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.