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Ask The Food Lab: On Browning Ground Meat In Recipes

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[Doodle: Robyn Lee]

Why do I (or don't I) brown ground meat before making meat sauce or chili?

My question concerns cooking ground meat in things such as chili and casseroles. Most recipes call for browning the meat before adding it to the dish. I know that the Maillard reaction creates more flavor, but is there any other reason for this step? Does cooking the meat before mixing it with the sauce/other ingredients make the texture of the final dish "better" by pre-tightening the meat structure?

—Sent by ryanprice6

You know what happens when you throw too much ground meat in a pot, right? At first, it'll give you a few brief moments of glorious sizzle. You can actually* hear proteins breaking down and recombining in that gloriously complex series of chemical processes known as the Maillard reaction. But the euphoria is short lived.

* Not actually.

The sizzle slowly quiets, getting softer and softer, until eventually its replaced entirely by a wet, spluttering. *pft pphhth pbpb phtttfp*. Steam starts coming up from your pot as liquid begins to erupt through the top surface of the meat in little bubbles, like a lazy volcano.

As it continues, your meat begins to turn from pink to gray, and you start asking, "Where did I go wrong?"

The answer is simple: You didn't go wrong. Don't worry about it.

Ok, well the real answer is a little more complicated than that. So let's take a closer to look.

Browning Basics

The Maillard reaction (or the browning reaction) takes place best at temperatures above 300°F or so. On the other hand, water boils at around 212°F, and it's a self-regulating deal. So long as there is water remaining, the majority of the energy you put into a piece of meat (via a hot pan) will be used to evaporate that water, leaving little energy to help those browning reactions take place.

What this means is that a piece of meat—and I mean any piece of meat, whether it's a giant steak or a tiny bit of ground beef—will not start to brown significantly until most of its surface moisture has been driven off.

The difference is, that with a large, solid hunk of meat, it's very difficult for the moisture in the center to be driven to the edges. Likewise, it take a relatively long time for heat to travel through meat and fat. This means that the exterior of a steak will heat up, dehydrate, and begin browning long before the interior gets hot enough to start expelling moisture and thus lowering your pan temperature.

With ground meat, on the other hand, because the meat is already ground up into little bits, it's far easier for moisture to escape.

20100122-best-chili-meat.jpg

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Think of meat as if it were a large bundle of teeny tiny Pixy Stix, with the sugar inside each sealed tube representing water. Now, imagine that those Pixy Stix are open on both ends. It's very easy to get the sugar out of the very ends—some of it may just spill out on its own&mdash, but it takes more time and is more difficult to remove the sugar from the center. If, on the other hand, we were to slice those Pixy Stix up into teeny tiny pieces, the sugar would quite easily pour out of all of them quite rapidly.

This is why ground meat will expel moisture much more quickly when heated than will whole chunks of meat, and why it's so much more difficult to brown properly.

You can account for this problem by browning in smaller batches, making sure your pot gets hot enough to sear the ground meat between each addition. Alternatively, you can continue cooking your sputtering meat until all the liquid has been evaporated and it can again start to rise in temperature, allowing it to brown properly.

But the real question is, do you even want to brown all your meat?

A Case For Not Browning

Whether to brown or not is a vexing question, and one that many experts have differing opinions on. In the end, it all comes down to personal choice, as there is a very clear trade-off in both directions.

If you brown your ground meat, you will develop many of the lovely browned flavors associated with the Maillard reaction, lending stews and sauces a meatier, more complex flavor. You will also overcook your meat, which leads to tougher, pebblier end results.

If you don't brown your meat, you'll end up with a rich, silky, tender texture. On the other hand, your flavor won't be as deep.

And that's just the sad fact that we have to live with. Or do we?

Here's the good news: you can get the best of both worlds by deeply browning just some of the meat.

The thing is, when you brown a piece of meat, all of those fantastically flavorful new compounds that are developed are not stuck very hard to the surface of the meat. In fact, with a bit of gently simmering, it's possible to dissolve most of those flavors, and spread them evenly around the entire pot. What this means is that by deeply browning just some of the meat, you can create enough concentrated browned flavors to make your entire dish taste meatier, all while (mostly) retaining the nice, tender texture of un-browned meat.

If you're starting with ground meat, the best way to do this is to pull off a small amount of meat—say, a quarter of the total amount for a standard 6 to 8 serving recipe—and brown it extra well. Drop it in a smoking hot pot, and let it cook on one side without moving before eventually breaking it up and browning it further. Once well-browned, add in the rest of the meat, cook it just until it's no longer pink, and continue with your recipe.

20121127-carne-adovada-pork-chili-stew-09.jpg

For even better results, start with whole chunks of meat (say, beef chuck or short ribs). Brown them deeply on one side, then remove them from the pot, cut them up, and grind them. By browning them before grinding, you can accomplish it much more efficiently (remember the Pixy Stix?) thereby creating deep flavors without the need to compromise on flavor.

I do this for pretty much any recipe that calls for browning ground meats.

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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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