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Tip: Perfect Soups, Stews, and Braises

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Hot stew with mushrooms
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Fall and winter are the seasons for soups, stews, and braises. These are all cooking methods that involve cooking in liquid but most cooks make a serious mistake when making these dishes: they boil the meat.

The muscle fibers in most meats (with the exception of fish) begin to contract at about 130 degrees Fahrenheit and as the fibers contract two things happen: first, the moisture in and between the fibers is squeezed out and, second, the meat gets tougher. This is why a rare steak is juicier and more tender than the same steak cooked to medium. Cooking that same steak to 160 degrees (well-done) produces a steak that's as dry as leather and only slightly less tough. Water boils at 212 degrees so boiling water heats the meat to a very high temperature relative to doneness.

You may, at this point, object; "But I cook steaks over a 400 degree fire and roast turkeys at 375 degrees, why is boiling at 212 degrees different?" First, the exterior of the steak or turkey does reach (or nearly reach) around 350 degrees. But in neither case do you cook the steak or turkey to 350 degrees throughout. Second, liquid is far more effective at transmitting heat than hot air. So, if you heat your meat to 212 degrees throughout in a soup or stew you will end up with tough, dry meat.

To some degree, in these dishes, the dryness is not as noticeable because of the liquid they're cooked in. But the toughness often is - particularly if the piece of meat is tough to begin with such as a Boston butt or chuck roast (both shoulder cuts). These are great cuts of meat because they're packed with flavor, but they also require particular care in cooking to produce a tender, flavorful result.

Tip 1: In almost all cases you want to brown the meat in oil (or fat) before making the soup, stew, or braise. Browning is the Maillard Reaction and produces deep, savory flavors you can't get any other way.

Tip 2: Use a heavy pot for all soups, stews, and braises. My preference is for enameled cast iron and I particularly like Le Crueset because I can do the entire dish in a single pot. But if you don't mind getting two pans dirty you can brown in a skillet and then transfer to a deep terracotta casserole dish from Emile Henry (compare prices) or Corning (compare prices). (See Tip 5 below.)

Tip 3: If I'm adding water to the pot I use hot tap water, which shaves a few minutes off the heating process.

Tip 4: Bring the liquid just to a boil over high heat (again this shaves off a few minutes) then immediately reduce to a simmer.

Tip 5: Although soups, with their high proportion of liquid to solids and shorter cooking times, do well on the stove top, most stews and braises cook more gently in the oven - producing a richer flavor and more tender results. Place the Dutch oven or casserole in a 300 - 325 degree oven and give it 2 to 3 hours.

Tip 6: Whether cooking on top of the stove or in it, do not cover the pot tightly. Always leave a small gap (1/2-inch) that steam can escape through. Sealed tightly in a pot the liquid will quickly reach boiling point (212 degrees) and over-cook the meat. But by allowing steam to escape the temperature of the liquid is kept down to around 160 to 170 degrees - even if the pot is on a 250 degree burner or in a 250 degree oven. The liquid will simmer and not boil producing a mre tender result.

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