howard Yoon

Rodney Scruggs, the new executive chef of the recently renovated historic Occidental restaurant in Washington, D.C., came up with this version of surf and turf using calamari and short ribs. It has become one of the most popular dishes at the restaurant.

Serves 4

For filling:

2 pound beef short ribs

1 medium carrot, diced 1/4 inch

2 stalks celery, diced 1/4inch

1/2 sweet onion, diced 1/4 inch

2 sprigs thyme

4 cloves garlic

5 cups red wine

8 cups beef stock

Salt and pepper

For calamari:

2 tablespoons butter

8 calamari tubes

1 bottle red wine (approximately 5 and 1/2 cups)

In a deep skillet, sear short ribs seasoned with salt and pepper over medium heat until brown on all sides.

Remove ribs from pan and set aside.

Add carrots, celery, onion, thyme and garlic and sauté until tender. Add short ribs and wine to pan, reduce liquid by half. Add beef stock, reduce heat, cover and cook until meat is fork tender, approximately 1 to 2 hours.

Once ribs are done, remove and allow to cool completely.

Strain liquid and separate vegetables. Place liquid in saucepan on medium-high heat and reduce until slightly thickened.

In a bowl, shred beef and add vegetables and season with salt and pepper.

Stuff calamari with mixture and close the end with toothpicks

In sauté pan over medium heat, place 2 tablespoons butter and calamari, cook for 3 minutes, turning once.

Add red wine and cover, reduce heat and simmer about 5 minutes or until filling is hot. Take calamari out of pan and remove toothpicks.

Place calamari in serving dish and pour sauce over.