In Praise of Braise
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.
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