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!

18 thoughts on “On Browning Meat

  1. When you have a child you don’t tell him that over 70% of body heat escapes from the head and neck area and since your body will waste enormous amounts of energy keeping your body heat stabilized it will leave your system more susceptible to contract disease such as airborne viruses like the viral upper respiratory tract infection. No instead you succinctly tell them to wear a hat and a scarf so they won’t get sick.

    I think this is what is behind the expression “seal in the flavour.” and such. There’s no immediate need to explain to the average Food Network viewer every little detail of cooking. There’s much to learn and retain when cooking with a recipe, enough to stew the brain sometimes. I don’t think it’s incorrect to say so on a pedagogical level. When the amateur chef digs deeper he or she will easily capture the essence of the expression.

    But always good to have the article explain the whole process :o)

  2. Fair enough. But I have a very sensitive bullshit detector, and the “seal in the juices” bit is just plain bullshit. You can advise people to brown the meat without giving the whole lesson, but skip the bullshit.

    What really gets me is you see people on television using this line all the time; food show hosts, celebrity chefs, etc.; people who should know better. It’s the kind of bullshit line that people just adopt without thinking it through, and that to me is the worst kind of bullshit.

    Your analogy is a bit off, because the hat and scarf bit is about being succinct. The “seal in the juices” thing is about being wrong.

    In other words, how would you feel if instead of telling children the long story about why they should wear a hat and scarf, parents instead said “wear a hat and scarf so that baby jesus won’t get cold and make you sick” or “wear a hat and scarf so the viruses will be drawn from your body and trapped in the wool, which is virus-proof”?

    That’s bullshit!

  3. Vieux bandit; I can set you up with my friend the Nigerian prince. He has a whole bunch of it that he needs to off-load from his warehouses. He’ll be in touch shortly. ;-)

  4. Oh, be sure to give me his email address so I can add him to my address book: I’d hate for his important message to end up in my spam folder!

  5. Well, let’s not get too mixed up here…

    You’re talking about searing a steak. I’m talking about browning meat for braising.

    Regarding the searing and resting, one of the things that happens when you cook a steak or a roast is that the heat causes the meat fibres to contract, which drives the juices towards the center of the meat. The result is that when you take the meat off the heat, there is a pool of juices in the center. By letting it rest for a few minutes, the meat relaxes and the juices redistribute. If you cut the meat too early, you cut into the pool of juices in the middle and the juice spills out.

    With regard to braising, you don’t want to over-sear the meat, just give it a light caramelization. Then it sits in the braising liquid for a few hours, and the meat’s juices and the braise intermingle. It is important that the liquid barely break a bubble; if you boil it, you can, ironically, end up with tough, dry meat. Tough because the connective tissue hardens. I’m not sure why it dries, but I suspect it’s because the juices flow out into the braise, but because the meat is tough it doesn’t flow back.

    When you keep the heat of a braise very low and slow (e.g., my best osso buccos were done at 275 for at least three hours), the connective tissues — which contain a lot of collagen — turn into gelatin. Hence the falling-off-the-bone tenderness and luscious mouth feel. That’s why slow cooker stews that cook for 8 or 9 hours have such tender meat.

  6. Your post is certainly nothing to escoffier at… Thanks for the tips!

  7. “Browning the meat does not lock in the juices or seal in anything. You’re browning it for pete’s sake, not shellacking it!”

    LOL…That’s why I read your blog; I’m so glad I found it. And I love the bullshit detector thing you have going on. It’s very refreshing. :)

  8. There is just no such thing as “sealing in the juices” or “searing in the juices.”

    Please pick up a copy of “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee.

    You sear to get caramelisation, which is caused by various sugars and fats within the meat. That’s why you don’t crowd the pan, which will “steam” or “braise” the meat instead, and you make damn sure the pan is roasty hot to begin with.

    And ferchrissakes, LEAVE THE MEAT ALONE.

  9. Reminds me of folks who constantly baste their turkey, thinking it makes the meat more moist, rather than the opposite.

  10. As I read this, the images of meat browning in pans looking very delicious invaded my mind and made me hungry. But no meat for me at that time. I hope to learn how to cook proper meals soon and experiment.

  11. You know, you could always go up North and really “Seal in the juices.” A little pan-fried baby white seal, a flambé of Hunter’s sauce . . . you get the picture.

    The Inuit would love you for it.

  12. Now now, Blork, don’t let the pit bull in you get the better of you :)

  13. My beef (ahem, so to speak) is with recipes that call for “a dash of salt”…what’s the reason for this? Enough salt will change the taste and boiling temp of a liquid, but a dash? What’s up with that?

  14. To echo what nicholas robinson says upthread, every keen cook should own a copy of On Food & Cooking by McGee, ISBN 0-684-80001-2. He adeptly disproves much kitchen bunk and received wisdom.

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