What is a braiser? What is a French oven? Should you invest?

Three Braisers: Le Creuset, Lodge, and All-Clad Braising Pans. In short, braisers are more shallow and have wider bases than Dutch ovens. They also have tight-fitting lids, and should go to from stovetop to oven back to stovetop just fine.

Three Braisers: Le Creuset, Lodge, and All-Clad Braising Pans. In short, braisers are more shallow and have wider bases than Dutch ovens. They also have tight-fitting lids, and should go to from stovetop to oven back to stovetop just fine.

Ever since I stayed in my first French apartment, I’ve been a fool for enamel-covered cast iron cookware. Nearly every furnished French apartment I’ve rented has at least one pan made of this material. I love how sturdy they are (they remind me of my farm-wife grandmother’s cast-iron skillets), how they distribute the heat slowly and evenly, and how tight-fitting their lids are. And they’re beautiful, too—such vivid colors.

I have a few enameled cast-iron pieces in my collection, but few pots get more use than my braiser. I adore it. In fact, I like this pan so much that I’ve written an e-book about it.

What Is a Braiser? 

Le Creuset’s Braiser

A braiser is a wide, shallow pan with a tight-fitting lid. Here’s why they’re great:

• Wide bases allow meat maximum contact with the heat source, making it easier to get it all nicely browned before it simmers.

• Because braising requires less liquid than stewing, the sides of these pans are shallower that those of a Dutch oven. The liquid spreads out for a true braise (cooking with moist steam heat) rather than a stew (simmering covered in liquids).

This is not a braiser. It's a Dutch Oven or a French Oven (known as a cocotte, in France).

This is not a braiser. It’s a Dutch Oven or a French Oven (known as a cocotte, in France).

Confusingly, some companies that sell braisers call the something else. Lodge, for instance, offers a 3-quart cast-iron “casserole” that’s perfect for braising (in fact, I’d call it a braiser). It’s also about half the price of the Le Creuset braiser, by the way.

I can wholly vouch for the Le Creuset braisers–I’ve owned both the 3 1/2-quart and the 5-quart braisers for a few years now, and they wear like iron (!). But I would also say that the Lodge “casserole” is definitely worth a look if you don’t feel spending enough for the Le Creuset.

UPDATE: I have now reviewed the Le Creuset, Lodge, and All-Clad Braisers. Here are links to my reviews:
Review of Lodge/Le Creuset Braisers.
Review of All-Clad Stainless Steel Braising Pan.

PS: Looking for great recipes for your braiser? Here’s a page with links to all the braiser recipes on this blog.

Want more? Here’s a list of great braiser recipes in my flagship cookbook, The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day.

Vermouth-Braised Chicken with Black Olives and Prosciutto
Chicken and Rice Grand Cassolette
Chicken Fricassée
Coq au Vin
Osso Buco-Style Chicken Thighs
Beef Stew with Orange and Balsamic Vinegar
Pomegranate Pot-au-Feu
Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Braise Ce Soir
Poulet Bijoutière (the jeweler’s chicken–braised with garlic, wine, pomegranate juice and a touch of currant jelly)
Choucroute Garnie pour le Week-End
Braised Pork Marengo
Choucroute Garnie Mardi Soir (a quick weeknight version of Choucroute Garnie)
Normandy Pork Chops
Lamb Daube with Mustard, Herbs, and Wine
Tuna Steaks Braised with Tomatoes, Olives, and Fennel
Basque-Style Chicken
Coq au Vin Assez Rapide
Braised Lamb Blade Chops with Herbes de Provence, Lemon, and Roasted Garlic

You can also find great recipes in my e-book The Braiser Cookbook: 22 irresistible recipes created just for your braiser-great for Le Creuset, Lodge, All-Clad, Staub, Tromantina, and all other braiser pans.

For a complete list of recipes in that book, see this posting.


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Winter weather--again? How about some spring lamb?

Here in the Great Midwest, we woke up to a graceful dusting of snow today. If it were January, I’d be getting out my Le Creuset braiser and cooking up something big, hearty, and warm. But it’s March 29, for heaven’s sake, and I’m looking for something that at least hints of spring.

Enter my braised lamb blade chops recipe. It takes advantage of spring lamb, and the sprightly gremolata on top adds a bracing dose of freshness that nods to the brighter days to come. So, I’ll go ahead and get out my braiser after all. (And if you don’t have a braiser, an ovenproof skillet with a tight-fitting lid will do just fine).

The recipe, below, is based on a braised lamb shank dish that I’ve enjoyed in France; however, I’m using lamb blade steaks. I find this cut braises more quickly (so yes, you can cook this dish on a Tuesday night); it’s also more graceful to serve than shanks, which I find generally have too much meat for one, yet not quite enough meat for two.

Braised Lamb Blade Chops with Herbes de Provence, Lemon, and Roasted Garlic

The garlic in this recipe works two ways. Some is used to enrich the sauce. The remaining cloves are served as a condiment—something extra to dab a forkful of meat in. Or, serve bread alongside, and encourage diners to spread a little roasted garlic on each slice.

Makes 4 servings.

4 (10-ounce) bone-in lamb blade steaks (also called lamb blade chops), cut 3/4-inch thick
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
15 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 teaspoon dried herbes de Provence
1/4 cup snipped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in an oven-safe Dutch oven or braiser over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Cook the chops, turning once, until brown, about 8 minutes (reduce the heat to medium if the meat browns too quickly). Transfer the meat to a plate. Reduce the heat to medium and add the garlic cloves to the pan; cook and stir until just slightly brown all over, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the garlic cloves to the plate with the chops.

3. Add the wine to the pan; increase the heat and bring to a boil, stirring to loosen any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Boil until the wine is reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Add the chicken broth and herbes de Provence. Return the lamb and garlic to the pan. Cover tightly, transfer to the oven, and bake until the lamb is tender, about 1 hour.

4. Just before the lamb is finished, stir together the parsley and lemon zest in a small bowl. Set aside.

5. Transfer the lamb and 8 of the garlic cloves to a plate; cover with foil to keep warm. Using a fork, press down on the garlic cloves still in the pan (the garlic will pop easily out of the skins at this point). Discard the skins and use the fork to mash the garlic in the pan. Use a wire whisk to blend the garlic pulp into the pan juices. Bring the pan juices to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer until reduced to about 2/3 cup. Stir in the lemon juice; taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.

6. Divide the lamb steaks among four dinner plates; top each with a little of the sauce, then sprinkle with the lemon-parsley mixture. Place 2 of the reserved roasted garlic cloves on each plate and serve.

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Tarte Flambée Perfected (Well, Almost)

No recipe in my entire book has given me more troubles than my Tarte Flambée—the quintessential Alsatian bacon and onion tart.

My troubles started when I had it in my mind that this Alsatian specialty was made of a very thin pizza dough crust, spread with fromage blanc (a soft, white cheese), then topped with bacon and caramelized onions and baked.

I don’t know where the caramelized onion idea came in. The thing about France I’ve found again and again is that not only is there never one recipe for any classic, but there’s not always a consensus on exactly what the classic is (unless there’s an Acadamie Française of cuisine that I don’t know of). Somewhere in my travels, I’ve had the treat with caramelized onions.

When I tried to make it with caramelized onions at home, it was a drab, brown thing, and didn’t taste much better than it looked.  Further research revealed that the onions are not cooked, but rather sliced super thin—so thin that they will roast and mellow somewhat as they bake at a high temperature atop the tart.

Onion problem solved. But what on earth was that creamy layer? Crème fraîche or fromage blanc? And could I use the more easily found Fage Greek Yogurt, which, uncooked, somewhat resembles Fromage Blanc?

My cookbook is all about finding widely available stand-ins for less-common French products, but the stand-ins have to work beautifully or they’re out. I tried the Greek-style yogurt. No dice. The yogurt baked to a weird consistency (like semi-melted plastic) that glided off the partially baked crust.

When I was at the market looking for fromage blanc, I ran into local chef, David Baruthio, whose restaurant, Baru 66, is in the running for Best New Restaurant this year from the James Beard Foundation. Because he’s from Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, I thought he might know a thing or two about Tarte Flambée.

First of all, he said, you can use either crème fraîche or fromage blanc, or both, but crème fraîche was better. He mentioned that some cooks thicken the crème fraîche with flour before spreading it on the crust. And the crust? Traditionally, it’s not a pizza crust at all, but a thin, unleaven crust.

Sadly, the market only carried nonfat fromage blanc. I wanted to test with the regular version. My only option was to go clear across town to Trader Joe’s find it.

And friends, the promise of my book is that you shouldn’t have to drive across town for fancy ingredients for any of my recipes. Doing so is not in the spirit of everyday French home cooking. So I bought the crème fraîche and headed home.

Here’s another issue I came across: Most French recipes for Tarte Flambée call for oven temperatures of 500°F or more (after all, flamber means to set afire). I don’t think we literally want to set this tart on fire in the home kitchen. And I don’t know about your oven, but in mine, there’s usually some residue left over from another baking project that’s going to start smoking at that high heat, and set off my fire alarm. For me, 450°F is as high as I go.

I won’t go into the details of how many times I tested the crust at different temperatures and timings. But in the end, instead of using an unleaven crust, I used a basic recipe for pizza dough—but I didn’t let it rise very much. It bakes well at the 450°F. It’s flat but nicely chewy, very easy and quite good.

Back to the crème fraîche. I made the recipe with this French-style sour cream. Alas, the crème fraîche ran over the sides of the tart and melted until it was quite liquidy. A messy tart (but it tasted good).

I thought of Baruthio’s suggestion of adding flour to the crème fraîche, and I also saw another recipe that added an egg. So, on about the eighth attempt at making this tart, I topped half of it with a mixture of flour/sour cream and another half with a mixture of egg/sour cream.

Both worked well, but I give the egg version the edge. The flour/sour cream side brought a nicely thickened layer of sour cream, while the egg/sour cream version had a slightly custardy richness that I loved. The tanginess of the sour cream, the sweet-hotness of the onions, the salty-smoky flavor of the bacon—finally, it was all working beautifully together.

And why sour cream? Crème fraîche is expensive and not that widely available. Sour cream, once you mix it with the egg, becomes rich and wonderful and just fine for this tart. Especially since there are other great flavors at work here, too.

What next? I’m going to test the recipe one more time. If anyone out there wants to test it, too, I’d be eternally grateful.

And thanks. I’m sure that the only people who have got to the end of this post are true recipe geeks. I appreciate your interest, and any suggestions you have with this tart.

Alsatian Bacon and Caramelized Onion Tart (So Far)

Makes 8 appetizer or side-dish servings

INGREDIENTS:

1/2        recipe Pizza Dough
6            slices bacon (about 3 ounces)
1            medium onion
1            cup sour cream
1            large egg, beaten

Position an oven rack to lowest position. Grease one large rimmed baking sheet. Preheat oven to 450°F. Prepare pizza dough as directed through step two, reserving one ball of dough for later use (refrigerate for up to 3 days). Roll the remaining ball into a 10-inch round on the sheet; roll edges over once to form a rim. Set aside.

Cook bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until cooked but not crisp. Drain on paper towels, then cut into 1/2–inch pieces.  Using a small, sharp knife, slice the onion in half, then slice each half as thinly as you can (you should almost be able to see through the slices). Separate the slices into half-rings (you should have about 1 cup); set aside. In a small bowl, beat the sour cream and egg together until smooth. Set aside.

Prick dough all over with a fork. Bake on lowest oven rack for 5 minutes. Remove from oven; flatten any air bubbles with a fork.

Spread the sour cream and egg mixture atop the partially baked crust. Top onions and bacon. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Bake until crust is golden brown on bottom and edges, about 10 to 12 minutes more. Let cool on wire rack for five minutes before cutting into 8 pieces to serve.

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