how to master the gentle art of braising – even for vegetarians

mushroom ragu mushroom ragu-3

Back during my month of being a vegetarian, I remember feeling a little antsy. And it wasn’t that I was missing eating meat. You see the leaves were well and truly past turning brown and I was hanging out in the snowy mountains. And while it hadn’t actually snowed yet, Winter was well on it’s way – just the weather for hearty braising.

I was aching for a long leisurely afternoon, hanging out on the couch with a pot of something gently bubbling away in the oven. Rewarding with rich wonderful aromas every time the oven is opened for a little peek and a little stir. I was itching to braise. Normally it would have been lamb shanks, or a shoulder of lamb or even pork but they of course were off bounds. But why not braise some mushrooms? Problem solved.

what is braising?

Braising is basically slow cooking food, usually meat with some liquid, at low temperatures for a long time. The meat can be browned first to enhance the flavour but it isn’t essential. Braising goes by many names such as slow cooking, stewing, casseroling or even pot roasting.

tips for successful braising

lower temperatures for longer time are best
You can’t rush a good braised dish. While vegetables aren’t so sensitive to high temperatures, if meat gets too hot the proteins seize up and squeeze out all the lovely moisture. It also means the muscle can’t hold the sinewey goodness as it melts and you miss out on the cut-it-with-a-spoon texture of a good lamb shank.

aromatic veg make a difference
I pretty much always start a braise by softening some chopped onion. Celery and carrot are also usually invited to the party, although I tend not to bother softening them first as they’ll have plenty of time to cook through and release their sweet aromas into the sauce.

get things simmering on the stove first
I love my cast iron le creuset pot because I can pop everything in and get it simmering on the stove before it goes into the oven. The heat transfer on the stove top is much quicker so it kind of jump-starts the braising process.

If you don’t have an flame-proof casserole dish, just allow an extra half hour. Or start in a hotter oven for the first 10 minutes to get things going. Just be careful not to forget to turn the oven down like I have on occasion.

regular checking & turning helps

Every oven and dish is different so I find it’s best not to set-and-forget. I tend to check every half an hour or so to make sure things aren’t drying out too much and that the heat is giving a gentle simmer rather than a rapid boil. I also like to turn the meat so that it cooks evenly and each side has a chance to brown a little.

use a ‘cartouche’
A cartouche is just a piece of baking paper that you moisten then scrunch an place over the meat. It’s great for braising where you want the sauce to reduce away from the exposed edges of the pot but not have the meat that’s above the liquid level drying out.

be prepared to top up the liquid
Trust your judgement, if it’s looking dry and the meat isn’t melting and ready, add in a little more water, stock or wine.

be prepared to reduce down the liquid
If your meat is cooked and you have a heap of watery sauce, just strain it into a large frying pan and simmer away until thickened. The meat can rest while you do this and then reheat gently once reunited with the sauce.

braises improve with time

One of the best things is that braised dishes actually tend to taste better and have a more silky texture after being chilled and reheated. Perfect for entertaining.

mushroom ragu-4

braised mushrooms
serves 8-10 with pasta

Also known as ‘mushroom’ ragu, I was pleasantly surprised at the hearty, soul warming nature of these mushies. A bonus that the satisfied both my vegetarianism and my urge to braise.

I used a combo of large field mushrooms and portobellos and a few button mushies. Feel free to mix it up with whatever mushrooms you have on hand. Some dried porcini mushrooms would add to the mushroom intensity. It will seem like a large amount of mushies but the cook right down.

If you’re feeding less people you could halve the recipe, but you won’t have any problems using the leftovers. I cooked up some with green lentils to use as the base for a gardner’s pie topped with mash. Delish. Also lovely on toast with eggs for breakfast.

Great with short dried pasta, but also lovely with fresh parpadelle if you’re in the mood for a little pasta making while your mushies cook.

I’ve used smoked tofu here to keep it truly vego, but you could always use some smoky bacon or pancetta.

For vegans, just ditch the butter and use some good extra virgin olive oil at the end for added richness.

100g (3 1/2oz) smoked tofu, diced
2 medium brown onions, peeled & diced
2 carrots, finely diced
2 ribs celery, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled & sliced
1.5kg (3lb) mixed mushrooms, half thickly sliced, half diced
1 small bunch thyme
1 can tomatoes (400g / 14oz)
50g (2oz) butter
2-3 tablespoons soy sauce

Preheat oven to 180C (350F).

Heat a stove top and ovenproof casserole dish or a frying pan over a medium high heat. Add a few tablespoons olive oil and cook tofu until golden brown all over.

Remove tofu and add onion with a little more oil if it looks dry. Cover and cook onion stirring occasionally until the onion is lovely and soft and slightly golden. Add carrots, celery, garlic and cook for a few minutes. Add mushrooms in batches, stirring until they cook down and make space for the rest.

When all the mushies are in, add the browned tofu, thyme, tomatoes, butter and 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce. Top with 3 cups water. Bring to a simmer on the stove top then pop in the oven. Cook, uncovered for 2 – 2 1/2 hours, stirring every half an hour or so. It’s ready when the mushies are nice and tender and the liquid has reduced to a lovely saucy consistency.

Taste and season with a little extra soy, salt and pepper if needed.

mushroom ragu-2


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