Friday Food Post: An Easier Way to Brown Meat
Spring ought to have sprung by now. We should all be out planning our gardens and thinking fondly ahead to fresh herbs and pasta salads. Instead, those of us on the East Coast are still inside, staring bitterly at the snow and making stew.
Don't get me wrong: I love stew. And soup. And every other hearty, warming winter dish that you cozy down with when it's vile outside. I'm just saying, there's a time and a place. And the time and the place for yet another snowstorm should already have passed.
But since it hasn't, let's make the best of it. Today's Friday Food Post will cover the (ahem) burning topic of whether you need to brown your meat.
SPOILER ALERT: If that meat is beef or lamb, then yes, you have to brown it, even if it goes into the slow cooker. Browning produces the famous Maillard reaction, which gives you that delicious meaty tang. If you don't brown, you get gray, sodden meat and a markedly less tasty stew. Many cooks attempt to cover this up with lashings of MSG from dried soup, or those "stew" and "slow cooker" mixes they sell in the supermarket, but this does not make the results taste like you browned the meat; it just makes it taste like you accidentally dumped a whole container of Accent into an unfinished dish.
I know, I know: Browning all those cubes of meat is really a giant chore. There's the time you have to spend standing over the stove, turning every little cube to make sure it's brown on all sides. Then there's the substantial layer of oil that ends up everywhere: the stovetop, the wall, your hair.
The good news is that while you should brown your meat, you shouldn't have to stand over the stove to do it. There's an easier way. It doesn't take less time, but the amount of active time is reduced to a trivial amount. And that solution is: Use your broiler.
Based on a tip from Cook's Illustrated, I did some experimentation, and it really is true: You don't have to brown all the meat. Maybe there's some marginal improvement in quality from 100 percent browning, but it was not readily detectable by such qualified tasters as that extremely painstaking foodie, My Mom. Browning none of the meat is kind of disgusting, but browning half the meat gives you about equally good results.
But could I make it even easier? It turns out, I could. I recalled that Julia Child didn't brown her pot roast in a pan; she just broiled it for 5 to 7 minutes on each side. So I had my one moment of cooking inspiration: What if I bought flat-packed chuck roast or lamb shoulder, broiled the whole piece of meat long enough to get it brown on the outside, and cut it into chunks?
Eureka! Way easier and less messy. If you line the pan with foil, you don't even have to clean it.
Here's the technique: Take a piece of flat-packed chuck roast or lamb. Salt and pepper on both sides. Place it on a broiler pan and broil 5 to 10 minutes on one side (depending on the strength of your broiler). Then flip it and broil it on the other side. Remove it from the oven and place it on a cutting board, preferably one with ridges to collect the meat juices. Throw away the foil. Let the meat cool for 15 minutes, then cut it into appropriately sized chunks. Toss it into your stew with the meat juices. Total active time: less than 10 minutes, as opposed to the 20 to 30 minutes you would have stood there browning the meat and the additional 10 minutes you'd have spent scraping all the oil off every nearby surface.
There's an added advantage, which is that the price-to-quality ratio is arguably better on buying a big piece of flat-packed chuck than it is for whatever-it-is the supermarket cut up for stew meat. But this is just icing on the meatloaf cupcakes. The real advantage is that it dispenses with the most annoying part of making stew. So stop glowering at the snow, and go make some.
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