Most recipes ask you to prep meat by patting dry and frying before making a casserole; why is this necessary?
- Joan and Peter Minchin
Your question is interesting because although the browning of meat does add extra flavour, it doesn't actually make the meat stew any juicier. In many ways it's an urban myth that browning meat will make a better meal, but even with all the evidence laid out in front of me, I still do it.
I watched a cooking show once, many years ago, and in it the presenter cooked several pieces of meat, weighing them before and after cooking. It obviously made sense that the heaviest piece at the end of cooking would be the juiciest as the extra weight would come from the moisture trapped inside the steak. The first steak was cooked at low heat, fairly briefly, and then baked at around 90C. The last steak (and there were three in between) was seared in a fiercely hot pan until caramelised on both sides, then roasted at 180C until cooked. All steaks were rested for 5 minutes before slicing (essential in keeping as many juices inside the meat as possible) and then we were shown the meat being weighed and sliced. The last cooked steak was the lightest, and the first cooked the heaviest. What this proved was that although we think searing meat will make it juicier - it doesn't do that at all.
I'm not sure if you've been following the trend of sous vide cooking, whereby meat, fish and vegetables - and a slightly now-boring plethora of eggs poached for many hours at a particularly low temperature (I'll admit, in reality I love an egg fried in huge amounts of olive oil and butter until it is crispy) - are cooked under vacuum at lowish temperatures for extended periods of time, before being served to diners. This style of cooking is one of many kitchen trends globally, and in many ways it achieves what it sets out to do - keeping food juicy and moist. But where it falls down is the meat just doesn't taste as good as something off the grill or barbecue. Steamed meat just isn't always that appealing.
However, what you can do with a piece of sous-vide cooked meat (and even that from a steamer) is to colour the meat once it has been cooked. Pop it in a hot pan with some lovely olive oil, duck fat or butter, which suddenly brings the two best characteristics of these differing cooking styles together. You end up with something melt-in-the-mouth juicy as well as being caramelised and a little crunchy.
So, to get back to your question - if you have the time and can be bothered, cook half a casserole by patting dry and frying the meat and onions before adding all the other goodies, and in another pot just place everything in together without browning the meat, onions or garlic and otherwise make it the same. Cook for the same amount of time until tender, and taste and compare the finished dishes. They'll be quite different and I bet you'll prefer the browned one, even if the meat is a little tighter in texture. I think our palates simply appreciate the effect flames and high heat give to a meal when compared to something gently poached. Either way, always cook stews with enough moisture to cover the ingredients and cook until tender - an undercooked casserole is not a pleasant thing.
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