It is my belief that technique and improvisation are superior to recipes. When a cook becomes comfortable with a technique a literal world of possibilities is open. No longer must we be a slave to a recipe’s list of ingredients. We can cook with the flavors and ingredients that we love. By simply selecting certain ingredients, we can capture the flavors of France, China, Morocco, Mexico or anywhere in the world for that matter.
Today we will explore the technique of braising. By way of example, we will be braising chicken, though almost any meat is well adapted to this technique. Braising is particularly well-suited for those tougher and therefore cheaper cuts of meat.
Braising is a two-step process. First the meat is browned and then it is simmered in a flavorful liquid. Your dish can be prepared completely on the stove top or it can begin on the stove and be finished in your oven. Cooking times vary according to the meat you choose but the product should be “melt-in-your-mouth” tender and succulent. Chicken generally takes about an hour from start to finish.
Browning the meat over high heat begins a chemical process known as the Maillard reaction. Compounds in the meat are caramelized and create an amazing depth of flavor when the pan is deglazed using a liquid like wine, brandy, beer, stock or water. The little brown bits that are released by the liquid are called fond. It is important to be present during this phase of cooking. Meat can go from beautifully browned to cremated in a short span of time. It is very difficult to save truly blackened protein. I have yet to find the person who has a taste for charcoal.
In today’s recipe, we season bone-in chicken thighs with salt and pepper to taste. I like to use a combination of black, white and cayenne pepper. If you have the time, put the seasoned chicken in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes or overnight if possible. This is called a dry marinade and it really goes a long way to increasing the flavor profile of the finished dish.
Dredge the seasoned chicken in all-purpose flour. Over medium-high heat, bring an oil of your choice to temperature. The oil should approach the smoking point, but it should not be smoking. I like to use a combination of olive oil and unsalted butter. The butter provides flavor and the olive oil raises the smoking point. Together, you will need two or three tablespoons of butter and oil. Shake off the excess flour and put the chicken in the pan skin side down. In four or five minutes, the chicken should be browned and ready to turn over to brown the other side for another four or five minutes.
Remove the chicken from the pan and place on a platter. Pour off the oil making sure to leave the fond in the bottom of the pan. Using about a cup of your favorite liquid, deglaze the pan. Make sure to scrape up any bits that stick to the bottom. This holds an incredible amount of flavor. After the pan has been completely deglazed pour the remaining liquid in a container and reserve.
Add another three tablespoons or so of the butter and olive oil combination back to the pan over medium-high heat. Add one large chopped onion, one pealed and diced carrot and a couple of diced ribs of celery. We are looking just to soften the vegetables, and this will take about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Now add a couple of cloves of chopped garlic and a few sprigs of thyme or rosemary. Cook for about a minute.
Add the chicken to the pan, skin side up, the reserved deglazing liquid and just enough water or stock to come up the sides of the chicken. We are braising the chicken not boiling it.
Bring to a slight simmer and then place in a preheated 325-degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour. For a crispy skin leave the pan uncovered. I like to cover the pan, however. There is less chance of the dish drying out and is virtually foolproof.
With incredibly tender chicken you can, if you wish, go straight to the table. If you want to take this dish from great to really great, remove the chicken and pour the liquid into a clear container. When the fat has come to the surface, skim it off and discard. Combine two tablespoons of flour with two tablespoons of butter. Pour the defatted cooking liquid into a small pan and bring to boil. Whisk the butter/flour mixture in and cook for a couple of minutes until the sauce has thickened.
Pour the sauce over the chicken and garnish with some chopped flat leaf parsley. This is wonderful served with rice, couscous, egg noodles or buttered potatoes.
In the upcoming column, we will discuss taking this technique, tweaking the ingredients and creating dishes from around the world.