Meat braised in wine or broth doesn’t raise any eyebrows, but to many, meat braised in milk sounds a little weird. And it’s definitely a dish that qualifies as ugly delicious, but the emphasis should be on that last word, because milk-braised meat is incredibly tender and full of dynamite flavor.
The technique comes from Italy, where the traditional meat is pork loin and the dish is called maiale al latte. The simplest recipes call for little else besides milk and meat, but they all instruct you to cook it at a bare simmer for anywhere between one and half to three hours. In that time, the meat becomes tender enough to shred with a fork and the milk turns into a golden, silky sauce—that also separates, resembling curds of ricotta floating in a pool of whey. If it really reduces and is mostly curd, it looks almost more like loose bread stuffing.
While it might appear to be a total disaster, and you usually don’t want your sauce to break, it’s perfectly natural here, and even desired. Still, if it bothers you, you can always whisk or blend the sauce at the end to smooth it out a bit. It’ll still only qualify as jolie laide, but either way, it will taste nutty and rich and porky and fabulous, and be beautifully aromatic with whatever you elect to add to the pot—lemon rind and sage are common, as is garlic.
Some versions of the dish add white wine, onions, pancetta or prosciutto, and even things like capers or porcini mushrooms, but if you’re trying milk braising for the first time, stick with something a bit more stripped down.
Get a two- to four-pound boneless pork shoulder (which isn’t so lean as loin, thus is far less likely to dry out), trim off the excess fat if there’s a ton of it (but not all, since some is good for the dish), and tie it to keep its shape nice and neat if you want tidy slices (totally optional).
In a saucepan, gently heat 4 cups of whole milk (or an equal amount of whole milk and heavy cream, at a ratio as generous as one to one if you want it even richer), just until it’s steaming. Meanwhile, liberally season the pork on all sides with kosher salt and cracked black pepper, and heat a little olive oil and butter in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or equivalent pot; it shouldn’t be too large, or else the sauce won’t cover enough of the meat, nor should it be non-stick. If it’s too thin, the sauce might scorch, so go for cast iron if you have it.
Brown the pork on all sides, pour off the fat if it renders a large amount, then lower the heat and add the hot milk to the pot, along with whatever else you’d like, such as a few strips of lemon zest (removed with a veggie peeler, being careful not to get too much of the white pith), a handful of fresh sage leaves or fresh rosemary sprigs, a few cloves of peeled and smashed garlic, and a sprinkle of dried red pepper flakes, or maybe fennel seeds if you like sweet more than heat. Bay leaves can also be added. If you’re wary of curdling, a scant pinch of baking soda stirred in can help prevent it, but why not fully embrace the charmingly rustic nature of the dish?
Place the meat back in the pot and partially cover it (or leave off the lid if you’re after more curds, but check the liquid level more often in that case) and cook the meat at an extremely gentle simmer for anywhere from two to three hours, flipping the pork over every 30 minutes or so and basting it with the sauce periodically. If the liquid is reducing too quickly, you can add a bit more warm milk to keep the level up. When it’s done, the meat should be tender enough to easily tease apart with a fork and the rich, golden-brown sauce should be velvety, nutty-sweet, and curdled to some degree.
Remove the pork to a platter and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, reduce the sauce a little further if desired and scrape up any dark brown goodness stuck to the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon (but skip this step if it seems at all scorched rather than just deeply caramelized)—and whisk or blend it if you really want to before pouring it over the meat, which you can slice or shred, depending on how you want to serve it. You can also skim the fat from the sauce first if there seems to be too much grease. It’s all pretty casual and subject to your whims, which is another nice thing about it. Serve it over farro, rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, or whatever sounds best. Simple greens on the side are nice for color and freshness and cutting through the groan-inducing succulence of the meat and sauce when your palate needs a break.
Milk-braised pork is a perfect dish for fall and winter, for a day when you want to spend a few cozy hours in the kitchen, and an evening when you want to fill your belly with comforting warmth. Here are a few recipes to give you even more ideas for braising meat in milk—which, no surprise, you can try in the slow cooker too.
Here, the meltingly tender, creamy-sauced pork is shredded for a rich ragu, delicious whether you make your own fresh pasta or use store-bought. Garlic, thyme, and bay leaf provide simple, earthy seasoning. Get our Milk-Braised Pork Shoulder Ragu with Fresh Fettucine recipe.
Using almond milk means you won’t get curdles, and you’ll need to simmer the sauce at the end to thicken it for a silky yet light gravy. Using pork belly means you get luscious meat plus crunchy skin, but to preserve the textural contrast, take care not to baste the top of the meat, and don’t flip it during the braising time. Get this Almond Milk Braised Pork Belly recipe.
“Always Sunny” fans, now’s your chance to make milk steak a surprisingly delicious reality! Okay, it’s not steak, specifically, but beef does take wonderfully to the milk-braising treatment. These herbed short ribs are especially hearty, and even more so served over polenta. Get the recipe.
You can also do this with chicken legs, but a whole bird braised in milk is pretty impressive, and unexpected. A healthy amount of Dijon mustard adds great sharp flavor, rounded out by marjoram and fennel seeds. Get the recipe.
If you’re a fan of lamb, try that braised in milk too. Slightly chewy farro makes a nice foil to the gorgeously soft meat and creamy sauce, and fennel seeds are used along with fresh fennel, plus rosemary and garlic to complement the stronger tasting meat. Get the recipe.
Related Video: How to Braise Meat in Dr. Pepper
Header image courtesy of Seasons and Suppers.