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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{ 26 comments }

Paige June 17, 2010 at 2:23 pm

I should be looking forward to more salads and fruits and things as Summer fast approaches up here, but this caught my eye and it looks so, so good. I think I will go with the bacon substitution suggestion.

More like this, please!

Lisa (bakebikeblog) June 17, 2010 at 2:23 pm

“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.” – this is such a great tip…thanks! I never know what to do to reduce the liquid without losing the flavour! This sounds perfect :)

Wei-Wei June 17, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I think that mushrooms would definitely be perfect for a vegetarian braised dish. I do love braised meat, with its beautiful texture and lovely deep flavour, but I also happen to love mushrooms. I can’t wait to try this recipe out… thanks! :)

Wei-Wei

jules June 17, 2010 at 5:01 pm

hey lisa
it is a great trick – it’s better if you can simmer rather than boil to keep as much flavour in as possible

paige
bacon is always a good idea ;)

enjoy wei wei!

Mark @ Cafe Campana June 17, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Great looking recipe. I love the braising tips. It is interesting how much the concept of braising exploded since the advent of the slow cooker.

Jess June 17, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Have you ever tried braised red cabbage? A perfect side dish for any roast, especially nut roast. Braise the chopped red cabbage with some chopped up cooking apple, softened onions, garlic, a little red wine vinegar, stock, brown sugar and maybe some nutmeg. It’s one of my favourite veg side dishes.

Johanna GGG June 17, 2010 at 10:17 pm

wow love this idea – I am not good at braising vegetables but sometimes wish I could as I love the idea of slow cooking and so many of these types of recipes are all about meat – maybe I need more mushrooms in my life- I looked at that photo and was sure it was meat

Laetitia June 18, 2010 at 5:58 am

as always, you draw up a list so helpful! moreover, you enlarge the way of cooking : braising isn’t only reserved to meat ;-)

Jarkko Laine June 18, 2010 at 6:35 am

It seems I’m cooking something from your blog every week. Inspired by your tip that braises improve with time, I made this already today for tomorrow’s lunch. I can’t wait to get to eat it as it looks and smells so delicious. :)

Thank you for yet another great recipe!

Forager June 18, 2010 at 10:25 am

Looks like a gorgeous recipe – the mushrooms look amazing to vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. I was thinking of cutting down on my own meat intake – wouldn’t go as drastic as vegetarian for a month though. Kudos for getting through that!

Rachel June 18, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I just discovered your blog and love it! Great recipes, great words and great pics! One of the best Aussie food blogs I’ve seen!

Cristina June 18, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Mmm, love mushrooms, this must taste delicious! To thicken sauces, I mix a tsp of cornstarch (or more, depending on quantities) with a little vegetable stock until it’s a smooth paste, then add it to the watery sauce and let simmer until it’s the right consistency. By the way, I just sent you an email about the “fake” puff pastry :)

Kat June 21, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Is there a way to make this in the slow cooker? Looks lovely!

Emily June 21, 2010 at 3:23 pm

This looks delicious! Will definitely have to give it a go. I’ve never tried cooking with smoked tofu either, so I think I’ll keep that in. Though, bacon sounds delicious too…

Yum!

I think this might also work well with mash potatoes, or even polenta…

Mushrooms Canada June 24, 2010 at 1:57 am

I’ve never tried to braise mushrooms before so I will definitely be giving this one a try, it looks to good to pass up! I will probably use a mixture of portabellas, criminis and shiitakes because of their meatiness and their ability to absorb all those flavours!
Thanks for sharing!
- Brittany

jules June 28, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Kat
I haven’t used a slow cooker but am sure it would be fine

crustina
thanks for the fake puff pastry recipe – interesting. and thanks for mentioning the cornstarch method of thickening sauces – personally I tend not to use starch as I find it often gives gluey texture – but that could be using too much starch

claudia July 7, 2010 at 9:05 am

I’m going to try this for dinner. My daughter and grandson are coming over. I’m not surre where to purchase smoked tofu? It looks and sound delicious.

jules July 7, 2010 at 9:08 am

hi claudia
I picked some up at norton street grocer but I know the larger supermarkets also stock it. hope you enjoy!

Farnoosh July 14, 2010 at 11:51 am

The photos! Ah these photos! I have a feeling you are a photographer or an aspiring one in the least – and I have gone vegan recently so this looks DELICIOUS. Sending over the resident chef, my husband, to make exactly this for me. THANK YOU! (I found you from Daily Brainstorm…..great space here :))!

Ellen October 22, 2010 at 6:56 am

I tried it out today to fight some particularly bad mood – and it was absolutely delish! I substituted some of the water with red wine and added some cherry juice, and it was wonderful. There’ll be more of this really soon for me.

Ellen March 31, 2012 at 3:02 am

Ever since I first tried this recipe, I’ve been making it again and again. It’s become a favorite.

jules April 10, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Glad you’re enjoying it Ellen
Thanks for the reminder..

Jess June 1, 2012 at 8:03 pm

I have this in the oven right now, it looks and smells amazing!!

jules June 6, 2012 at 6:55 pm

wonderful Jess!

vickee April 29, 2013 at 9:57 am

WOW! Just made this! Ah-mazing!!! and feed it to a meat lover and they won’t know the difference. Left out thyme and added about 1/4 of red wine on stove top to enhane flavors. Really really gooooooood! Thanks for another great recipe :)

Danielle June 11, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Hey! I’m really excited to make this cause it looks delicious, but i was wondering, do you think it’d be ok to freeze and reheat it? I’m going on a camping trip soon that i need to prepare some delicious frozen meals for :)

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