In Praise of Braises: A primer on simmering vegetarian dishes

Key the word “braising” into Google, and recipes for pork shoulder and short ribs will run off the page. That’s culinary typecasting, though, like saying that baking is just for pastries or poaching belongs to eggs – braising can enhance vegetarian dishes just as much as meat-based ones.

Braising is the transitional domain of late winter and early spring, when the days are short but the hours long and unhurried, and lingering produce needs a bit of coaxing to release its sweetness. It’s the art of low, slow cooking, and done well, it transforms the misunderstood cellar castaways – celery root, rutabaga, salsify and gnarly winter potatoes – into decadent, rich and tender bites. “It’s about layers of flavor,” said Anthony Devoti, chef and owner of Five Bistro and Newstead Tower Public House, “and often the toughest veggies yield the richest results.”

There are four essential components: the braising vegetables, the aromatics, the liquid and a touch of fat from butter, oil or cream. The main ingredients are often hearty and rustic: potatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, radishes, celeriac or rutabaga. Tender veggies like broccoli, kale, escarole and endive also produce robust flavors and delicate textures. “The important thing with the vegetables,” said Devoti, “is to know how long to simmer. Vegetables finish in much less time than meat, and you don’t want mush.”

Next are aromatics. These are the foundation of braising, imparting the sweet midtones and the savory endnotes that infuse each layer. Options include carrots, onions, leeks, shallots, garlic and celery, as well as dried herbs and spices. “You can get creative with the aromatics,” said Devoti. “I like to pair the unexpected, like vanilla and leeks or fennel and nutmeg.”

Once these ingredients are assembled, it’s time to add the liquid. Liquid is the conduit of flavor, the medium for transferring the distinct qualities of each ingredient to all the others. Most liquids include a mixture of some kind of stock balanced by something acidic, like wine or vinegar. Beer, cider, a liqueur or tomato juice may also be used. “The balance of liquid to ingredients is important,” said Wes Johnson, chef de cuisine at Eclipse. “Too much moisture yields a flat, diluted flavor.” The liquid should not rise more than one-third of the way up the sides of the ingredients in the pot. That might seem scant, but the vegetables release significant moisture as they cook.

Then there’s fat, and just a touch elevates braised vegetables. Fat absorbs the essential flavors of each ingredient and distributes them throughout the dish. It also contributes a rich mouth feel, allowing the nuances to linger on the tongue long after the food has been swallowed. In braising, fat can be used early, to brown the ingredients; more often with vegetables, though, it’s added on top and allowed to melt throughout the heated pot.

And on the matter of pots, size does matter. It’s important that the food be evenly distributed throughout the baking dish, with at least 2 inches of headroom so that moisture can circulate. “My favorite is a Dutch oven,” said Johnson. “It’s heavy enough to hold onto heat and moisture and evenly distribute it as the food simmers.” Moisture from the braise mingles with the added moisture. The tight seal traps all this flavor and forces it back into the food, creating a complex and harmonic flavor. “The marriage of flavors achieved in braising is intense,” said Johnson. “The combination of heat, moisture and time works to slowly break down tougher foods, transforming the ingredients into creamy mouthfuls.”

The final step in braising is the finish. This sometimes includes removing inedible bits like whole spices or overcooked aromatics and raising the heat to reduce and thicken the liquid. This is also when any final ingredients are added – bread crumbs, cheese topping, fresh herbs. These are the touches that elevate the braise, creating dimension, texture and flavor unity.