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Low and Slow Braising

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2010

We’ve always heard that braising should be done “low and slow,” but how much of an effect do temperature and time actually have on the finished product?

THE EXPERIMENT

We braised thighs in a 200-degree oven, a 325-degree oven, and a 400-degree oven, recording their temperature as they cooked with a remote thermometer and removing them once they reached 195 degrees (the point at which the thighs start becoming unpalatably dry). We then compared the texture of the meat in each batch.

THE RESULTS

The chicken in the 200-degree oven was by far the most supple and moist but took nearly three hours to fully tenderize. In the 400-degree oven, the meat cooked through so rapidly we had to remove it in a little over half an hour for thighs that were still moist but tough. The best compromise was the 325-degree oven, which produced chicken nearly as moist and tender as the 200-degree oven but in just half the time.

THE EXPLANATION

As chicken thighs simmer in liquid, two things happen: At 105 degrees, muscle fibers begin to contract and expel moisture. But at 140 degrees, the tough connective tissue begins to slowly break down into soft, rich gelatin, mitigating the loss of moisture and the shrinking of muscle proteins. Still, there’s a limit to this effect. Once the braised thighs go much beyond 195 degrees, no amount of gelatin can make them seem moist. The key is to keep the chicken above 140 degrees but below 195 degrees for as long as necessary to fully tenderize it. In the 400-degree oven, the chicken reached the 195-degree cutoff point much too quickly for any significant connective-tissue breakdown to take place. In the 325-degree oven, the meat reached 140 degrees after a relatively leisurely 20 minutes and took another 55 minutes to reach 195 degrees—plenty of time to produce moist, tender results.