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Why does meat brown? Why brown it? Why does it sometimes get gray and soupy?

WHEN DAYS ARE brisk, warming stews, braised dishes, and soups that depend on meat for flavor and substance are appealing. But in making these dishes, questions about browning meat invariably pop up. Answers to three very common questions follow.

Why does meat brown?

Heat makes meat brown by setting in motion chemical changes that develop color and flavor compounds not present when the meat is raw. Meat is composed of protein and fat, with 75 percent water interspersed among the protein fibers. Heated protein starts to coagulate (firm) and shrink, squeezing out the liquid and melting some of the intramuscular fat.

Heat also evaporates meat juices, and their residue undergoes color and flavor changes much like meat does. If cooked enough, the residue turns a very dark brown and develops a mellow, sweet flavor as it caramelizes. If you're overly cautious about scorching or burning, the sauce won't get the full, rich color the residue can give.

If you are going to cook meat in liquid, why brown it first?

Browning contributes rich flavor and appetizing color changes to the meat. Also, the browned residue of evaporated meat juices, rinsed free by the cooking liquid, adds a dark color and richly flavored essence that is absorbed by the meat and other foods cooked with it.

Why does pan-browned meat sometimes end up in a soupy gray mess?

Meat browns quickly if there is enough heat and if the pan isn't too crowded for the juices to evaporate.

As meat continues to cook, juices flow (claims that searching holds in meat juices have long been disproved). If you rush and overload the pan, the pan cools down and juices accumulate. In short order, you switch from browning to boiling; the meat ceases to brown and turns gray.

Can you still get a browned flavor when this happens?

Yes. If you continue to cook the mixture, uncovered, on medium-high to high heat, the liquid will evaporate and its residue will brown.

How to sweat and deglaze meat

The most typical way to brown chunks of meat is to dust them with flour, then brown them in small batches in a little fat over relatively high heat. Generally, all you can brown effectively at one time in a 10- to 12-inch-wide pan is 1/3 to 1/2 pound of meat.

The drawbacks? You have to add fat, and the flour and meat both absorb some of it. You have to turn the chunks. As meat juices seep, they spatter wildly in the fat--broadcasting a greasy film.

In Sunset's test kitchens, we've developed another way to brown meat. It's a two-step process we call sweat-deglazing. You'll find these steps used in many Sunset recipes because they produce more succulent results, develop richer flavor than flour-browned meat, take less effort, make less mess, and need no fat. These steps can actually help you reduce fat in a dish.

You can use the procedure (following) in any dish that calls for browning meat before simmering in liquid--including soups and sauces.

Sweat-deglazing. Instead of fighting meats' natural tendency to ooze, take advantage of it. Force the meat to sweat--squeeze out juice as heat shrinks the protein.

Place meat chunks in a pan (they can be stacked). Add just enough liquid (water, broth, wine) to make 1/4 to 1/2 inch in pan bottom. Cover and cook over medium to medium-high heat until meat is very juicy and juices are boiling rapidly, about 30 minutes for 2 to 3 pounds of meat.

Uncover and cook over medium-high to high heat, stirring often, until juices evaporate, turn dark brown, and either stick to pan or mostly on meat (when using a nonstick pan). Discard fat.

To deglaze (free the browned materials), add to pan 3 to 4 tablespoons water or the liquid used in recipe; scrape film or bits free.

To intensify color and flavor, boil again, uncovered, until the brown film forms; deglaze. For more concentrated flavor, repeat this step several times. The meat may look gray, but the liquid will be very dark brown.

If your recipe calls for browned chopped vegetables (onions, garlic, celery), add raw chopped vegetables to pan now, along with 3 to 4 tablespoons liquid. Cook uncovered, stirring often, until liquid evaporates and vegetables begin to brown.

Add liquid and seasonings, as your recipe directs. Simmer, covered, until the meat is very tender when pierced; by now it will have absorbed brown color.

More questions?

If you encounter other cooking mysteries and would like to know why they happened, send your question to Why?, Sunset Magazine, 80 Willow Rd., Menlo Park, Calif. 94025. With the help of Dr. George K. York, extension food technologist at UC Davis, Sunset food editors will find the solutions.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Anusasananan, Linda Lau
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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