A Slow-Simmering Mystery

Part one of two:

 A braise might be a slow cooking method, but it pays to be organized at the outset.  

A braise might be a slow cooking method, but it pays to be organized at the outset.  

    Many years ago when I was still catering private events, I was asked to do a cooking demonstration as part of the weeklong promotion surrounding the redesign of the food hall of Chicago’s storied Marshall Field and Company (now, sadly, Macy’s).  I was flattered, and sent an outline to the public relations representative illustrating the finer points of braising a pork shoulder, all crammed into the twenty allotted minutes.  For one reason or another, though, the event was shunted, rescheduled, and, as these promotional things often are, eventually cancelled.  Or so I thought.  Some year or two later, a friend showed me a remarkable artifact; in amongst his wife’s recipes was a program schedule in Marshall Fields green, scrawled with her notes on cooking times and seasonings.  At precisely 2:15pm, she witnessed someone giving what I hope was a good demonstration on the braising of pork shoulder.  This mystery brasier had not only used my recipe; the villain had stolen my name.  

    As identity theft goes, I am perhaps fortunate that mine was swiped in so victimless a way.  I’m not excusing the bumbling ways of the public relations person, nor the scoundrel who no doubt lacked the charisma required for dissecting the noble act of braising.  I just believe in the mollifying effect a pork shoulder has on general injustice.  Even if done with mediocre ingredients and little care, it can be good.   Done well, though, braised pork shoulder is sublime.  

    In one of the more confusing aspects of butchery, shoulders are referred to as butts.  To muddy things up further, the whole shoulder complex of a pig is almost always sold in two pieces, each with its own cute nickname: Boston butt and picnic shoulder.  The former contains the shoulder blade ensconced in thick muscles and ribbons of fat, the latter, the joint where the foreleg meets the shoulder and typically quite a bit of skin.  Boston butt has two distinct advantages for braising.  Firstly, the meat-to-bone-to-fat ratio is perfect.  It’s also a more practical shape, which is to say less leg-like and generally sawed into rectangular blocks.  So: Boston Butt.  Three to four pounds worth should be sufficient.

    Braising, in its simplest sense, could be said to be slowly cooking in a moist environment.  But so unfilled-out a description not only opens the door to all sorts of variance, it robs some of this method’s famous richness.  I prefer to revel in the details, something that begins with a surface understanding of muscles.  Those that work harder than others are necessarily more developed and, subsequent to being butchered, tougher.  A mature pig’s shoulder is, therefore, a large, tough and fibrous thing full of sinew and intra-muscle fat.  It would be inedible if merely cooked through, but if cooked for a long period of time in a low heat and moist environment, the sinew melts away, the fat renders and bastes, and the once fibrous meat becomes a series of tender nuggets and shards.  One might boil the shoulder whole, which might render it tender, if somewhat flavorless, or slowly roast it, which would create flavor but at the risk of dry meat.  Braising effectively bridges the gap between the two.

    The most desirable aspect of a quality braise, though, is consistency.  Where the success of deep-frying depends upon timing, or the bracing simplicity of preparing raw fish is subject entirely to the quality of the ingredients, braising is far more forgiving.  This is perhaps why that impostor at Marshall Fields got away with his scheme—a braised pork shoulder is always good.  But that’s not to discount proper technique.  Part two will explicate what, when and how to braise correctly.