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When making e.g. spaghetti sauce, do I:

  • first sweat the onions and then add the minced meat?
  • first brown the minced meat and then add the onions?
  • do both at the same time but in different pans and add them together afterwards?

What are the advantages of preferring one of the options over the others?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

In order to develop browning for a good, deep flavor on the meat, you need a high temperature and a long enough time that having the onions in the pan the entire time would leave them overcooked. Also, the onions would express water, which would lower the temperature to simmer or steam, preventing the beef from browning.

For these reasons, it is common to sear or brown the ground (minced) meat, and then add the onions to cook through when it is done or nearly done.

You certainly could cook the onions separately, either in the same pan, or in a different pan. Many people don't consider the extra effort and cleanup to be worth any marginal improvement in results.

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My wife's family are Italian and it would seem they all run restaurants, they put me right on this (and other sources). The way they do it is to;

"Wizz" up carrot, red onion, garlic, celery, fresh basil and parsley (even a zucchini if it needs using) and then cook until the garlic nearly turns.

Then brown off mince.

Once brown add a load of white wine and reduce.

Once reduced add a tin of finely chopped tomatoes (not too much)

Add mushroom stock and simmer for 4+ hours (adding water when needed).

Done, all in one pan.

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I have been told that the reason for cooking the garlic/onion first is to "layer" the flavors. I have also been told that onions will not brown if you add them to the meat raw.

So with all the urban myths I've been told I decided to put them through a scientific test.

I took a simple recipe for chili and tried four different methods to see if the appearance or the flavor was different.

1) cook the onions and garlic. Cook the meat. Add the meat, onions and garlic together. After simmering, add all other ingredients.

2) cook the meat then add the garlic and the onions to the meat. After simmering, add all other ingredients.

3) cook the onions and the garlic. Add the meat. Simmer. Add all other ingredients.

4) cook the onions, garlic, meat together. Simmer. Add all other ingredients.

In all cases the flavor was the same and no one could guess the difference. The one thing I did notice was that when you cook the meat and the onion/garlic separate they brown differently.

I guess there might be those people who have "super taste buds" and can pick up on the subtle differences in flavors but for the common person no one will notice because you are adding so many different flavors. Besides, many people I have talked to put cheese or sour cream on their chili which is, as far as I'm concerned, is overkill.

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Wow, thanks for the scientific approach, love this! – BioGeek Nov 15 '15 at 7:59

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