When was the last time you had a boiled steak? Probably never- well, hopefully never. There’s a good reason too! It just wouldn’t taste good. A ton of the characteristic flavor from a steak comes from the caramelization, or browning, that comes from cooking over high, dry heat. It’s worth knowing how to brown meat.
The basic steps to brown meat properly are: 1) start with dry meat, 2) use a heavy pan, 3) Use high heat, 4) Don’t move the meat around. Let it stay in one place until it is a deep, dark brown.
Caramelization, that results in that luscious brown color, is the oxidation of sugars in the meat by applying high heat. This is the same process that causes other foods to turn brown by applying heat, such as cooking table sugar into caramel. While meat doesn’t have a lot of sugar, it has more than enough to caramelize.
The secrets of browning meat
Not every food benefits from caramelization, but for those that do, more is better! So, now how do we get as much caramelization as possible. Here are the secrets:
- Start with a dry piece of meat. Nothing ruins the potential for caramelization like water. Use a paper towel to make sure anything you want to brown is as dry as possible.
- Use high heat. Whether you’re using a skillet, broiler or grill, you want the heat up high. Preheat your pan or grill and make sure it’s hot before putting the meat in. Then, keep the heat high enough so any moisture that comes out of the meat evaporates immediately. If the heat is too low, moisture will collect in the pan and you’ll end up steaming.
- Use a heavy skillet. The heavier the better. This helps the pan keep its heat when you drop in the meat. Cast iron or heavy stainless steel is a good choice.
- Bring the meat to room temperature. This will keep the pan from cooling down too much when you first put in the meat. Don’t leave it sit out all day- just let it warm up a bit.
- Balance the heat and time. You’ll also need to adjust the heat based on the total cooking time. Balance the heat and time so that the meat has the perfect amount of caramelization when it’s just done inside. One easy way to do this is to start something in a pan or on the grill on high heat and then finish it in the oven (maybe 350F).
- More surface area. The larger the surface area, the more room there is for caramelization. Butterflying cuts like chicken breasts or pork loin creates a larger area to brown. In the case of chicken, this also creates a flatter surface so browns more completely in a skillet.
- Add some baking soda. A little baking soda added to your rub or brine will promote better caramelization. That’s because it increases the pH level (the opposite of acid), which promotes the maillard reaction. Rubs can go on meat just before cooking, while brines typically take 1-3 days to do their job. If you brine, make sure you dry the meat well before searing. We also discuss this in our Ultimate Guide to Meatloaf.
Additional tips for how to brown meat
You can apply these techniques to anything that benefits from caramelization. Now that you know those secrets, I’m going to leave you with two tips and one recipe.
The first tip is to NEVER discard the brown bits left in the pan after caramelizing meat. The French call this “fond” and it’s worth more than gold. I’ll write a future post up on this. If you’re not sure what to do with this stuff now, add a little water while the pan is hot and scrap the bits until they dissolve. Put it in a container and freeze it until I get around to writing that blog post- trust me on this one. You’ll thank me later. 😉
The second tip is to NEVER put meat into the crock pot without first browning. This can make the difference between something blah and something really spectacular. It’s definitely worth the effort.
The recipe for browned chuck roast
Now for the recipe. Beef chuck roast is great for the crock pot because it’s easy, inexpensive and is big enough to make a dish that will last us for several meals. I pack it up in portion sizes and freeze them for lunch or a day I don’t feel like cooking. I usually just throw in whatever I happen to have and in the mood for. Here is a simple recipe I decided to make today:
Simple crock pot chuck roast
- 1 – 3-4 lb beef chuck roast
- 1 14 oz can of whole tomatoes
- 2 small onions, diced
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme
- 3 bay leaves
- salt and pepper
Use the first four caramelization tips above to get that roast good and brown. Don’t even think about skipping this step!!! While that’s going on, put the rest of the ingredients into the crock pot and set it to low for 8-10 hours or high for 4-6 hours. Put in the very brown meat, put on the lid and go kill a few hours. I also deglazed the skilled used to brown the roast with about a cup of water and added it to the crock pot. When it’s done, skim off any excess fat and season with salt and pepper before serving. The end result will have a very thin and light sauce. You can thicken this up with some flour mixed with milk or water and then bringing to a simmer for a minute or two.
Another nice addition to this would be any root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, etc… Celery and/or leeks would also be nice. Fresh chopped parsley added in just before serving would be wonderful. This is also a great opportunity to clean out anything getting old in the fridge.
If you have a good variation to this or decide to make this recipe, post a comment!