February 7, 2021

Browning is The Key To More Flavor

Proper browning gives you tastier food!

If you’ve been getting my emails for a while now, I know you’ve heard me talk about browning. Because browning equals flavor. It’s a magical thing that happens when you apply heat to food.

Why Does Browning Make Food Taste Good?

When you apply heat (usually an intense one) to the surface of food, a chemical reaction occurs. This reaction produces new flavors and intensifies existing ones. 😋 And it also changes the color of the food to...you guessed it! To blue! Just kidding. To brown.

There are two types of browning reactions:

  1. Caramelization is the browning of sugar. For example, making...caramel! But besides sweets, you also caramelize vegetables that are high in sugar like carrots or onions. The reaction that occurs creates sweet, sour, and bitter flavors.
  2. The Maillard reaction happens to foods that are not primarily made of sugar (meat, bread, coffee, etc.). It was defined by a French dude named Louis Camille Maillard in the early 1900s. The reaction starts with a carbohydrate molecule and an amino acid. And it’s the amino acid that makes the reaction more complex than caramelization. And that complexity means more flavors!

How Do You Ensure Browning?

High heat! 🔥 Browning—and therefore the flavor creating reaction—happens quickly when food is exposed to high heat. It typically starts when the surface rises above 212°F (100°C). It’s why you don’t get any browning when you boil or steam food. And in my opinion, that’s the reason why most people hate vegetables. They were forced to eat microwaved peas before they were allowed to leave the dinner table!!! I’m looking at you Mom! 👀

There are exceptions of course. As Harold McGee put it in On Food and Cooking, “Alkaline conditions, concentrated solutions of carbohydrates and amino acids, and prolonged cooking times can all generate Maillard colors and aromas in moist foods.” This means browning can take place at or below 212°F (100°C). For example, when reducing a stock or barbecuing.

Ways to Brown Food

  1. Searing is where you cook something at high heat, usually in a pan, until a brown crust forms. My love of that brown crust is why the word “sear” is in the title of this newsletter! And please please please don’t think you can only sear a piece of meat. Searing cauliflower, green beans, or Brussel sprouts is a highly underrated way to get your greens in.
  2. Roasting is where air cooks the food, typically in a hot oven. It’s a hands-off approach that is ultimately my favorite way to cook vegetables.
  3. Frying is where you cook food in hot oil—thanks Captain Obvious 👨‍✈️. And the Maillard reaction applies to it as well! That’s why fried food comes out so golden brown! While it’s not a “dry” cooking method like searing or roasting, oil can reach a much higher temperature than water. It’s why boiling doesn’t create browning but frying does even though both are “wet” cooking methods.
Mythbuster: Contrary to popular belief, searing does not “seal in the juices”. Cook’s Illustrated did an experiment where they cooked two steaks. The first one they seared initially and then finished it in the oven. The second one they cooked in the oven first and then seared it after. If searing really “sealed in the juices”, then the first one would have lost less moisture. But they lost the same amount of juices (14% of their weight).

Tips For Better Browning

  1. Social Distancing: Give plenty of space between pieces of food when roasting or searing. This makes sure that the moisture from the food can quickly evaporate and go away. 💨 If there’s too much moisture, the surface won’t get above 212°F (100°C) for adequate browning. You end up steaming more than searing because all the moisture has to evaporate before browning happens.
  2. Strict Capacity Limits: Whether it’s frying in oil or searing in a pan, adding too many cold ingredients will drop the temperature of your pan or oil. A colder cooking medium means less time at high temperatures so you’ll be more likely to overcook your food while you wait for it to brown.
  3. Towel Off: Pat meat dry with a paper towel and make sure your veggies are dry before cooking them. We enforce social distancing to avoid steaming. So don’t bring the steam with you by having wet ingredients!
  4. Chill Out Bro: Resist the urge to do something! I know when I’m standing over a pan—and my wife is even worse than me about this!—I get this urge to want to stir and flip and turn. But do NOT do it! 😠 Leave the food alone. Let it sit and develop that beautiful browning. It needs enough time for the surface to reach that high temperature to get those reactions going!
  5. Go Darker Than You Think: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and other vegetables low in sugar can go almost go black without tasting burnt. The browning reaction makes it so that “burnt” veggies taste sweet not bitter. (Note: this isn’t true for vegetables with lots of sugar like carrots. They’ll actually taste burnt if they go too dark.)
Where I learned this: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGhee, this How Science Can Make Brussels Sprouts Taste Good video by Dan Souza, and the Chef’s Table episode on Francis Mallmann who made a comment about leaving meat alone while it cooks. It always stuck with me.