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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?

7 Answers 7

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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.

17

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
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 7:59
  • 1
    I usually brown the meat first, transfer it to a dish, then brown the onions in the remaining oil, later adding the mince back into the pan. Because I prefer using mince with fat, I use the resulting extra oil to brown the onions. The resulting aroma is a bonus.
    – Noob
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 2:53
  • "onions will not brown if you add them to the meat raw" but we're essentially doing a mirepoix/soffritto here, so we don't want the onions to brown, no?
    – xuq01
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 20:38
8

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.

2

The procedure I usually follow when I make ragù or other sauces, soups etc. is:

  • render the lardons (i.e. thick bacon strips), and remove the browned bacon, leaving the fat;
  • brown off the mince, or the meat you're using, again leaving the fat in the pan;
  • add your mirepoix/soffritto to the pan, and sweat your vegetables. Since many ragùs are tomato-based, I usually like to do a pinçage, which is just mirepoix with tomato paste. Usually, the mirepoix is not supposed to be browned, but the tomato paste should;
  • then add wine, etc, and return your lardons and meat to the pan, add stock, bouquet garni etc., and simmer.

I've certainly also seen many chefs following this procedure!

Note that this is also an established technique in Chinese cuisine: when we make stir-frys, braises, or stews, we usually brown the meat (often with ginger slices or cubes), remove it from the pan, and then proceed with the other ingredients in the rendered fat.

This is necessary in Chinese cooking, as woks are very hot, but if your pan isn't very hot then I suppose the "removing from pan" part could also be omitted. For minced meat, though, I would definitely remove it from the pan before I add the mirepoix, since minced meat can dry out and burn pretty quickly. You want to brown your mince, not burn it!

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I wonder if draining browned ground beef while it has the onion in it, also drains out some of the flavor the onion imparts. If I am using a 80/20 fat content of ground beef, I brown the onions first and then spoon them out of the pot and set them aside. Then I brown my beef, drain off excess grease then add my browned onions back into the pot. To me, it makes sense to NOT drain away the other flavors in the meat. BUt when I use a lean burger, I don't drain.

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Meats should be browned off or seared first then add veggies like onion. You don’t want to add raw meats to onions that are browned or caramelized especially if you add spices to them in the beginning, because that will ruin the flavors and isolate the flavor of spices. The best thing to do is to brown the spices and meats together release all the oils together, then add the veggies like onions. This layering will give the best flavors.

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    You got anything to back this up?
    – gnicko
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 13:58
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Browning the beef first gives you the opportunity to drain and/or rinse it. If you’re using meat with a high fat content, this will help prevent having to deal with greasy sauce.

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  • 4
    You can still drain most of the fat either way ... just tilt the pot & use a ladle (I think there's a question or two on here about removing fat). But please don't rinse it ... that loses a lot of flavor. But doing the meat first means that you don't need to add extra oil for cooking the veg, as you can use the fat from the meat.
    – Joe
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 22:13
  • The fat is needed whilst cooking, you can drain at the end. What I do is use the small round sive (my potato ricer has one) and then suck out the fat with a turkey baster. Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 9:43

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