Roasting and Braising



On Roasting and Braising

In cooking meat, one struggles continuously to develop flavor, to retain moisture, and to cook to the appropriate level of doneness. This set of objectives always comes with compromises. Cooking processes that brown will also tend to dry out meats. Those that retain moisture risk making meat soggy, stringy, and tasteless - remediable only with the help of a good sauce. Grilling, for instance, browns the outside of meat but leaves the inseide moist, hopefully. Roasting can brown the outside of meat, but if it is not done with care it can dry meat out. Boiling will definitely deliver tender and moist meat, but it will make things soggy and tasteless. Braising, depending on how its done, either manages to capture both strengths or both weaknesses of roasting and boiling.

In our essays about chicken and turkey we talk about how to properly roast both of these birds. All that is needed is an oven, a roasting pan, and some vegetables. A rack helps.

Roasting & Braising

In the preparation of roasted beef or lamb, one might start the process by carefully browning the outside of the roast over the highest heat possible. This has two hidden advantages. One is that searing helps to seal the surface. It causes the proteins in the meat to contract and this will generally serve both to push moisture into the meat away from the surface, and to seal the surface and make moisture more difficult to get out. The second is that it develops a much richer flavor. Searing may be done with the roasting pan or Dutch Oven on the cooktop, or it may be done with the meat uncovered in the oven at very high heat. Each produces a different result.

In some small cuts of meat such as tenderloin roasts, and ones that one wishes to cook to a fairly low internal temperature such as 135F, it may be that thoroughly browning the outside will provide enough heat that, if the process is conducted in a very heavy cast iron Dutch Oven, the whole thing can be put into a slight warm oven or even left on the stove wrapped in towels to finish cooking. I recently read just such a recipe in Red White and Greens.

A so-called roasting technique popular when I was a child was to coat a roast with some magic concoction, then heat it in the oven in aluminum foil. The advantage of this process is that the juices that come out of the meat stay in contact with it, preventing it from getting dry. Meat can come out stringy and flavorless this way. The latter problem can be managed by coating the roast with magic concoctions. One such magic concoction was a mixture of condensed cream of mushroom soup and instant onion soup. What was ingenious about this mix is that it added flavor without adding much moisture, and the flavors it added were completely consonant with the flavors of the roast. Technically, the roasting of a hunk of meat confined in its own cooking juices, is best considered to be braising; for it results in a rather different outcome than roasting or steaming or grilling or barbecuing or broiling or boiling.

Selecting a Roasting Pan

One can do simple roast chicken in a Pyrex 9x13 roasting pan and get perfect results every time. It is such a good deal that everyone ought to have at least one Pyrex 9x13 pan. I have two. And sometimes I run out.

But if one is to make gravy or if one is to roast any red meats, one needs a metal roasting pan. There are several ways to go here. One is to get a very heavy stainless steel pan, ideally one that has an encapsulated aluminum core. This is an expensive alternative, but it can be worth it if one is a dedicated cook. A second possibility is to purchase a very heavy aluminum roasting pan with a non-stick coating. This does not develop a fond, and so the process of making gravy is slightly more difficult. But if the aluminum is thick enough, such a pan can double as a good two-burner non-stick cook top in a pinch. One might consider an inexpensive stainless steel pan. These, however, may warp when one is making gravy. In fact, some expensive ones do as well. Check online reviews carefully.

Dutch Ovens

The third choice is to get a large, oblong Dutch Oven. The obvious choice is the enamelled sort, a la Le Creuset. This always seems like an expensive proposition, but if one is braising meats - browning them, then cooking them in the moisture of their own juices and some vegetables, nothing works half as well as an oval Le Creuset Dutch oven. The reason for selecting an oval Dutch oven is that it accommodates oval roasts and oval poutry: things one roasts are rarely round. The only real disadvantage of a Dutch Oven is that it works best for moderately sized roasts, but will not accommodate monstrous ones. This is a disadvantage when one is trying to feed more than a half dozen people with a single dish, but it is actually an advantage if one is cooking for a sort of average single family.

Saucepans and Stainless Pots

In many kitchens the primary purpose of a saucepan is to boil water or simmer soup. In these cases, pretty much all that matters is that the surface of the pan not react with food. The cheapest stainless steel pan will work. So will an engineered glass pan such as the Pyrex. My kitchen does have one or two 'midnight ride' brand pans, but they are being phased out. The 'stainless' steel is not very stainless, the handles break or overbalance the empty pan. And the thin metal, copper look not withstanding, is prone to hot spots.

There are a lot of tasks that are subtly different in which the construction of the pan plays a crucial role. Long ago I cooked rice in a 1.5 quart Pyrex sauce pan. I found that I routinely burned the rice. The Pyrex sauce pan is gone now. I threw it out after having burned rice in it one too many times. The burning rice was smelling up the kitchen. I instictively pulled the pan from the stove and set it on the Formica counter. POP POP. Suddenly we had two nice holes in the countertop. This cheap pan had proven to be too expensive to have around the kitchen.

Since I already had a heavy 1.5 quart stainless steel saucepan with a 2mm copper core, I tried it. Suddenly, almost magically, the rice came out right every single time! The rice at the bottom of the pan did stick enough to be difficult to clean but it never burned. A little later I bought a stainless steel saucepan that had an aluminum core that covered not only the bottom, but went up the sides of the pan. Now even the sticky part on the bottom was gone. I got perfect rice every tim. Thermal conduction: it's a beautiful thing.

Why did the old pan fail? Pyrex is a pretty terrible heat conductor. So even though the pan had thick walls, it developed hot spots. And none of the heat was conducted up the sides of the pan. Rice would stick to the hot spots. Then water could not circulate and carry heat away, causing the hot spots to get hotter still, causing more rice to stick. It was a kind of runaway reaction. The surface of the copper core pan had no hot spots, so until the water all got absorbed by the rice, the rice would never stick and get hot. The pan with thick cladding up the sides had a surface temperature on the bottom that was lower still. Even when the water was gone, it could carry the heat to the rice over the entire bottom and the sides without getting hot enought to scorch.

The principles in this example extend to the process of cooking anything that can scorch or burn (i.e. pretty much everything you might cook in a pan except for hot water and boiled eggs.) If you use a sauce pan to make sauces, it is important that the bottom of the pan be clad with copper or aluminum. Otherwise hot spots will cause burning. And if you make cream sauces, or chocolate confections, or custardy things containing eggs, or even rice,you will definitely want a sauce pan that has aluminum or copper cladding up the sides of the pan as well. This cladding can make a profound difference when it comes to avoiding scorching or scalding.

At one point I would have argued that cooking processes involving boiling things in water can be carried out in any old pan that holds water. But last year I was cooking pasta in a vat of water. And I had just dumped the pasta in haphazardly, then forgot to stir it. When I took the pasta out, a number of bits of it were stuck to the bottom of the pan where it was next to the flame.

The pasta there actually burned and got black beneath 3 gallons of water! This does not happen in my good, copper cored stock pot. In this case, the burning did not ruin the meal, but the point is that with a thin, cheap pan it is possible to burn things to a crisp even when they are covered by lots and lots of water! Pans with heavy, thick aluminum or copper bottoms make this harder to do. Pans with aluminum and copper cladding on the sides (a la All-Clad) make it virtually impossible.

Unfortunately, manufacturing saucepans with clad sides is an expensive proposition. So the pans are expensive. One can get much of the advantage of a clad pan if one chooses a thick, heavy aluminum pan with a very good, hard, non-stick coating such as one might find on Calphalon Commercial cookware. The downside of a coated pan is that one day the coating will be gone and you will need to throw away the pan. If you spend twice as much, the sauce pan can be sold by your great grandkids to help finance their college education. My personal recommendation is to buy the best 1 1/2 qt saucepan you can get, perhaps an all-Clad or a Bourgeat. Consider the same technology for a 3 quart saucepan.

In most cases, my personal choice for 8 to 12 qt pots would be to go with stainless cookware with copper disks in the bottom (a la Cuisineart). It works perfectly well enough most of the time and it lasts forever.

Skin Deep

It's hard to argue that the surface of a saucepan makes a huge difference. Non-stick is easier to clean and may help prevent scorching. One might argue that if you make cream sauces and custards, a non-stick surface might be better.

Stainless steel is good on all counts. And it is very very durable. I'm not sure the choice exists today, but I'd never go for cast iron. And I'd never consider buying uncoated aluminum. A little acid in the water, and the aluminum will start corroding and leaching into the food making it taste terrible. Since aluminum has been implicated as a cause of Alzheimers, I'm careful not to let any aluminum touch my food.

Anodized aluminum is quite durable and works well as an exterior. But dishwasher detergent will dissolve away many hard anodized surfaces, leaving bare aluminum. Some interior coatings in aluminum pans are attached to anodized surfaces. These coatings are hard, tough, and durable. They are also chemically stable. If they are occasionally cleaned in a dishwasher, the teflon protects the anodized coating, but daily washing in a dishwasher can still ruin them.

Of all the coated pans I have tried, I have been most impressed with Calphalon Commercial line for good design and durability. The handles are the most comfortable handles around. Thermal conduction is very good. They always wipe clean, so the temptation to put them in the dishwasher is low. And - unlike the black anodized All-Clad pan which lost all anodization first time out, they seem to take the dishwasher well.

Copper makes for a pretty pot or pan, but one must be resigned to spending time polishing it. All-Clad's copper cored pots and pans strike me as being the most practical copper choice; but I have never seen a specification on the copper's thickness, so it is impossible to know how well it conducts compared with Bourgeat and a number of other famous-name copper cookaware makers.

Narrowing the Choices

Each kitchen needs at least one small saucepan, roughly 1.5 quarts. This is the workhorse saucepan of the family kitchen. I happen to have three and I intend to get one a little smaller. My recomendation is to go for All Clad or KitchenAid here. Calphalon Commercial might be an excellent choice in non-stick. You can get by for a while with a Cuisinart style pan if you don't ever cook things that could scorch. Or if you are very very careful. Just say 'no' to the pyrex saucepan.

Something roughly three quarts is useful, especially if one is cooking for more than two people. It's probably safest to go with the same type and style as the smaller saucepan.

If you have ever watched Mario Battali cooking, you will see one or two enamelled cast iron Dutch ovens. These are not technically saucepans, perhaps, but they are used for much the same purpose as a large saucepan might be. A typical and useful size might be in the five to six quart range. In my own kitchen every stew gets made in a Dutch oven. It's almostperfect for stovetop browning and it is perfect for finishing food in the oven.

Do not get a flimsy thing for browning and braising. Don't get non-stick because you will want to brown foods in this pot. The enamelled cast iron is the best of all possible worlds. It browns beautifully, it conducts heat quite well enough for the purpose, it never interacts with the food, and it is naturally less expensive than the sandwiched brands.

My recommendation is to buy Le Creusette. Be careful about pouring cold liquids into a very hot pot - one that has just been used to brown meat; this can cause the expensive enamel to spall off where the liquid strikes. The pot is still usable, but you will get a lot less for it at a garage sale. So try not to get it too hot (medium heat, perhaps), and try not to pour cold liquid directly onto the enamel. Except for spalling, these pots are perfect. Mine took ten years of gross abuse before one chip of enamel came off.

Round ones are good for many tasks. But if you like to roast legs of lamb or whole chickens or other oblong things, an oval pan may be the best. Get one of each and be ready for anything

If I had to choose a minimal set of pieces of cookware for my own kitchen it would be:

  1. A ten inch diameter saute or omelette pan in the style of AllClad Stainless (anodized aluminum outside, pure aluminum in the middle, 18/10 stainless steel on the inside) or Calphalon Commercial.
  2. A 1.5 to 2.5 quart sauce pan made in the style of All Clad Stainless or Calphalon Commercial.
  3. A 5 quart Dutch oven constructed of cast iron with enamel finish - probably oval.
  4. A 10 inch or 12 inch cast iron griddle.
  5. A 12 quart pot made of stainless steel with a copper disc in the base and one or two steamer racks.

This set will allow one to approach any non-pastry cooking assignment with confidence but without taking out a second mortgage.

Eat well and prosper.

Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.