This technique involves slow cooking in very little liquid in a dish with a tight-fitting lid; the trapped steam keeps the food moist during cooking. Instead of cutting meat into small chunks, it is sliced into large, even-size pieces, or in some cases, such as chops or lamb shanks, left whole. Braising also works well for large pieces of firm, meaty fish which can be placed on a bed of vegetables, with just enough liquid to cover these. The slow cooker is perfect for braising because the heat is so gentle, and the lid forms a tight seal, so that any steam condenses on the inside of the lid and trickles back into the pot.
Preparing meat for braising
Always trim excess fat from meat before braising, then skin any fat from the surface before serving. To ensure even cooking, all the pieces of meat should be of a similar thickness.
- Cut the meat into slices about 2cm/ ¾ in thick. At the narrower end cut slightly thicker slices.
- Place the thicker slices on a chopping board, cover with a sheet of greaseproof (waxed) paper and gently beat with a rolling pin or meat mallet to flatten.
- If you want to pound all the meat, to help tenderize it, you can start by cutting it all into thick slices, about 3cm/1 in thick, then pounding it to flatten.
Braising lamb shanks
On the whole lamb joints are tender and quite fatty and do not benefit from being braised. Lamb shanks, however, are lean and tough so benefit from long, slow, moist cooking. Thickly slices meat, such as braising steak, and small joints, such as topside, can be cooked in the same way.
4 lamb shanks
1 red onion, very finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed sprig of fresh thyme
5ml/1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
5ml/1 tsp ground paprika
15ml/1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
60ml/4 tbsp olive oil
175ml/6fl oz/ ¾ cup red wine
150ml/ ¼ pint/ cup lamb or vegetable stock chopped fresh parsley salt and ground black pepper.
- Using the point of a knife gently prink the shanks at intervals all over.
- Combine the onion, garlic, thyme, rosemary, paprika, vinegar and 30ml/1 tbsp of the oil. Brush over shanks, place in a shallow, non- metallic dish, cover and leave to marinate for 2 hours at room temperature, or up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. (Marinating starts the tenderizing pro process, but is not essential.)
- Brush the marinade off the lamb and set aside. Heat the remaining 30ml/2 tbsp oil in a frying pan and lightly brown the shanks all over. Transfer to the ceramic cooking pot and season with salt and pepper.
- Add the reserved marinade to the frying pan pour in the wine and stock. Bring almost to the boil, stirring, then pour over the shanks.
- Cover with the lid and switch to high or auto. Cook for 1hour, then leave on auto or reduce to low and cook for a further 6-8 hours, or until very tender, turning the meat halfway through.
- Using a slotted spoon, transfer the lamb shanks to a warmed serving place. Skim off any fat from the cooking juices, then check the seasoning. Stir in the parsley and spoon over the shanks.
Braising red cabbage
Many types of vegetable respond well to braising, becoming meltingly tender with an intense flavour. Red cabbage is used here, but fennel and celery are also very good braised. Fennel should be cut into thin, even slice from the top through the root end; sticks of celery can be left whole or cut into shorter pieces.
1 red cabbage, about 900g/2 lb 450g/1 lb cooking apples. Peeled, cored and chopped
30ml/2 tbsp soft light or dark brown sugar
30ml/ 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
175g/ 6fl oz/ ¾ cup near-boiling water salt and ground black pepper.
- Discard the tough outer leaves of the cabbage, cut it into quarters and remove the hard stalk. Shred the cabbage finely.
- Put the cabbage, apples, sugar, vinegar, salt and pepper into the ceramic cooking pot and toss together. Pack down firmly then pour over the water.
- Cover with the lid and switch to high for 3-4 hours, or to low for 6-8 hours, stirring halfway through.
Reheating braising dishes, casseroles and stews
Braised dishes, casseroles and stews and often served the day after they are made because their flavour improves with keeping and reheating. The improvement in taste is less obvious in dishes made in the slow cooker because the long gentle cooking has already allowed the flavours to develop and mingle. However, if you do plan to reheat a dish, it is important to cool it is quickly as possible – but you should never plunge the hot ceramic cooking pot into cold water because this may cause it to crack.
- When cooking is complete, remove the ceramic cooking pot from the slow cooker, and place on a pot stand for at least 10 minutes, taking off the lid to allow steam to escape. (Do not remove the lid for braised vegetables; you want to retain the moisture with these.)
- Place the ceramic cooking pot in a washing-up bowl of cool but not very cold water. Leave for about 15 minutes, or until the surrounding water stars to feel warm. (Don’t overfill the bowl or the water may overflow into the prepared dish; the water should come just over halfway up the cooking pot.)
- Remove the ceramic cooking pot and pour away the warmed water. Refill the bowl with very cold water, replace the ceramic cooking pot and add a few ice cubes or frozen ice packs to speed up the cooling process. Leave until the food is completely cool.
- Cover the ceramic cooking pot with the lid and place in the refrigerator until needed, or transfer the containers to another container, if you prefer.
- The slow cooker is not suitable for reheating the dish. It will take too long for the contents to reheat to ensure food safety. Check whether the ceramic cooking pot is suitable for use on the stovetop or in the oven. Remove the dish from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before reheating.
- If necessary, transfer the food to a suitable pan or casserole dish, then reheat gently over a low heat on the stovetop, or in the oven at 170 /325 /Gas 3, until simmering. For safety, meat dishes must come to a gentle simmer and be maintained at that temperature for at least 30 minutes. Any fresh herbs should be added at this stage, a few minutes before serving.