I had always though the difference between braising and stewing was mainly the amount of liquid used (basically, in stewing the meat is fully or mostly submerged, in braising, the meat is only partially submerged).
So I was surprised to find when reading through "Modernist Cuisine" (lucky me) that braising once referred to a process that was substantially different than the one we use today. MC claims that what we consider braising is actually just stewing.
No big surprise: old-school braising involved cooking in an enclosed space with small amount of liquid.
The difference: old-school braising consisted of placing glowing coals both on top of and underneath the enclosed braising pot. What's the difference between that and using an oven's heat, you ask? Radiated heat.
In a normal oven braise, all heat comes from convection. You brown the meat before cooking it, because the meat is heated only by the moist air and liquid around it. In an old-school braise, radiated heat from the bottom heats the cooking liquid and moistens the air for the traditional tenderizing effect we associate with braising and stewing. But the radiated heat from the top - that browns the exposed meat and also helps to create maillard and caramelization reactions within the sauce itself.
The end result, supposedly: braised meat with a browned roasty surface and an especially intense sauce left in the pot.
Of course, digging a pit and lighting and maintaining a coal fire can be a lot of work. But MC had a suggestion: you can get a similar effect cooking an enclosed cast iron dutch oven under an electric broiler set to low.
So the first test run: chicken leg quarters on a bed of onion wedges, green peppers, garlic cloves and a lime. I used a cast iron dutch oven (not enameled). I also added a little beer and some chicken stock (in retrospect I used more than I probably needed to, though the chicken was not at all submerged). A bunch of Mexican herbs and spices.
MC warns to make sure that the lid of the pot is very airtight, even going so far as to seal it with clay. I decided to live dangerously and didn't bother - the result was fine, this time at least.
I cooked it on a low rack in my oven with the broiler on low for an hour. The end result was beautifully fork tender chicken and a very complex, tasty liquid from the braise.
One of the most remarkable things though was the skin. Since the cooking environment was so moist, I was not convinced the skin would brown or crisp well. But take a look at the pictures.
I'll remind you that the chicken was NOT browned in any way before or after the braise. That's all from radiated heat.
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