Add This Technique to Your Repertoire: Smoke-Braising
The ancient Greeks and Romans named late July and early August “the dog days of summer.” Many people associate the phrase with insufferably hot weather and panting, shade-seeking canines, when in fact, it references the annual rising in the nighttime sky of the dog star, Sirius.
In any case, this is the time of year when all but the most intrepid cooks avoid “heating up the kitchen.”
But do you have to give up flavorful, long-simmered comfort foods like short ribs, coq au vin (chicken cooked in wine), pot roast, or stews until the cooler days of fall? Not at all. In fact, your grill or smoker (gas, charcoal, or pellet) is capable of producing the best iterations of these dishes you’ve ever eaten.
What is Braising?
All of the above rely on a combination cooking method called braising (from the French brasier). Meat—especially tougher cuts with abundant fat and connective tissue—and sometimes dense vegetables are seared over high dry heat, then cooked low and slow with liquid (often broth fortified with aromatics) in a covered heat-proof container. The results are meltingly tender with rich, deeply infused flavors.
Braising outdoors not only keeps your summer kitchen cool, it gives you the option of seasoning your dish with fragrant wood smoke. (Try that in an oven or slow cooker.) Whether you cook over wood or a wood-enhanced fire using hardwood chunks or chips, your hands-on time will be minimal, especially if you use a gas or pellet grill; a charcoal grill will require periodic refueling, of course.
We like the technique so much, we call it “smoke-braising.”
What is Smoke-Braising?
Chances are good you may have already tried smoke-braising without being aware of it. The “Texas crutch”—enclosing smoked meat tightly in foil or a covered container to finish cooking—is one example. It is often used to barbecue ribs (see 3-2-1 Ribs) or take brisket from its exasperating mid-cook “stall” to the finish line. Or maybe you’ve transferred pork shoulder to an aluminum foil-covered drip pan to let it simmer until finished in its own juices.
How to Smoke-Braise on Your Grill
To begin, you have two options: You can sear the meat (or vegetables) over a hot fire, or you can expose the food to wood smoke, the length of time depending on the food.
Next, reduce the heat on your grill or smoker to medium-low, 225 to 300 degrees. Enclose the food in aluminum foil and add a small amount of liquid (about 1/2 cup for a rack of spare ribs, for example) before tightly crimping the edges. Alternatively, place the food in a Dutch oven or disposable aluminum foil pan, add liquid and aromatics, and cover with the lid or foil. Replenish the liquid as needed. (Be very careful when opening the foil pouch or covered container as the escaping steam will be extremely hot.) Continue to cook until the food is done to your liking.
If desired, you can lift the now-cooked food out of the liquid, paint it with a sauce or glaze, and sizzle it directly over the fire. Or the flavorful braising liquid can be turned into an accompanying gravy or sauce. Your choice.
Below are links to a few of our favorite smoke-braised dishes, including one for Whiskey-Brined Pork Shoulder from my newly-released book, Healthy Wood Pellet Grill and Smoker Cookbook. But feel free to come up with your own.
Best Cuts of Meat for Smoke-Braising
In the meantime, here are some good candidates for this cooking technique:
- Pork shoulder, loin roast, belly, shanks/hocks, or ribs (spare ribs, baby backs, or country-style ribs)
- Beef short ribs
- Lamb shanks, shoulder, or ribs
- Beef chuck or top round roast
- Chicken thighs, legs, or bone-in breasts
- Turkey thighs or legs
- Globe artichokes
- Root vegetables
- Beef or veal brisket
- Beef tongue or cheeks