Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Braised Turkey (Legs and Thighs)…or “How To Braise”

When it’s cold, raw and rainy outside like it is this time of year, I want nothing more on a weekend than to sit down to a heaping plate of braised meat falling off the bone over rice or quinoa. I don’t care if it is beef stew, braised turkey or osso buco…all so delicious and all so satisfying. This is not to say that hearty braised dishes should only be reserved for winter time cooking, not at all. In fact, I make foods like this year round as I find them so easy to make. And while they may take hours in or on the stove, I am really only doing about 15 minutes of work and then practically walking away!

Braising meat is one of my favorite ways to cook. No other method of cooking yields as much depth of flavor and creates such a satisfying dish overall. Yet most people steer clear of this type of cooking and from what I have been told it is because their end results are either too tough or lacking in flavor and texture, reminding them nothing of the dish they had in a restaurant. So why is this? Well in my opinion ANYONE can pull these dishes off like a restaurant pro, and all you have to do is follow the simple rules of braising…and here is how to do it!

First let’s start with exactly what braining is. Braising; is the slow cooking of meat in a flavorful liquid which in turn allows the muscle fibers of the meat to break down, thereby the meat becoming very tender.

Next up, we need to talk about a cooking vessel. This can be accomplished in one of many ways. You can use a cast iron Dutch oven, a slow cooker or an enamel coated cast iron pot. Basically it has to be something with a heavy bottom that retains heat during cooking and has a snug fitting lid so the steam does not escape and moisture circulates properly. My preferred weapon of choice is the enamel coated cast iron French oven from Le Creuset. It's durability, tight fitting lid and the way moisture circulates in the pot makes for professional level braising.  

It’s all about the BROWNING: Browning the meat is a critical part of the process and the reason is two-fold. First off, browning meat allows for a nice crust to hold in moisture during the long cooking process, allowing the juices to break down the muscle fiber. And the second reason is that “brown = flavor”…really! When you sear meat in a pan you leave behind little brown bits on the bottom of the pot or “fond,” as the French like to say.  This is an extra level of flavor for your dish during the deglazing process. 

Lastly is your liquid level during the cooking process. When you are braising you are not boiling, although it may seem that way. The liquid in your pot should only cover the meat about ¾ of the way up (see my picture below). Also, with larger cuts of meat (like roasts and turkey parts) the meat should be in a single layer at the bottom of the pot, not on top of each other. So if you do not have a large pot, only use the amount of meat that fits on the bottom of your pot. Again, you need to make sure you are using a good pot when braising that has a good fitting lid so that too much steam does not escape and the liquid doesn't evaporate. This will dramatically affect your liquid level while cooking and you will have to add extra liquid, affecting the overall flavor of your dish at the end. 

That’s it! So to recap:
  • The right cooking vessel.
  • Proper browning.
  • The right amount of liquid in your pot.

Now let’s talk about the other great part about this type of cooking, and that is the cost. Braising is done with cheaper cuts of meat and you get a lot of food out of one pot. Below I have outlined what I spent in the supermarket to make the following recipe. I divided this into 6 people, and it comes out to $3.58 per person.  

  • 2 gigantic turkey legs or thighs in a package costs about $3.00 each (I bought 3 packages that have 2 pieces each = 6 pieces \ total of $9).
  • 1 small bunch of celery costs about $1.69
  • 1 small bag of carrots costs about $1.29
  • 1 bunch of fresh thyme costs $2.00
  • 1 box of chicken stock costs $2.50
  • 1 bottle of dry white wine costs $5.00
SO LET’S BRAISE! Here is a simple recipe to start with based on my shopping list above (minus some basic pantry items). I used turkey legs and thighs in this dish to cut down on the fat content and I also take the skin off after the cooking process is complete. And if you notice from the pictures, my gravy for this dish seems kind of orange, and that is because instead of using a thickener I opted for using the carrots I cooked with for a thickening agent (along with a basic sauce reduction).

Braised Turkey Legs and Thighs

  • 6 Turkey Legs (or Thighs)
  • 1 cup Carrots; cut into about ¾ inch pieces
  • ½ cup of Celery; cut into about ¾ inch pieces
  • 1 small Onion; rough chopped (about ½ cup)
  • 1 cup of dry White Wine
  • Low sodium Chicken Stock; about 3 to 4 cups
  • 6 Thyme sprigs; left on the stem
  • 1 Bay Leaf
  • Salt and Pepper to taste. 
  1. Rinse and dry your turkey legs/thighs thoroughly and season lightly with salt and pepper.
  2. Over medium-high heat, drizzle olive oil in a large cast iron or enamel coated Dutch/French oven; just enough to coat the bottom.
  3. Sear turkey and brown nicely on all sides; about 1 to 2 minutes per side. Remove turkey to a holding dish after browned.
  4. Lower the heat to medium and add about 3 tbsp olive oil to the pot. Toss in your onions, carrots and celery and sauté for about 3 minutes or until the veggies start to pick up some brown bits from the bottom of the pot.
  5. Raise the heat to high and toss in the thyme, bay leaf and the 1 cup of dry white wine and deglaze the pan (this means to use a wooden spoon and stir up all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan). It will only take about 15 seconds to do this.
  6. Put the turkey back into to pot on top of the veggies in a single layer.
  7. Now add the chicken stock to the pot. Be sure to only use as much stock so it the liquid reaches about ¾ of the way up the meat.
  8. Wait for the pot to come to a rolling boil then reduce the heat to LOW, cover the pot and simmer for 1 hour and 15 minutes. NOTE: be sure to check the pot after 5 minutes to see if it is in fact simmering and not boiling. If your burner does not go low enough and the liquid is boiling, move the pot to the back burners as they typically have lower BTU’s (flame).
  9. Check pot after 30 minutes to make sure your liquid has not evaporated. If it has, add a little more stock (I never need to do this because the Le Creuset pot lid does not let the steam escape).
  10. When the time is up check the turkey with a fork or clippers. The turkey meat should look like it is falling off the bone and pulls right apart. If it is not quite there, give it another 15 minutes at most. (I cook legs for 1hr 15 mins and thighs for 1hr and 30 mins).
  11. Remove the meat to a holding dish, remove the skin and tent with foil; the skin will come off very easily.
  12. Carefully strain the hot liquid into a large bowl. Discard the thyme stems and bay leaf and reserve about 1 ½ cups of the carrots, onion and celery.
  13. Place the reserved veggies in a thick glass blender along with all the cooking liquid and blend on low until smooth (SAFETY NOTE: Use a towel to hold on the blender lid while blending hot liquids and only use a thick glass blender jar. If you have a plastic blender jar, wait for the liquid to cool slightly before blending).
  14. Return liquid to the pot, turn heat back up to high and reduce the liquid by at least ¼ or until it clings to the back of a spoon like a film and has made a gravy (you can reduce this more for a really thick gravy if you wish).
  15. After liquid has reduced, turn off the flame and then season with salt and pepper to taste.
  16. Place turkey back in the pot with the gravy and coat.
Serve over rice, quinoa or another grain of your choice

Here are some how-to's in pictures:

What you will need

Liquid level in pot at 3/4 way up the meat

The Finished Dish: not my best picture I know, but I wanted you to get an idea of thick and luxurious this gravy comes out with noting more than carrots as a thickener after reduction. 

Chefs Notes:
Never season with salt before reducing your stock into a gravy. The salt flavor will concentrate and the entire dish will be too salty. Seasoning with salt after the liquid has reduced allows you to have total control over the salt in your dish. 

This recipe is gluten, soy, dairy, egg and nut free.  

Le Creuset:


  1. I'd like to ask why you brown the turkey pieces if you are going to remove the skin at the end. I thought the browning was to get a nice crispy skin, but that always disappears anyway once the liquid is added, and you wind up with a slimy wet skin. So I guess the browning serves to retain the meat juice while it cooks, even though the brown color and crispiness are gone. Is that right? Thanks!

    1. When you braise meat it should not have rubbery skin. You have boiled the meat if this happens. Correctly braised poultry will have very crisp skin and tender meat. She probably leaves the skin on to add flavor then removes it for fat content. However, while Browning the meat all of the skin fat drips into your pan which means you're eating it in the gravy anyway. Eat the skin, its the best part (:

    2. Hi Irini

      If you are referring to the comment from “anonymous” in regards to rubbery skin then yes, anonymous is more than likely using too much cooking liquid and boiling rather than braising. Therefore the skin is rubbery and fatty…certainly not appealing to eat (flavor or texture-wise).

      Also YES on your comment about the fat dripping into the braising liquid. I find though that with turkey and braising, that I do not see a lot of fat in the liquid when I am done; hence, unlike other recipes I do not give instructions on skimming fat. This of course is not to say that one cannot do so.

      Incidentally; I do remove the skin due to health concerns. Unlike BBQ/Grilling poultry, braising never gives me a crunchy crispy skin, only somewhat crispy and not so much crunch. So there is still a bit of fat left in it. Also, since we are braising, the entire piece of meat is super flavorful so the skin is optional for me.

      There are myths about the skin of course and how unhealthy it is, but new studies show that the skin is not so bad and only yields about 2.5g more of fat to the chicken. These studies are in regards to oven baking and grilling, not braising where fat and liquid tend to linger (heck, that is why we braise!). So yes, I remove it for the 2.5g less of fat, but like you said, if done right, it should not be rubbery and is negligible on fat.

      Thanks for the comment Irini!

  2. In the case of braised poultry, the answer to that "anonymous” is only because BROWN = FLAVOR. Yes, I do discard the skin, but the searing of the skin (just like the searing of meat) adds to the depth of flavor. A noticeable difference if this step is skipped.

    Meat (beef, pork) on the other hand has no skin to worry about. So besides the flavor aspect from a good sear, it is also intended to allow the meat to stay juicy. I sear-off cubed chuck steak for stew, short ribs and even lamb when braising.

    I have braised without searing, but have lost an added dimension of flavor. And in the case of red meats, I have found that without braising I also lose texture. And I am all about the flavor…so that just won’t do.