For Italian chefs and Italian massaie or farmers' wives, a favorite way of braising meat is to use a cartoccio. It is different from the typical braising technique which uses the pot's lid. Usually, main ingredients are seared or browned, then immersed in liquid to slowly cook until tender. The pot is fully or partially covered with its lid to capture the rising steam. This steam collects into droplets on the inside of the pot's cover and falls down into the braising liquid. When the pot is covered completely or partially, very little steam escapes and a large amount of liquid remains resembling soup at the end of cooking. For some recipes, this is fine. But what do you do if you want the braising liquid to reduce more, concentrating flavors into a savory broth to serve as accompaniment?
Try using a cartoccio. A cartoccio is a sheet of parchment or baking paper used as a cover or lid for the cooking pot. If the paper is unavailable, substitute a pierced foil sheet. The paper or foil lays directly on the cooking surface inside the pot. This permits some steam to escape while allowing continual slow reduction of the liquid. This technique creates the perfect accompaniment to the braised main ingredients.
My favorite way of preparing braised beef includes the use of a cartoccio. Here is an easy recipe for Braised Beef Brisket. The beef cut called "brisket" is one of eight beef primal cuts in the USA. This cut is located in the front in the lower chest area beneath the front ribs and chuck section, and looks similar to skirt steak. Skirt steak is cut often from the lower brisket. Slowly braising the beef in red wine and beef broth flavored with vegetables and herbs makes one of the best briskets! It becomes tender and juicy, because it is braised in the oven under a cartoccio, or as I call it, "under an umbrella of flavor". Compliments are guaranteed.
4 servings. Cooking time is 3 hours 15 minutes.
3 pound (1.4 kg) piece of beef brisket
Sunflower, grapeseed, or extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup (8 ounces or 240 ml) Italian red wine
3 cups (24 ounces or 710 ml) beef broth
Water as needed
4 medium carrots, peeled, cut into 2-inch (5-cm) sections
2 medium celery stalks, cut into 2-inch (5-cm) sections
1 leek, white part cut into 1/2-inch (1.3-cm) sections, rinse well
1 garlic clove
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
4 small red, white, or yellow potatoes, halved or cubed
Cartoccio: Parchment or baking paper or pierced foil sheet
1. Pre-heat the oven to 350° F/175° C/Gas Mark 4. Trim the brisket as needed. Cover the bottom of a Dutch oven or oven-proof casserole with a thin layer of oil. Over high heat, warm the oil and brown the brisket on all sides to sear in its juices and caramelize the surface. This takes about 10 minutes. Remove it from the heat. Using tongs, transfer the brisket to a plate to rest then discard the used oil. Do not wash the Dutch oven or casserole. Leave the caramelized brown bits in the bottom because they give the braising liquid a luscious flavor.
2. Place the Dutch oven or casserole on the cooktop. Over high heat, pour the red wine directly onto the bottom and scrape it to release the caramelized bits. Continue to boil for a minute or two until the alcohol evaporates, then place the brisket inside. Immediately pour in the beef broth and enough water to almost cover the brisket. Bring to a boil. Add the carrots, celery, leek, garlic, and herbs, immersing them in the liquid around the brisket. Lightly season with salt and pepper, then remove from the heat.
Preparing the Cartoccio: Under warm running water, rinse the parchment or baking paper for several seconds until it begins to absorb a little water, then remove it from the water, and crunch it up into a loose ball. Or pierce a large sheet of foil with a fork or tip of a knife, then crunch it up into a loose ball; no need to rinse the foil under running water. Open up the ball but leave it a bit wrinkled to create a tent over the brisket that protects it during cooking in the oven. Place this directly over the beef and liquid. Do not push the paper or foil down into the liquid. Leave it slightly elevated like a tent in the center and anchor it by pushing only the edges down into the liquid.
3. Cook for 3 hours. (To break down the beef collagen fibers so the brisket becomes really tender, this cut needs long braising or it will be tough.) Place in the pre-heated oven. After 1 1/2 hours, halfway during cooking, remove the Dutch oven or casserole from the oven and remove the paper or foil cartoccio and reserve it. Turn over the beef brisket. If needed, pour in a little more broth or water to bring the liquid up to halfway. Place the paper or foil cartoccio back inside the pot (it may look a bit brown, that’s just fine). Back into the oven it goes and after 45 minutes, remove it from the oven. Peel back the cartoccio.
Add the potatoes, immersing them in the liquid. Place the cartoccio snugly over all. Finish cooking in the oven for another 45 minutes or until the brisket is tender and can be easily pierced with a fork.
Remove the Dutch oven or casserole from the oven. Remove the cartoccio. Remove the sprigs of herbs and discard. Taste the braising liquid and re-season if needed.
Let the beef and vegetables rest in the liquid for 20 minutes so they re-absorb these flavorful juices, then serve. If you’re lucky enough to have leftovers, they are fabulous the following day.