Most recipes for beef stew start with cutting meat into cubes, then browning the cubes in a big pot. The idea is that browning builds flavor through the Maillard reaction, which will then get spread around through the whole pot as the meat and vegetables slowly braise in liquid. I think most people figure that any extra toughness or dryness that the meat picks up during the browning phase will be completely erased by the extended cooking time, and that it will end up equally moist and tender no matter how well you brown it at the start.
But is this really true? Turns out it's not. There are trade-offs when it comes to browning, and the more thoroughly you brown your meat, the drier and tougher your stew ends up. Here's what I discovered.
The Problem With Browning
It basically comes down to this: Browning requires very high heat and a dry environment. The Maillard reaction responsible for browning meat will take place over extended periods of time at lower temperatures, but you really need to kick it up into the 300°F-plus range for it to happen in earnest. On the other hand, moisture in meat acts as an automatic temperature regulator. It draws energy from the hot pan and uses it to evaporate—energy that would otherwise go toward browning reactions. It's only after the surface moisture of the meat has fully evaporated that the meat can really start to brown.
This issue manifests itself in a few ways, but the most obvious and problematic is one we're all familiar with: the steaming pile of meat.
It happens any time you try to brown cubed or ground meat. You preheat your Dutch oven or saucepan until it's screaming-hot, then you add the beef. At first it gives off a sharp, crackling sizzle—a good sign that it's browning efficiently. Yet very rapidly that sizzle dies down into a low, wet sputter as the meat exudes juices, which then collect in the bottom of the pot, simmering away.*
* There are a couple of classic methods to correct this issue, but neither is great. Browning in smaller batches is time-consuming and tedious. Tossing the raw meat in a starch, like flour, will increase the rate of browning, but browned flour just doesn't taste as good as browned beef.
Eventually, that liquid will evaporate again, and your meat will start browning, but the problem is that the entire time the liquid is steaming, your meat continues to cook. Cook, but not brown.
You may think, So what? Isn't the meat gonna be surrounded by liquid the whole time it cooks anyway? Won't that guarantee juiciness?
Actually, no, it doesn't guarantee juiciness, and anyone who has ever tasted a stew that's been cooked for too long or at too high a temperature knows this. Stewed meat can turn stringy and dry just as easily as roasted or grilled meat can, so temperature control and good timing are essential to a perfect stew.
So what's the solution? Forget about cubing your meat before cooking it. Start with whole cuts and cube the meat after browning.
Whole Cuts Versus Cubes
For my testing, I browned meat that I cut off of one large chuck roll (in order to guarantee that the meat was as identical as possible). For one batch, I left two and a half pounds of beef as a whole, solid chunk. For the second, I sliced the same amount of meat into three fat steaks. For the third, I cut it into one-and-a-half- to two-inch cubes. Each batch of meat browned in the same Dutch oven, in the same amount of oil, over the same heat level. I browned each batch of meat to what I visually assessed was about the equivalent level of total browning.
After browning the meat, I weighed it in order to figure out how much moisture it had lost. Here's what I found.
Moisture Loss in Seared Stew Meat
|Cut||Time to Brown||Weight Loss (in Moisture)|
|Cubes||25 minutes (two batches)||25%|
|Steaks||11 minutes (one batch)||12%|
|One whole piece||8 minutes||7.5%|
At least prior to the stewing step, it was obvious that cubes both were less efficient in terms of time and lead to far more moisture loss than other cuts.
After measuring the batches post-searing, I cut the seared steaks and the seared whole chuck roll into cubes and finished off each batch of stew identically. Even after cooking, the difference in texture and moistness was easily tasted. The meat cut into cubes before searing had a tougher, drier texture.
It seemed to me that the liquid in the version made with browned cubes should have had a little bit more flavor—after all, there was more surface area for browning—but the difference was imperceptible.
Of the three cuts, steaks was my favorite and the easiest, providing very efficient one-batch browning, while also minimizing the amount of knife work I needed to do on a hot piece of beef post-searing.
Other Browning Factors: Seasoning and Resting
If we accept that what we're essentially doing here is searing steaks, then shouldn't some of the same techniques I use for cooking steaks apply here as well? In the past, I've found that when searing steaks, the dryness of the surface is by far the most important factor that determines how well they're going to brown. To this end, I always recommend salting your steak either the moment before cooking it or at least 45 minutes before cooking it. During the time between one and 45 minutes after salting, your steak will have a layer of moisture on its surface that's been drawn out through osmosis. This can hinder browning.
The other technique I use is letting the steak rest uncovered overnight on a rack in the fridge, allowing its surface to dry out and thus brown more efficiently. With stews, this proved to be overkill, making only a very minor difference in the finished product. You don't want to spend too much time searing meat for a stew, but going for optimum searing efficiency isn't necessary, either.
Browning via Convection With the Lid Off
The final key technique for developing browned flavor in stew without drying out the meat is used during the actual stewing phase. For most of my stew recipes (like, say, my Texas chile con carne), I cook with the lid slightly ajar. This accomplishes two goals. First, it slightly suppresses the temperature at which the stew cooks. When a Dutch oven is completely covered, heat and pressure are trapped inside. Your stews cook at a near boil, above 200°F. With the lid cracked, evaporation can occur, which helps keep your stew down to around 180 to 190°F, a gentler bubble that promotes tenderer meat.
The other advantage of the lid-slightly-cracked technique is that as the stew slowly cooks, the top surface will dehydrate and brown, giving you a good amount of extra browned flavor without requiring you to cook over high heat and risk drying out the meat.
Long story short: Brown your meat in steaks, cut it into cubes after browning, and stew your meat with the lid cracked. Read up more about beef stew and the science of stews right here.