Congratulations! You’re the proud owner of one of the oddest pans in the French batterie de cuisine.
Like me, you’re probably trying to reassure yourself that this purchase wasn’t an expensive error in judgement but rather an investment in expanding your culinary horizon. I’m going to cook something in this someday, you are probably telling yourself, your gaze sliding down its gleaming unsullied flanks. Just as soon as I figure out what it’s actually good for!
Well, reader, I beg you to allow me to offer inspiration from a few luminaries of French culinary history.
The daubière is the modern (that is, late 19th century) incarnation of the 17th century (and earlier) braisière: a makeshift oven for the open hearth. The defining feature of a braisière is a tight-fitting lid with a raised rim that creates a platform on the top of the pan; the cook would nestle the braisière deep into the kitchen fire’s warm embers (in French, les braises) and pile more into the lid. This gentle enveloping heat would — you guessed it — braise the food over the course of hours, softening the meat and melding the flavors.
An education in the application of these principles begins in 1845 with Eliza Acton (1799-1859). Though she is English, her Modern Cookery for Private Families includes not only “what are usually termed plain English dishes” but also “intermingle[s] many foreign ones which we know to be excellent of their kind, and which now so far belong to our national cookery, as to be met with commonly at all refined modern tables.”
Braising meets her threshold of excellence, and so Acton introduces the concept to her English readers in her no-nonsense way: “Braising is but a more expensive mode of stewing meat.” Elizabeth David (herself another similarly no-nonsense voice) names Acton as her favorite cookbook author of all time, and I can see why — this recipe, one of hundreds, speaks as clearly to me today as anything I can find in a modern cookbook:
She adds an important piece of advice that we should always keep in mind:
No attempt should be made to braise a joint in any vessel that is not nearly of its own size.
This is good to remember. The purpose of braising is to keep the meat warm and moist. Too much air circulation could dry out the surface and harden it. Daubières come in sizes ranging from 26cm wide (10 inches) to 40cm (15.7 inches) or more, but if you don’t have multiple sizes available to accommodate your recipe, never fear:
A round of buttered paper is generally put over the more delicate kinds of braised meat, to prevent their being browned by the fire, which in France is put round the lid of the braising pan, in a groove made on purpose to contain it. The embers of a wood fire mixed with the hot ashes, are best adapted to sustain the regular, but gentle degree of heat required for this mode of cooking.
Acton leaves us with a stern warning, emphasis in the original:
Common cooks sometimes stew meat in a mixture of butter and water, and call it braising.
Perish the thought.
Our next stop is Alexandre Dumas — yes, he of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. In the last decades of his life he compiled Le grande dictionnaire de cuisine, published posthumously in 1873, a magnificent work appropriate to the scale of this prolific writer. It is not so much a structured reference book as it is a loving remembrance of bygone meals, strategic name-dropping of famous chefs of his acquaintance, and idiosyncratic culinary advice (e.g., “for the love of God never put pickles in a veal liver stew”). He was reminiscing about France in the early to mid-19th century at the early stages of the transformations of the industrial revolution, and many of its hundreds of recipes specify the use of a braisière “with fire above and below, surround[ed] with red coals,” “piled halfway with cinders,” or “with charcoal in its lid” — unambiguous references to hearth cooking. Here are two example recipes, rendered in their original conversational format.
When Dumas says the terrine de bécasses is à l’ancienne mode, he really means ancienne: the Souvenirs de la marquise de Créquy was published in 1834, the posthumous scandalous memoirs of the Marquise whose prodigious memory furnished gossip from the courts of Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, and Napoleon. Woodcocks, indeed.
There’s one more Dumas recipe I’d like to highlight. In the United States where I live, the premier cooking event of the year is Thanksgiving, a holiday in late November that traditionally serves a whole roasted turkey. I am giving serious thought to trying the recipe below (which I have broken into steps for my own convenience).
I love it. “Add also, if you want, a veal shank.” As one does.
By the time Dumas was published in 1873, the 19th century of which he wrote had already begun its transformation into the 20th. The industrial revolution brought cast-iron stoves that fundamentally altered the form and function of cookware. The braisière began to evolve into the modern daubière form we know today: a sleek box that slides into the snug cave of the oven, freed of its iron feet, the ash-filled parapet around its lid shorn away to leave only a vestigial decorative indentation.
But this was not a sudden change. Auguste Colombié (1845-1920) published La cuisine bourgeoisie in 1906, and it is clear to me that this was an era of transition between hearth and oven because I can hear it in his recipes. Take, for example, his recipe for galantine de poularde, a dish of sliced chicken pressed in aspic, the details of whose preparation extend to three full pages of the book (“This recipe is for cooks who, already knowledgeable, desire self-perfection,” italics in the original). I hesitate to burden the reader with the entire recipe, but what caught my eye was this assertion:
For this cooking, nothing can replace the classic tin-plated copper braising pan, also called « daubière », a very special utensil, oblong, remarkable for its height, provided with two handles, closing well with its rimmed lid on which you can put embers. This excellent utensil was especially much appreciated at the time when stoves had not been invented, when the oven existed only in the large kitchens of diplomats, financiers, and a few old noble families.
Note Colombié’s introduction of a new term: daubière. He is talking about the same tall boxy copper pan we know today, but I would be remiss in my duty if I did not acknowledge that the term means different things to different people. The daube is a Provençal dish traditionally cooked in the hearth in a voluptuous earthenware daubière that looks nothing like the box-shaped copper version. How could the same word be used for such completely different things?
Colombié gives us a clue. His recipe for boeuf en daube à la Languedocienne, redolent with red wine, cognac, tomatoes, and lemon, says,
“Using a small earthenware pot from the Midi or Burgundy is essential here. Copper, being tinned, the acid of the alcohol of the wine and the condiments decomposes the tin and especially the lead, and the sauce has an unpleasant color; the earthenware pot, on the contrary, clarifies it.”
“And especially the lead”: I’ve read that the tin of that era was sometimes adulterated with lead. Science and lead awareness being what it was at the time, this seems to have been tolerated until the lead actually leached out into and visibly discolored the food. Colombié’s galantine de poularde calls for a relatively modest cup of white wine, perhaps not enough to provoke the lead to leach out from a tinned copper daubière, but his daube à la Languedocienne is far more acidic, making the earthenware pot the safer choice. Now, of course, copper retinners use pure food-safe tin so there is no danger and so I consider copper and earthenware daubières to be interchangeable in recipes.
Our final stop for this post is Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935). He published Le guide culinaire in 1903, three years before Colombié’s La cuisine bourgeoisie, but whereas Colombié was writing for the waning years of the 19th century, Escoffier is focused firmly on the 20th. According to Escoffier, daubières go into the four (oven) and no mention of piling of embers needs be made. He offers two recipes for country daube in an earthenware terrine, one calling for a bottle of red wine and the other for white wine and cognac. As above, I would consider a copper daubière with its pure tin lining perfectly safe for these two wine-heavy recipes.
There are many more wonderful French cookbooks from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries with recipes for braises and daubes. (I’ve gathered several of them and posted them for you on my Cooking with vintage copper page.) I have looked at several of them in addition to the ones I excerpt above, and what emerges is a sort of template for a traditional French braise.
- A large cut of meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb, poultry, or shellfish, but never fish);
- Prodigious amounts of fat (lard) or, more specifically, bacon or pork fat (lardon), either as slices (bardes) draped on top of the meat or needle-like slivers (lardoons) inserted directly into it;
- Vegetables such as onions, carrots, celery, parsley, or spring onions;
- Aromatics, such as a bouquet garni;
- Bouillon, and often also wine, cognac, or brandy.
The size of the braising box should be matched to the quantity of food inside, but if the pan is a little too big, “buttered paper” (I assume parchment paper would be the modern equivalent) can be laid over the food to help contain the moisture.
As I write this in the last weeks of 2020, each morning here in the northern hemisphere is cooler than the one before. This is the right time of year for cooking that warms the spirit and fills the house with savory smells. You don’t need a braising box to make these dishes — a good rondeau, stewpot, cocotte, or dutch oven will do nicely — but if you do have one, I hope this gives you encouragement to try it out.