Secret #7: Brown is Beautiful!

Welcome to Day 7 of our 20-Day/20-Part series of blog posts titled “Tips, Tricks, and Secrets of Professional Chefs”. Yesterday we looked at some ways to make food look sexy!

Today, we’re going to crank up the heat, throw on the meat, and talk about Secret #7: Brown is Beautiful!

Surf & Turf

Filet Mignon with Umami Merlot Sauce

“Browning is the process of becoming brown, especially referring to food.” – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Is that not the greatest definition ever?

Okay, seriously…browning, or searing meat in oil over high heat, and doing it correctly, is a major tool in the chef’s bag-of-tricks for getting an amazing richness and depth of flavor out of steaks, chops, stews, casseroles, and soups.

By browning the meat before cooking it with additional ingredients, you get fabulous flavor and beautiful color. This makes all the difference to the finished meat and any sauce (it removes a lot of the excess fat from the meat, as well.)

Pan seared salmon

So…how does it work?

First, let’s look at where all those flavors come from in the first place…

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The chemical term for this type of browning is “The Maillard reaction” which is a reaction between the amino acids and sugars (called “caramelizing” when  referring to sugars) in the meat that breaks down large molecules and produces smaller molecules which our senses are better able to perceive as flavors and appetite-pleasing aromas.

Browning meat

Uncooked meat (with the exception of some types of fish) tends to be pretty bland and flavorless. Browning adds texture and better color and flavor. It’s an absolutely essential step in the deglazing process (loosening the browned bits or “fond” from the bottom of the pan with water, broth, or wine), which is the first step in creating a pan sauce, such as in our Filet Mignon with Umami Merlot Sauce recipe (pictured at the top of the post).

Browning and deglazing is also one of the secrets to the French tradition of building “layers of flavor” in famous dishes like cassoulet.

BTW – if you happen to be lucky enough to own a Ninja Cooking System, you can do both the searing and cooking of these kind of dishes all in one slow cooker. It’s pretty awesome! Here’s one of my favorite recipes, Braciole.

Braciole Ninja Cooking System

Braciole in the Ninja Cooking System

Tips for browning:

  • Use a good cast iron skillet or enamel-covered cast-iron cassoulet pan. Iron retains the heat better (and they last a lifetime!) Non-stick pans don’t perform as well for browning as iron, as the “sticking to the pan until done” is an important part of the process. They will, however, work in a pinch.
  • Don’t add cold meat to a hot pan…again, this just cools your pan. Let meat come to room temperature before cooking for best results. (I know some of you are freakin’ out on this one…trust me, 30-60 minutes on the counter isn’t going to poison your family!)
  • The meat may be a little damp or even wet if it has been frozen, so pat it dry with absorbent paper. WET MEAT WON’T BROWN! This is because the release of water creates steam, which retards the caramelization process by creating a layer of water vapor between the meat and the surface of the pan. Essentially, you’re boiling the meat, instead of browning it. Also, the pan has to be HOT…if the pan’s not hot enough, the meat releases water before it sears and, again, you’re boiling it.
  • Coat the meat with oil rather than adding it to the pan. This is a matter of personal preference, but I do it because it saves oil, and cuts down on splatters (and the resulting burns) that can occur when the raw meat is set in a pool of hot oil.
  • Heat the pan before you add the meat. Adding meat will cool the pan quickly, and if you have too much meat, or not enough heat, you’ll drop the temp below the “browning zone”. The oil should be a little hotter than you think it should be, when you add the meat…just below the smoking point. Remember, you’re not COOKING the meat, you just need to brown it on all sides.
  • Don’t overcrowd the pan. When you’re browning meat cubes for a casserole brown the meat in small batches. Much like our tip, above, about drying the meat, crowding the pan traps in steam. If the meat you’re trying to brown is turning gray…it’s either wet, or you’ve over-crowded the pan.
  • Don’t fuss. Flipping the meat, or constantly poking at it with tongs may make food TV more interesting to watch, but it’s not helping the meat brown. In fact, it’s making it take longer, and drying it out in the process. As meat browns is will typically stick to the bottom of the pan a bit (this is what creates that delicious fond). My father used to tell me, “The pan will let you know when it’s done.” It’s true, when that molecular change from big bits to little bits is complete, the meat will release from the surface. If there’s resistance, leave it alone.

The same browning effect can be had by grilling the meat briefly over hot coals. However, you lose a lot of delicious juices with this method, and, of course, there’s no pan to deglaze for sauce afterwards.

Grilled stew beef

For some soups and stews, however, the additional smoky hint of char that this process lends is pretty amazing…try making a “grilled steak chili” sometime, and you’ll see what I mean!

So, there you go. Try these tips at home, and the next time you wanna give dinner a big boost of flavor…make it brown, make it beautiful!

Be sure to subscribe to our blog and free newsletter for updates, and come back tomorrow for Secret #8: Perfect Pasta


-Chef Perry