QUESTION: “I am a master of roast chickens. But I love watching cooking shows, and whenever they present a braised dish my mouth waters, it looks so much better than when they roast things. I’ve tried some recipes for braises, but never get that deep dark melt in your mouth looking plate. What am I doing wrong? When should I roast and when should I braise!?”
The short answer:
If you are cooking something relatively lean or delicate you roast it. If you are cooking something that is fatty and/or came from the shoulder, belly, or leg of a large animal, you braise it. But continue reading because the long answer, while highly science-y, is much more interesting and will explain the disparity between cooking television shows and your kitchen counter...
The long answer:
I love this question; it gives me an excuse to be incredibly nerdy and explain my company’s name both while helping someone solve a problem. Basically, this is all of the things! Roasting and braising are both cooking techniques that utilize the convection method of heat transfer. This means that you are using a moving heated medium to cook: when roasting that medium is air, when braising that medium is liquid. (Cooking in an unmoving hot pan is conduction, grilling/broiling and microwaving are radiation.)
First of all, I applaud you on your expertise at roasting chickens. Second, your bird looks better on your kitchen counter than a roast chicken looks on TV because you can experience it with all of your senses. I think hearing is a very important part of enjoying food and that crackling sound of the juices and fats under a perfectly crisped chicken skin is probably half of my enjoyment of roast chicken. It is also a very fragrant food, even if you have added no seasoning besides salt and pepper. Since television can only convey the image of the food, it is hard to fully enjoy.
A crisp, golden brown chicken skin (or french fry, or the cheese on top of your lasagna) is a result of caramelization and the various Maillard reactions that occur when the surface of whatever you are cooking has come into contact with high enough heat, generally above 325 degrees Fahrenheit. The Maillard reactions, for which I named my company because of how I feel about the part smell plays in the enjoyment of food stated above, are hard to fully explain without giving you a potentially unwanted flashback to high school chemistry. Suffice it to say, the high heat transferred by the air in roasting/baking rearranges the molecules on the surface of a chicken or loaf of bread and produces the colors, smells and textures associated with the desired end result of whatever food you are cooking.
Water is more efficient at transferring heat, but since water becomes steam at 212 degrees fahrenheit, braised foods don’t reach the temperatures necessary for caramelization and the maillard reaction to occur. So then why do we ever braise when the maillard reaction is so cool? Because it is the easiest way to cook fatty and collagen-y cuts of meat so that they DO melt in your mouth. So with shoulders, ribs and shanks, etc. we braise, and we make the liquid we braise in extra flavorful to make up for the lack of the chemical reactions. Pictured below: pork shoulder braising in apple cider, sliced onion braising in butter and madiera. I combined the two to become a pasta sauce.
When you see braised foods on cooking shows, especially if it is a cooking competition show, you can see the tender textures of the meat sitting in velvety or syrupy rich looking sauce. They have usually done extra things to both the meat that has been braised and the liquid that are not going to be in most braise recipes you might try as a braise novice. But there are things you can do to braise better. Namely pay extra attention to the flavorful liquid. Whether you add richness and mouthfeel with red wine or umami-heavy ingredients like soy sauce or ground-up dried mushrooms, you will need to add flavor boosting properties to the liquid. Also, related to my last post regarding soups, braising the day before you are going to eat the braise often helps amp the flavor and texture because the meat is going to reabsorb it's own fats and the flavors in the braising liquid as it cools down. But the way to really master braising is to add more cooking techniques to your dish.
So if you want to make a television-worthy braised meal, what you actually need to do is find dishes with combination cooking. After braising meat to make it tender you can sometimes sear it in a pan or use very high heated air like grilling or broiling. Both of these will introduce the surface to high enough temperatures for maillard reactions to occur through an additional method of heat transfer, conduction in the case of the pan or radiation in the case of grilling/broiling, remember. You can also take the flavorful liquid and simmer it until it has reduced down into a velvety, syrupy sauce that will be rich because that liquid now also includes the rendered fat from the piece of meat. Be careful doing this for the first time though, the salt levels will intensify as you reduce the liquid so you will actually need to underseason the braising liquid a bit.
To see how combination cooking works I recommend trying Emeril Lagasse's braised pork belly recipe. It takes several days, but is easy to follow and the result is amazing. Because it involves large pieces of meat instead of the stew-like chunks called for in most braises, you will actually be braise-roasting so you won’t need to choose between the two.