On Browning Meat

When making a stew or other braised dish such as osso bucco it is important to brown the meat first. That’s a basic step that almost everyone knows, and even if you don’t know it, the recipe always says to do so. That said, it isn’t always understood why it is important to brown the meat. In fact, it is often incorrectly stated as being to “lock in the juices” or “seal in the flavour.”

That’s not why you brown the meat.

Browning the meat does not lock in the juices or seal in anything. You’re browning it for pete’s sake, not shellacking it! The crust you form is not even remotely “juice proof.”

The reason why you brown the meat is to build flavour and to create a fond. Browned meat, when browned correctly, is lightly caramelized (or, to be precise, it undergoes a Maillard reaction), which means the sugars in the meat are transformed into very flavourful yummyness. This yummyness not only affects the individual morsel of meat, it flavours the entire dish.

You’ll notice that after browning the meat there will be some dark bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. This is the fond, which is French for “OMG this is what gives my stew a deep and meaty flavour!” You release the fond by “deglazing” with wine or some other liquid such as stock or even water, and it then becomes part of the braising liquid.

The main implication of this lesson in browning meat is that you no longer have to worry about obsessively getting all six sides of your cubes of meat evenly browned. Yes, some people are obsessive about that, turning the cubes over and over, afraid that an insufficiently browned edge will cause the juices to leak out or the flavour to not be “sealed in.” Good news: it’s not an issue. You don’t have to worry about it.

Here are a few browning tips:

  • The meat should be dry. It doesn’t have to be bone dry, but it shouldn’t be dripping with water or thawing juices. Pat dry with a paper towel if necessary.
  • Don’t use a non-stick pan. You get much better browning from stainless steel, cast iron, or enamel.
  • Don’t over-heat the pan. The meat should make a brisk sizzle when you add it to the pan, but it shouldn’t sound like a supersonic jet flying over. If the pan is too hot, the fond will burn, giving your stew a bitter flavour.
  • Don’t crowd the pan. Brown in batches if you have a lot of meat. You want each piece of meat to have some elbow room in the pan, which helps moisture escape. If the pan is too crowded, the moisture will accumulate in the pan and you’ll end up steaming or boiling the meat, neither of which will brown it or create a fond.
  • Don’t move it around too much. You’re browning, not stir-frying. Let each piece sit still for a minute or so before you turn it over.
  • Remember, you’re browning, not graying. If your heat is too low, or if the meat is too wet, or if you over-crowd the pan, then your meat will lose its pinkness but it’s not really browning. It’s going gray, not brown.
  • If the meat sticks, take the pan off the heat for a few seconds and the stuck pieces will let go. (This tip applies any time food sticks to a pan, not just when browning.)
  • If you are using floured meat, make sure you shake off the excess flour and don’t turn the heat too high. Otherwise you’ll end up with a pile of foul tasting carbonized flour at the bottom of the pan.
  • Slow cooker recipes usually don’t call for browning the meat, but that’s because they don’t want to disillusion you of how convenient the slow cooker is. If you have a few minutes, try browning the meat in a pan first, and deglaze the fond and add the liquid to your slow cooker. It should make that recipe you like that much better. (But I understand why it might not be something you want to do at 7:00 AM while rushing to get ready for work.)
  • And finally, don’t worry about getting every side of your meat cubes perfectly browned! If two or three sides have a good browning, that’s enough.

Enjoy your stew!

Alston Adams, 1974-2010

Alston Adams, known as @AlstonAdams on Twitter and formerly as Jonas Parker and later himself on his blog, died of cancer yesterday. He was 35.

I don’t remember exactly when I met Alston for the first time, but it was probably 2003 or 2004, most likely at La Cabane, where we early-adopter bloggers used to hold our monthly YULBlog gatherings. By then, the YULBlog evenings were drawing a larger crowd (20 to 30 people), so I didn’t get to know Alston very well right away. But over time, through seeing him at YULBlog and other events, and by reading his blogs, I eventually fell into his orbit.

In 2007, just after landing his dream job in the video game industry, he was diagnosed with cancer. In September of that year he underwent a radical surgery that removed a large piece of his stomach and esophagus. A few days after the surgery he was able to receive a group of friends went to visit him in the hospital. We were shocked at the extent of the scarring. It was as if the surgeon had deconstructed him, or had unwrapped him like a tube of Pillsbury turnovers and then wrapped him back up again.

Espophogeal cancer is one of the worst ones to get. Hardly anyone gets over it. Alston’s continuing treatments would show some success and then there would be a setback. Up and down he went in his very open battle. By the end of last year he was resigned to the fact that he wasn’t going to beat it, that it was a matter of pushing back as long as life seemed livable, and that this likely wouldn’t be very long. Last November he said, in a blog post, that he’d be surprised to see the end of 2011.

He lived as well as he could over the past three years. Perhaps the highlight was participating in a film, Wrong Way to Hope,  about young adults with cancer. The project saw him fly out west to hang out with other like-bodied people and to do fun outdoorsy things like whitewater kayaking. The film will be released in November of this year.

This clip contains a few scenes cut from the film. That’s Alston at the beginning, the shirtless guy.

Alston also contributed to a book published earlier this year by the McGill University Health Center and The Cedars Cancer Institute, called Cancer Under the Radar; Young Adults Tell Their Stories. On a more personal and immediate level, he contributed to his friends’ knowledge and understanding of cancer, treatments, setbacks, oncology, and even race issues, through his insightful and sometimes humorous blog posts at AlstonAdams.net/blog.

During Alston’s three year battle with cancer, he bounced between sickness and not-quite-wellness. He went out as much as he could, saw friends, and continued to attend YULBlog when he could. By early 2010, however, it was becoming apparent that he might not live out the year. He was thin and frail and wasn’t eating much. He continued to write on his blog, but he didn’t go out as much as he did before, as the cancer, the treatments, and his low food intake were all making him very tired and weak. But occasionally he’d rally and would show up looking thin but good. In April, Martine and I sat with him at the Mainline Theatre where we saw “The Midlife Crisis of Dionysus.” He was as thin as a stick but in high spirits despite the fact that a tumor was pressing on his vocal cords, reducing his voice to a whisper.

He showed up at my birthday party in June, held at a bar above a tapas restaurant on rue St-Denis. His voice had partially come back, and he looked dapper in a short brimmed Panama-style hat.

50 years of Blork

The last time I saw Alston was at a pot-luck Sunday dinner held at Michel and Suzanne’s place in August. Alston brought smoked meat sandwiches from Schwartz’s, and to everyone’s surprise he managed to eat one himself. In the early evening, Martine and I drove him home; he was staying with a friend, a doctor who lives on the edge of Old Montreal. There was a flight of stairs to climb, but he refused any help. He thanked us for the ride and said goodbye to us there on the sidewalk. We all knew that we might never see him again, which sounds very dramatic but in reality it was more surreal and a bit awkward. That’s how it is with the terminally ill; you never know when their time will be up and every time you see them you think it might be the last. In that case it was.

Rest in peace, Alston. You will be missed.

Some other tributes to Alston: