Hot Water: Braising, Stewing, Poaching, Simmering

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
As a medium for cooking meat, water has several advantages. It transmits heat rapidly and evenly; its own temperature is easily adjusted to the cook’s needs, and it can carry and impart flavor and become a sauce. Unlike oil, it can’t get hot enough to generate browning flavors at the meat surface; but meats can be prebrowned and then finished in water-based liquids.

There are several names for the simple and versatile method of heating meat in these liquids, which may be meat or vegetable stock, milk, wine or beer, pureed fruits or vegetables. The many variations involve differences in the cooking liquid used, the size of the meat pieces, the relative proportions of meat and liquid, and initial precooking. (Braises and pot roasts involve larger cuts and less liquid than do stews.) In all of them, however, the key variable is temperature, which should be kept well below the boil, around 180°F/80°C, so that the outer portions don’t overcook badly. Many slow braises and stews are cooked in a low oven, but the usual temperatures specified—325–350°F/165–175°C—are high enough that they’ll eventually raise the contents of a covered pot to the boil. Unless the pot is left uncovered, which allows cooling evaporation (and concentrates and creates flavor at the liquid surface), the oven temperature should be kept below 200°F. (The original braisier in France was a closed pot sitting on and topped with a few live coals.)