In praise of slow-cooked meat

Here’s a little song I wrote for you:

(To be sung to a truncated version of the tune of ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’)

Short ribs braising in a pot of wine,
Lamb shanks bubbling on the stove.
Big pot of oxtail, been cooked for five hours,
And now just falling off the bone.
Everybody knows…
Boeuf Bourguignon is best cooked slow
The same is true of Bolognese
Although it’s been said, many times, many ways,
Try slow cooking, try slow cooking
Try slow cooking – today! 

Yes, I have too much time on my hands. Yes, it might also be true that I spend too much time on my own without anyone to talk to. However – putting aside these minor concerns for my mental health, slow-cooked meat is completely amazing, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

I do a lot of slow cooking, and have for some years – in fact, I think almost the first thing I cooked for a dinner party was boeuf bourguignon. One of my favourite things to do on a rainy Sunday is cook some sort of slow-cooked meat-in-liquid-type-dish, and now that I *ahem* have more time on my hands, I do this in the week, as well. Braising, stewing, casseroling and the like are up there with baking bread in terms of how to make your house smell amazing, and there are few things better to eat on a cold, blustery day.

On Monday night, I cooked a somewhat bastardised version of the Brazilian dish feijoada – essentially, various cuts of pork cooked slowly with black beans. Although I’m not sure I can speak for its authenticity, it was completely delicious, and Noel asked if I was going to blog about it. In many ways, I would love to write about that recipe, because it was great, but I have held back because I feel like posting recipes for slow-cooking is sort of… cheating.

For one thing, slow cooking meat is really, really, really easy. It does take time, but all but the first 30mins or so is time that involves no effort on your part whatsoever. Cheating, also, because almost every recipe for slow cooking follows the same basic premise – brown meat, sauté onion + other veg, put meat back in pot with some sort of liquid, cook on a low heat until completely scrummy – and so I felt I had very little to add. I do have a recipe for oxtail up my sleeve which I will post on here – probably some time next month. But beyond that, there are so many great recipes for slow cooking out there, I wasn’t sure I could really add to them.

So – rather than give you my version of a slow-cook recipe, I thought I’d talk a bit instead about slow-cooking in general, and share some tips and a few recipes I’ve really enjoyed, which you might like to try.

Tip 1 – brown your meat properly. I can’t emphasise this enough – start by browning your meat properly, and everything else will fall into place. In my opinion, there are few things less appetising to eat than blond, anaemic-looking pieces of meat – and conversely, few things more tasty than meat with a nice toasty crust: this is as true for braising as it is for cooking steak. In addition, if you brown your meat properly, all the yummy crusty goodness will go towards making the final sauce that bit more delicious. There are lots of recipes out there which will tell you the same thing, but the one which, for me, summed it up perfectly is Adam Roberts’ recipe for Daube de Boeuf over on Amateur Gourmet – as he says, ‘If I had to point out how I’ve grown the most as a cook over my 9 years of doing this, it would be my ability to brown meat really, really well’, and I agree – when I figured out this basic step, my casseroles improved massively. He also offers this excellent advice: ‘don’t start chopping your vegetables until you start browning your beef. This’ll ensure that you really let the beef take its time and you don’t stand around impatiently. If you do this right, you’ll have a plate of browned meat and a big bowl of vegetables ready to go at the same time’. So true – if you have nothing else to do when browning meat, you will stand around twiddling your thumbs and the temptation is to rush the process. So give yourself something else to do, and hey presto, the time flies.

Tip 1a – don’t crowd the pan when browning the meat. This is something which frustrated me for years. Countless recipes out there tell you not to brown the meat in batches and not crowd the pan, but I never read one which explained WHY. This drove me mad! Why can’t I shove all the meat in together and speed up the process?! Finally, I found the answer in the wonderful Felicity Cloake’s recipe for ‘perfect chilli con carne’. I should’ve known she would have the answer – and here it is: ‘don’t crowd the pan, or [the meat] will steam rather than brown’. Which makes sense, really. So there you have it.

Tip 2 – fat = flavour. Every recipe I have ever seen for slow cooking calls for what is usually referred to as ‘cheaper’ or ‘economical’ cuts of meat. What this means, is meat which is fattier than its more expensive counterparts – fattier, more full of connective tissue, tough as old boots if cooked quickly, but therefore absolutely ideal for slow cooking. When this meat is cooked slowly at a low temperature, the fat renders and the connective tissue breaks down, leaving the meat itself fork-tender, and the sauce in which it’s been cooked rich and unbelievably tasty. (On a side note – isn’t ‘fork-tender’ a wonderful phrase? So evocative, makes me automatically hungry). Of course, you can remove excess fat from the meat before cooking if you would like, but please don’t go nuts – leave some fat to help your dish along. Which brings me to…

Tip 3 – remove excess fat. I love fat – I am a total glutton for crispy bacon, chops, and don’t even get me started on crackling. What I don’t enjoy, however, is the greasy layer of fat on top of a sauce – and so I tend to spoon off the excess. There are two ways of doing this. Either, once the meat has had its allotted time, spoon the fat off and discard. Or, even more straightforward, if you have time, allow the dish to cool, the fat will solidify, and you can remove it very easily from the top before reheating. This has the added advantage of…

Tip 4 – slow-cooked dishes taste even better the next day. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with eating a casserole or braise straight from the oven. It will be delicious. However, if you have time and are able to plan ahead, another tip which, again, involves no effort on your part but which will take your dish straight from good to great is to leave it to cool overnight and serve it the next day. The flavours will develop and intensify, and it will taste even better. And how’s this – this means you can put a dish in the oven on a Sunday, potter around the house and do chores, then chill it overnight and eat it on Monday evening – seriously, what could be better after a miserable Monday than the most delicious dinner, ready made and waiting for you?

Tip 5 – make a big batch and freeze it. I’ve never yet made a slow-cooked meal which didn’t freeze well. It is such a great thing to have in the freezer. It is, if anything, easier to cook a big batch than a smaller one, and the leftovers will be awesome.

There you go, them’s my tips! Enjoy. To finish, here are a few recipes I’ve enjoyed over the years, and hope you do too.

Advertisements