Why Browning Food is so Important
Why Browning Food is so Important
Many recipes ask you to brown meat in a frying pan before cooking it for long periods of time. But why is browning food so important? And is it even necessary?
Let me cut right to the chase pr0nto - browning food IS necessary. Sure, it might be optional. But so is leaving your house without coat on during a snow blizzard, or checking with the wife before spending £300 on a sous vide circulator (oops). That doesn't mean they're a good choice to make!
To begin, let me explain why we brown food in the first place: It's all to do with a brilliant food phenomenon called the Maillard reaction. Browning food does make the food look more appealing, but this may be an evolved trait - food that has been browned tastes better. Our brains may simply have been wired to associate that delicious crisp brown exterior with complex elegant flavour profiles!
The Maillard reaction describes how the sugars and amino acids on the surface of foods react with heat, turn brown, and give off flavour. Seared chicken breasts, baked bread, caramelised sugar - they all have the Maillard reaction to thank for their delicious flavour when browned.
So why is this important when cooking things like stews? The Maillard reaction needs high heat to get going - it doesn't begin to start showing until it is around 130C/265F.
Peculiarly though, once the reaction has started, it continues (albeit very slowly) at lower temperatures. The reaction keeps giving flavour, even after you reduce the temperature.
Water doesn't go above 100C, so we use either oil or a dry heat to start browning food. After we have that delicious crust, we can do what we will with the food - eat it straight away like a steak, stew it in liquid for hours, or prepare it with other ingredients like a beef Bolognese.
Why do some recipes tell me to brown meat in batches? This is all to do with temperature control, and keeping the pan above 130C, and not to do with how big your pan is compared to the quantity of meat.
Dumping a whole bunch of cold food into a hot pan will drop the temperature of the pan significantly. If the temperature drops too much, water leaking out of the food won't evaporate quick enough, and everything will drop to 100C or lower until ALL the water is gone. This equates to dried out food, slower cooking times, and poor Maillard reactions.
We therefore cook in batches to ensure that the cold food doesn't overpower the hot pan. The moment a pan isn't hot enough to evaporate water instantly, you will never reach the 130C Maillard temperature until ALL the water has gone.
Why do some foods need browning at the end of cooking, while others at the beginning? A number of factors affect this decision. Sometimes we have no choice but to brown at the beginning, or we may want the Maillard flavours to cook through the food (like a stew or a curry). Other times, we may be using the heat to create a crisp texture as well as flavours, like when searing a steak or baking bread. We can't sear these foods at the beginning as it will make it flaccid and floppy once we've added liquid or steam (like a crispy chicken skin). Think about what it is you want to achieve from browning food, and adjust the method accordingly!
I'm Martin! This blog is me asking food and cookery what's going on, while sharing some of my creations and ideas. I'd love to hear your own 'why's?' so please share every question you have!
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