What is braising?
Braising is a cooking method often used for large cuts of meat such as pot roasts or brisket. The goal is produce really tender beef. It can be used on all cuts of meat, but tougher cuts benefit the most from this cooking method as it tenderizes the meat. The time spent over low and slow heat allows tough collagen fibres to dissolve into gelatin, which in turn allows the meat to separate more easily (and it also makes for a great sauce or gravy at the end).
How to braise beef
Sear your beef in a small amount of oil in a heavy pan or Dutch oven to achieve a browned exterior. Then add a small amount of liquid and cook, covered, over low heat for several hours. This can be done on the stovetop or in the oven. Two things to remember: avoid lifting the lid during the cooking process; this releases valuable heat and moisture, and can lead to increased cooking time. Second, never let your braise boil - this will lead to a loss in moisture and dryness when what you really want is to keep all the moisture you can, sealing in the flavour.
It's also important to avoid over-cooking your meat, this will also lead to toughness. Remove the meat from the oven or stovetop as soon as it is fork tender, then let it rest in the juices to re-hydrate. Lastly, remove the beef from the braising liquid, place the pan on the stove over medium heat and reduce the sauce. Once it is reduced by half, add butter to the sauce, simmer together, and return beef to pan.
What is stewing?
Stewing is a dependable, slow-cooking method. What makes it different from braising is that the beef is fully covered in liquid while cooking. It cooks best low and slow at a stable heat in a heavy stockpot, Dutch oven or slow-cooker. The long cooking time allows the flavours to fully develop and the meat to become tender. Ideally you want to stew the meat for about three hours on the stove, and four or more in a slow cooker. And as with braising, it's important to avoid lifting the lid during the stewing process so you don't release valuable heat and moisture add to the necessary cooking time.
Stews are also extremely versatile when it comes to ingredient choice; you can add your choice of vegetables to a stew. Tip: different vegetables should be added at different times throughout the cooking process to maintain their ideal texture. Root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots can be added at the beginning because they take longer to cook but wait until near the end of the cook time to add more tender vegetables.
Before adding meat to cooking liquid, sear it for flavour; a nicely browned exterior will add richness to the final dish. (Tip: Remove the meat from the pan before the meat starts to simmer in its juices.) It's at this point in the cooking process that you'll want to add any spices, so they release the most flavour.