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The basics of slow cooking

Slow and steady

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Richard Carpenter is the co-chair of Pikes Peak Community College's Culinary Arts department. He's also an American Culinary Federation-certified executive pastry chef. For this edition of our Dish recipe guide, we spoke to Carpenter and got the basics on slow cooking — why do it and how to do it right. Hopefully, his tips will make your experiments with the recipes in this guide go smoothly.

Indy: What's the value of cooking something at lower temperatures for a longer time?

Richard Carpenter: In most cases, we cook low and slow for tenderizing tougher pieces of meats, and for developing flavors, and really to get a good blend of flavors.

What are some basic methods for doing this?

If it's a red meat, then in most cases, you'd want to season it and give it a good sear before putting it in a liquid to slow-cook it. [One of] the two things searing does is caramelization, which adds quite a bit to flavor and color. But you also have the Maillard reaction, which is a browning of the proteins, that's a little bit different than the browning of sugars, and that's an important part of flavor development.

How do you keep slow-cooked food from drying out?

If it's a meat, then the choice or the cut of meat would be very important. One thing we would look for is something that has a lot of connective tissue and collagen.

What happens to connective tissue and collagen when you slow-cook?

Not only will the meat get tenderized, but there will also be a lot of gelatin in there, and that gives a lot of nice body and mouth-feel to it.

Getting back to slow cooking in liquid, how does that work?

In most cases of braising, you may have the liquid up to one half the height of the piece of meat, so some of it is exposed, and some of it is in the liquid. A good pan, like if you were using a Dutch oven, they're designed to direct the moisture as it accumulates at the top right back to shower over the meat. It's a self-basting [cooking method].

How do you keep textures from becoming mushy?

In many meats, like beef chuck or pork butt, most of those [won't get mushy] undisturbed in a braise... there's times I'll have that go overnight... But with vegetables, it's so very different. It depends on the type of vegetable. If I was braising Swiss chard, I would trim it and begin that braise with the thicker stems, and then I would put [the more tender leaves] in at a later point. Usually I'll use some sort of acidity — you know, lemons or fresh-squeezed lemon juice in that braise.

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What's the role of acidity in a good slow-cooking situation?

Over time, if it's a long cook, the acidity... often only tenderizes the outer part [of what's being cooked]... If it's part of the flavor profile you want, I would do a second addition of [acids] at the end.

What are some tips you'd give to somebody who's nervous about slow-cooking food?

I think building the flavors right at the beginning [is important]. Take your time, don't overload the pan [when you're browning the meat], work in small batches if you have to, just for the coloring of the meat in the beginning.

What are your thoughts on slow cookers?

I think it's a great cooking vessel, as long as everyone understands that you must brown at high heat with a heavy pan [first], and then you deglaze that pan. I'd throw the aromatics in the pan after [browning the protein] — onions, carrots, celery, you know, mirepoix — and get a nice color on that, then deglaze the pan... and put all that flavor in the Crock-Pot.

So if I see a recipe that requires a long braise and I want to use my Crock-Pot, how do I convert?

It does tend, for me, to take a little bit longer than braising in the oven, so I would generally add about 25 percent more time for the Crock-Pot. If I have something I might braise in the oven for four to six hours, I'll put it in overnight, for eight hours, and have great results.

Is there anything else you think my readers should know about slow cooking?

You really want to stay away from a lean meat. It doesn't matter if [there's] a lot of fat on the outside. Another thing, if you're making something braised where you want a rich, brown broth, then adding a tomato product like tomato paste and browning that... adds a great depth and richness. A lot of people add tomato, but they don't brown it.


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