Braising is a cooking process for meat and vegetables where high heat is first used to brown the food that is then submerged in a flavorful liquid and cooked in a covered container with lower temperature for an extended time, resulting in a flavorful and tender end dish.
Beef and pork roasts both work really well with this cooking method. Braising transforms these tougher cuts into juicy and tender meat packed with flavor.
If you’ve never braised a roast before or are looking for specific recipes, we go over how to braise a pork roast in an Instant Pot here and provide cooking instructions for braising a beef roast for use in burritos here. And for even more help, sign up at the bottom to get our helpful guide “5 tips for Tender and Juicy Roasts”
But before you run off and make a mouth-watering meal, here are 3 scientific principles that will help you understand the process that goes into making a great braised roast.
Collagen is an elastic and tightly bound substance used to hold things together while also allowing pliability and flexibility and is the prominent protein in skin, cartilage, and tendons.
Muscles contain a collagen matrix that hold the muscle together and provide the framework for the muscle cells to pull against. The more often a muscle is used, the stronger and more developed this collagen matrix will be.
In beef and pork, cuts of meat that come from muscles with this stronger collagen matrix will be tougher and less tender. Some of these cuts include Chuck and Rump Roasts in beef and Shoulder Roasts in pork.
Mechanical tenderization or making these cuts into ground meat can break up this matrix and make these portions of the animal more useful for eating. But there is another more powerful method in the culinary toolbox to deal with this collagen matrix: gelatinization.
With enough heat and time in a moist environment, this collagen will break down into gelatin. Gelatin is a collection of proteins, that unlike collagen, can be digested by our bodies. And instead of making the meat tough to eat, gelatin adds lusciousness.
The amino acids in gelatin paired with the amino acids in the meat also provide more complete and balanced nutrition while increasing satiety, making braised meats not only delicious but nutritious. One of the main reasons that chicken noodle soup is prized for making you feel better when you are sick is that traditionally chicken stocks included a lot of gelatin.
All around, transforming collagen to gelatin is a great thing. So how do you best go about this gelatinization process? The short answer is braising.
The changeover from tight braided collagen proteins to loose gelatin proteins starts at temperatures over 160 degrees Fahrenheit and works even better in the 170 to 190 degree range.
But for meat to reach this temperature will also cause it to contract and push out moisture. To avoid having dry meat, the braising method bathes the meat in a liquid and cooks it in a covered moist environment, helping the meat hold onto it’s moisture and then absorb some of the braising liquid as the cooking progresses, ensuring that the meat turns out both tender and juicy.
From health benefits to delectable eating qualities, gelatinization is the scientific superpower of braising roasts!
As you may remember from high school science class, diffusion is the passive movement of molecules or particles from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration.
Even if you didn’t remember that exact definition 😊. the important thing to know when it comes to cooking is that flavor will move from the strongly flavored food to the less flavored food when cooked together.
For braising roasts, this means that the braising liquid needs to have lots of flavor for it to soak into the meat. Meat already starts out concentrated relative to a liquid, so a strongly flavored liquid such as barbecue sauce or a good broth is needed to have that flavor end up in the finished meat.
Note that this process works in reverse when you make a broth or stock where the flavors move out from the meat into the water to create the broth. When braising a roast, we want the flavor to end up in the meat, so having this flavorful liquid will keep the flavor moving into the meat and not out.
Diffusion, whether you remember the definition or not, is the second scientific principle behind a great braised roast.
#3 Maillard Reaction
At the start of the braising process, roasts are seared in a little fat to brown the surfaces. This browning adds more richness and complexity of flavor to the finished roast.
Meat naturally has its own sets of flavors. (We think our Gibralter Farms Beef and Pork does well in this regard; you can purchase some here) But there is also the opportunity to add and develop new flavors through the browning process.
This browning process is referred to in science as the Maillard Reaction, named for the early 1900’s French physician and chemist, Louise Camille Maillard. He studied how amino acids and sugars combined to form new and complex compounds when temperatures reached 280 to 330 degrees Fahrenheit.
Knowledge of the exact chemistry of the Maillard Reaction is not needed to know that browning your roasts at the start of the braising process will add more depth and complexity of flavor to your roasts.
We love when learning about science makes us hungry. We hope you enjoyed learning a little more about these scientific principles and that they make your next braised roast extra delicious!
Want More Help with Cooking Roasts?
Get our 5 tips for Tender Juicy Roasts when you sign up below. We also include step-by-step instructions for cooking a Sunday Roast.
John and Sarah Gilbert farm with their family in North Central Iowa. They care for pigs, cows, and the land to bring you beef and pork you can love. They have a passion for cooking and helping others develop the skills they need to put healthy and delicious home-cooked meals on the table. They can be contacted by email and through Facebook and Instagram.