Help Me, Kenji
Kenji Lopez-Alt is the chief creative officer of Serious Eats, where he writes The Food Lab, unraveling the science of home cooking.
Q: How do I avoid bland, dry stew meat?
A: When you brown your meat, go big or go home. Here’s the thing about stews: You’re trying to accomplish two separate goals that are completely at odds with one another. On the one hand, you want some flavorful browning on your meat, which requires very intense heat. On the other, you want the meat to stay as moist and juicy as possible, which means cooking low and slow.
Most recipes use the two-stage browning approach: Brown meat cubes first, and then simmer them until tender. But what happens when you rush the process by adding all the meat to the pot at once and crowding the pan? Moisture is exuded faster than it can be evaporated. Rather than searing, you end up simmering and steaming your meat chunks. Instead of taking 10 minutes to brown, you end up blasting your meat with high heat for 20 minutes in order to first drive off that extra moisture. All of this increases the amount of stringy, dry, steamed meat in your final stew. Unless you have a burner the size of a jet engine, you have to brown in small batches, which can take upwards of half an hour for a large batch of stew. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a method that let you minimize the amount of stringy meat in your stew while also creating sufficient browning and being time efficient? Well, there is.
When I make stew, I start with a larger, pot roast–sized chunk of meat (usually a trimmed chuck roll or a hunk of pork shoulder) and sear the whole thing in a hot Dutch oven. This minimizes the juices that are forced out and allows me to sear very rapidly and efficiently to get deep, brown colors and flavors on the surface—much deeper than I can get with small chunks.
Only after searing do I cut it into stew-sized chunks. The chunks aren’t browned on all surfaces, but those browned flavor compounds are water soluble, which means that over the course of stewing, they’ll spread around the pot from the more concentrated areas to the less, flavoring every bite.
Once you’re finished simmering, you’ll wind up with incredibly tender, juicy chunks of meat that are deeply meaty with rich, well-browned flavors.