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I always look through the comments on recipes I find online that I want to try. The comments are usually helpful and give great tips on how to make the dish even better!

I recently found a great crockpot beef stew recipes and in the comments, there was some debate on whether to brown the beef before putting it in the crockpot or not. The recipe did not call for browning the meat prior to putting it in the stew. Some reviewers of the recipe said it was absolutely necessary to maintain the right flavor. Others argued that not browning helped keep the meat tender.

So, what are the advantages of browning the meat before? What does not browning it first do?

To brown or not to brown?

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See related: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/40887/… –  SAJ14SAJ Mar 21 at 20:06
    
The effect of browning on taste is not huge; in a stew with red wine, like boeuf bourguignonne, it makes no real difference, in my experience. I used to brown, then stopped, and I noticed no real difference. As to the texture, it makes no difference at all in a normal stew, since you make a stew by basically destroying the texture of the meat: only once it has been sufficiently destroyed, like after 3 hours of slow boiling, is the meat tender enough to enjoy. So it may depend on the stew, but in most classical, red-wine stews, I wouldn't bother. –  Cerberus Mar 21 at 21:35

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Browning ingredients (both meat and vegetables including the aromatics) before doing a braise or stew (which is what slow cookers do) helps develop depth of flavor, through the Maillard reaction where proteins and carbohydrates react together to create a myriad of flavorful compounds. Vegetables that are high in sugar, such as onions or leeks, and even carrots may also have some caramelization, where sugars react with each other, again creating flavorful compounds.

Especially with beef, these deep browned flavors are often what people associate with the product, and what they expect to taste.

On the other hand, browning almost by definition overcooks the outside of meat well past well done, so it is somewhat drier and tougher, although this can be mitigated by a long braise Some experts recommend browning only on one side of cubed meat, to compromise between getting flavor development, and getting good texture.

The one thing browning or searing doesn't do is "seal in the juices"; that is a myth that is well de-bunked.

The choice to brown or not brown is one of taste and balance. It is traditional in many recipes, especially of Western European heritage. There are many traditions where browning is not as frequent, including true Mexican cuisine and many Asian cuisines.

Choose what seems most appropriate and tasty to you in a given dish. Personally, I like the flavor development, and almost always opt for browning.

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So it's all about preference, and whether to compromise tenderness for flavor and vice versa. Very nice answer, thank you. :) –  Nicole Rae Mar 21 at 20:42
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I felt soooo depressed the day I learned browning doesn't "seal the juices". Just imagine my grandma lying to me all those seemingly happy years :) –  belisarius Mar 22 at 0:13
    
Instead of browning only one side of the meat as you reccomended, I prefer to fully brown a small percentage of the meat (usually about a quarter). This gives the same effect but means that you still get some pieces of meat that are completely tender. –  leon Mar 22 at 12:17
    
A side note, you also do not want to crowd the pot when going for a maillard reaction. Cook meat in batches instead so that the meat does not steam. You may also want to brown on a higher heat as long as you feel you won't burn the meat. We cook on higher heat for stir frys when browning meat, take it out, cook everything else, and throw it back in to cook all the way through. –  Deirdra Strangio Mar 26 at 20:00
    
I believe the answer above is correct. But I wanted to re-enforce the idea of browning the meat. I cannot back this up with scientific data, but I have been taught by EVERYONE from mom to trained chefs that browning is flavor, and so far I have never had a reason to doubt that. I brown all meat before stews or pot roasts and any other long, slow cooking method. I think otherwise the color comes back blanched and the consistency of the bite is chewy. This is my experience/advice. –  geoffmpm Mar 26 at 20:26

Browning meat helps increase the savory, satisfying taste called umami. Umami is the taste of free amino acids. Free means the aminos are not bound into a protein. Glutamate, the most common amino acid, is required for umami to be tasted. But when glutamate is combined with certain other free amino acids, the umami taste is increased at a multiplicative rate rather than additive. That is, a food with glutamate and another umami amino in equal portions has about 8 time as much umami as a food with just glutamate. Most meats are naturally low in unbound glutamate. It is trapped in the proteins. Browning (like aging) breaks down the proteins on the surface, unbinding the glutamate. And since meat is high in inosinate, an umami multiplier, a little goes a long way. Umami is a first class taste, alongside sweet, sour, salty and bitter. While it is the most subtle taste to the modern palate, its impact is perhaps the furthest reaching in the eating experience. It makes salty or sweet taste more salty or sweet, while reducing bitterness and sourness. It is long lasting, humming on the tongue when other tastes have long faded. Further, it physiologically triggers satiety, making the eater full and satisfied with less food.

On glutamate, umami, and browning: http://books.google.com/books?id=TPd2SaE3HW4C&pg=PA60&lpg=PA60&dq=browning+meat+glutamate&source=bl&ots=RuJMyJ7QBO&sig=-luhaivoktO0DYwPOLk8WA3KVOc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NjozU_3BA9TNsAS15ICAAQ&ved=0CGoQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=browning%20meat%20glutamate&f=false

On amino acid levels in beef (see slide labeled "Meatiness"): http://www.hull.ac.uk/php/chsanb/Food/Food_3.pdf

On amino acids, palatability, and the multiplicative effects of combining: http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/4/910.long

That last one is a little long and dry, but by far the most exhaustive.

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Do you have citations for any of this? –  SAJ14SAJ Mar 26 at 11:00

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