As autumn submits to winter, the frigid air outside suggests the perfect meal for a Sunday evening gathering – Brasato al Barolo. Beef braises in the oven for hours, lazily simmering in red wine, and produces an aroma like no other. It permeates the house with reminders of Piedmont, the magical alcove surrounded by an arc of the majestic snow-capped Alps.
Braising is a centuries-old but ingenious method of cooking that transforms a less desirable cut of meat into a succulent and flavorful delicacy that does wonders to warm the soul on a cold winter’s night. In The French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller says this about braising:
“When you’ve pulled your pot from the oven to regard your braise, to really see it, to smell it, you’ve connected yourself to generations and generations of people who have done the same thing for hundreds of years in exactly the same way.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Every major cuisine seems to have its method of braising meat in liquid; the French have Pièce de Boeuf Braisée / Boeuf à la Mode, in America we have Yankee Pot Roast, and in Italy it’s Brasato. The Italian word is a derivative of brace, meaning “hot coals”. In the past a heavy pot was buried in glowing coals where the meat would simmer for hours, with more embers placed upon the concave lid.
In Italy braising is used extensively – for a piece of meat or game, sometimes fish or fowl – the most common being beef. It can be marinated beforehand, sometimes with herbs, spices, and/or vegetables. Typically the meat is first browned (gilded) in fat or oil before simmering in liquid for three to five hours. In Lombardy they add cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaves. In Liguria they use dried mushrooms, some ham, and a mixture of wine and beef broth – and sometimes they substitute pork for beef. In Piedmont, the classic recipe is Brasato al Barolo [braise of Barolo wine].
What gives brasato its delicious flavor and tenderness are two components in the roast one doesn’t usually associate with quality meat: fat and sinew (connective tissue). When these parts of the roast are heated to 150° they begin to melt, losing their toughness and dissolve into the muscle fibers, creating a velvety texture and delicious earthy flavor – a process that dry heat is unable to effectively achieve.
Beef Cuts for Braising:
The beef cut you choose should be marbled with fat and contain connective tissue. Leaner cuts will dry out quickly and are better suited to other cooking methods, like dry roasting or grilling. These are the best cuts, in order of preference:
- Shoulder chuck
- Bottom round (rump)
The red wine performs two functions: it acts as a moderate tenderizer and it adds flavor. This recipe calls for Barolo, the king of wines in Piedmont. However, any nebbiolo-based wine will produce satisfactory results, such as Barbaresco or a nebbiolo table wine. Other wines you can use include Burgundy, Côtes du Rhône, or Chianti.
Some recipes call for marinating the meat before cooking, but I don’t recommend it. Marinating is more suitable for thinner cuts of meat, like steaks. The liquid is unable to completely permeate a thicker roast and the result will be uneven texture. Moreover, my view is that marinating will skew the balance of flavor, tilting it away from the earthy beef flavor for which this dish is famous, rendering it too acidic and sour-tasting.
A Dutch Oven works best, but any covered oven-friendly dish will do. Sometimes I merely use my All-Clad sauce pan.
A sauté pan to brown the meat.
- 2 ½ – 4 pounds boneless beef roast
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 large carrot, roughly chopped
- 2 celery ribs, roughly chopped
- 1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
- 1 ½ cups Piedmont-based red wine, such as Barolo, Barbaresco, or other nebbiolo-based wine
- 1 cup (or more) of beef broth (if using canned, use ½ cup and dilute with ½ cup water)
- 2 tablespoons chopped canned Italian plum tomatoes
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 2 bay leaves
- ⅛ teaspoon dried thyme
- ¼ teaspoon fresh marjoram (⅛ teaspoon if using dried)
- Sea salt
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, slightly cracked
- Salt the meat thoroughly, using a heaping ½ teaspoon of sea salt per pound. Work the salt into every crack and crevice. If possible, salt the meat 3 days in advance and store in the refrigerator covered with plastic wrap. This pre-salting will provide additional tenderness and flavor.
- Remove meat from refrigerator and dry thoroughly with paper towels (or it will not brown properly) and allow to warm to room temperature for an hour or two.
- Preheat oven to 300° and adjust the oven rack to the middle position.
- Tie the meat into a tight log with about four ties along the width and one down the length.
- Pour in just enough oil to coat the bottom of a pan that will accommodate the meat. Heat the oil at medium or a bit higher until hot. Add the meat and gild thoroughly on all sides, taking caution not to char (See Mastering the Techniques of Sautéing and Browning). Transfer the meat to a platter, but leave the uncleaned pan for later use.
- Coat the bottom of a Dutch Oven with olive oil and butter (three parts oil and one part butter) and heat it over medium. Add the chopped onion and sauté until golden. Add the garlic, celery, and carrot and stir thoroughly to coat well, about 5 minutes. Add the meat
- Pour the red wine into the pan where the meat was browned and turn on the heat to medium high. After the wine begins to bubble, scrape the bottom of the pan to remove any residue from the meat. Add this mixture to the Dutch Oven.
- Add the beef broth, enough to reach roughly 2/3 of the meat’s height. If you need more liquid than the recipe calls for, add additional broth.
- Add the tomatoes, herbs, and slightly-cracked peppercorns. Heat the pot at medium high until it begins to boil, then cover and place in the oven.
- Allow the roast to simmer for 3 ½ – 4 hours, turning every 30 minutes or so, until fully tender.
- Transfer the meat to a carving board and tent with aluminum foil to keep warm
- With a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables and pass through a food mill into a separate bowl, creating a vegetable purée.
- Allow the remaining liquid to settle for about 5 minutes, and then skim any excess fat from the surface.
- Reduce the liquid over moderately high heat for 5 – 10 minutes
- Lower the heat to medium low and add enough of the vegetable purée to thicken the sauce to the desired consistency.
- Cut the meat into ½ inch slices and place on a warmed serving platter. Pour about a ½ cup of the sauce onto the meat and use the remainder for the table.
Traditional side dishes:
- Polenta, or
- Purè di Patate [Mashed potatoes]
- Barolo (of course), or the type of wine used to prepare this dish.
Meat has two major components: the muscle fibers, which are long thin coiled strands, and connective tissue, the translucent film that envelops the muscle fibers, providing structure and support. The muscle fibers are composed largely of water – some 75% – and the connective tissue is made largely of collagen protein.
When heated, these two components react: the muscle fibers contract and coil, releasing moisture, and the collagen begins to melt into a gelatinous form. In a braise, the flavorful velvety gelatin coats the muscle fibers – which would otherwise dry out – thus creating a silky, succulent texture.
It’s impossible to bring the internal temperature of a roast to the level required to melt the collagen through dry roasting. It can take upwards of five to six hours before that happens, and by then the muscle fibers have completely dried out, never to be resuscitated by any method. That’s why meats cooked with a dry roast method are usually presented medium rare. Any further cooking will result in very dry meat.
Liquid presents an optimal vehicle for delivering heat to the roast’s interior that’s hot enough to melt the collagen. It takes about 2 ½ hours for the interior to reach the desired temperature – and that temperature must be maintained for about an hour for the collagen to thoroughly dissolve into the muscle fibers. Once it is dissolved, further heating will not render the meat any more tender – but it will also do no harm – giving the cook leeway to focus on other matters.
Water boils at 212° and wine at a somewhat lower temperature until the alcohol evaporates. Once it reaches the boiling point, the liquid will maintain a constant temperature and will deliver this heat relatively quickly into the center of the meat.
Fully submerging the meat, as some recipes recommend – rather than having it partially submerged – provides no benefit to the final result. Furthermore, the sauce is eventually reduced, so having less liquid to begin with just speeds things along. And anyway, it’s just a waste of good wine!
Visitors to Italy usually notice that Italians consume less meat than their Northern European neighbors and certainly less than we do in the U.S. United Nations statistics confirm: Americans consume nearly 40% more meat than Italians. Meat is typically the centerpiece of the American meal whereas Italians share the star role with their vast array of available vegetables, fruits, and starches.
Meat is more expensive in Italy than in the U.S. Nonetheless, there is a wide array of simple and delicious meat dishes throughout the country.
The methods for preparing meat differ by region. In general, the northern regions (Lombardy, Piedmont, and Emilia-Romagna) use the principal methods of boiling (bollito misto) and braising (brasato, ossobuco); in the central regions roasting is preferred; in the South, it’s broiling or grilling.
Wine Pairings for Brasato al Barolo:
These are some of the wines we like to drink with Brasato Barolo. Click on the links for more information or to purchase them from wine.com:
- Conterno Fantino 2004 Barolo Vigna del Gris
- Conterno Fantino 2006 Barolo Mosconi
- Luigi Einaudi 2004 Barolo Cannubi
- Luigi Einaudi 2004 Barolo
- Luigi Einaudi 2006 Barolo Cannubi
- Luigi Einaudi 2000 Barolo Nei Cannubi
- Luigi Einaudi 2006 Barolo Costa Grimaldi
- Renato Ratti 2004 Rocche Barolo
- Renato Ratti 2006 Marcenasco Barolo – Nebbiolo Red Wine
- Vietti 2006 Barolo Rocche
- Vietti 2006 Barolo Lazzarito
- Vietti 2003 Barolo di Castiglione Falletto
- Vietti 2006 Barolo Brunate
- Cattleman’s Beef Board – Retail Beef Cuts and Recommended Cooking Methods