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Do you season meat before browning?

Last night my French cooking teacher reprimanded me for salting and peppering some meat that we were going to brown for a braise (it was rabbit). She claimed that we "always" salt and pepper the meat *after* browning to avoid burning the pepper. According to her, peppering beforehand risks imparting a burnt flavor to the dish.

Can anyone confirm or disprove this? I've always thought it important to season meat before browning to seal in the flavors with the meat, rather than sprinkling seasoning that will wash off on top of bland meat. I've never noticed a burnt flavor in my soups, stews, or braises.

Plus, doesn't steak au poivre break this so-called rule? I just don't buy it.

Thoughts?

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  1. Perhaps we're both wrong, Christina. To me browning meat just doesn't smell right unless it has a bit of seasoning. The herbs go in later.

    1. What? I always season first, including pepper (according to my professor chefs at culinary school, and everyone else who ever taught me anything about cooking) and I never felt the pepper burned, especially with steak au poivre, although if you crank up the heat high enough, which would be too high, the cracked pepper can scorch.

      If you don't season the protein first, you won't be able to season it later with the same results. The Malliard reaction (surface browning due to the presence of amino acids and sugar in the meat) will still occur, but it won't be as flavorful. Browning doesn't actually seal in the juices in the meat; a flavorful crust forms on the surface of the cut but the juices will still escape (witness "meat juice" collecting on the plate after resting.)

      So your teacher has a less enlightened idea of seasoing, IMO. I personally think you should question her further on this, and get the whole story of why she doesn't season first, at least with salt. There is a school of thought that claims salting meat first causes liquid to collect on the surface of the cut and wet meat does not sear well, rather, it steams. I think this is where your teacher is coming from. Advance salting (my new technique) draws moisture out initially but the moisture is drawn back into the meat, with no surface moisture to interfere with the searing process.

      I 've worked for chefs who had picked up some oddball ideas about certain cooking techniques along the way, <sigh> (well, we all do that, anyway; I have my own idiosycrasies) and I've found you just can't tell them, so maybe you'll have to "remember" not to season first next time you have a class. Or have a discussion with her about seasoning and your thoughts. She should be willing to listen, at least.

      Here's a link from an older discussion with some interesting pros and cons:
      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/3859...

      I will continue to season first.

      What was the rabbit braised with?

      5 Replies
      1. re: bushwickgirl

        Thank you for this detailed explanation. I agree and will continue to pre-season. She didn't say anything about steaming the meat; it was strictly a gripe about burned pepper. What can I say? She is a German teaching French cooking ;)

        Just kidding.

        We first browned the (preseasoned!) rabbit leg quarters in oil and removed them from the casserole. The next step was to sweat shallots and garlic in butter, then add white wine, reduce, add a bit more, then return the rabbit to the pot. Next a bit of vegetable broth, just enough to come halfway up the meat. A pinch of dried tarragon and into the oven it went ("meat presentation side down"; uncovered at 200C) for 40 minutes. Then we turned the meat and baked 10 min. more, then added cream, let that cook around 15-20 min. more. We finished the sauce on the stovetop, removing the meat, reducing the sauce a bit (eventually she insisted we add cornstarch slurry) and adding 2 Tbsp. of fresh tarragon, cayenne, and s&p to taste. Served with the meat over spinach pasta, it was a lovely dish.

        And no burnt pepper taste!

        1. re: ChristinaMason

          "no burnt pepper taste!" Ha!
          I would have skipped the cornstarch slurry and just reduced the sauce further, but otherwise the dish sounds tasty. A shot of brandy in there would have been nice.

          1. re: bushwickgirl

            I was opposed to the cornstarch, too, and wanted to keep reducing, but it didn't seem worth arguing about. My co-chef was worried we wouldn't have enough sauce for everyone. He's allowed to be wrong ;)

          2. re: ChristinaMason

            if it was a "lovely dish", why mess with it?
            however:
            personally, i would have done the first reductions a bit more...if you cooked the wine down to almost dry, and the veggie stock too, the addition of the cream would have thickened it about right, and you will have more concentrated flavor, too. you can't add cream to that much liquid and expect it to thicken properly. it will stay thin.

            1. re: jackie57

              hmm, but if you cooked the liquids down to almost dry, it wouldn't have been much of a braise, right?

        2. Sounds like that dogmatic French chef who keeps lecturing Alton Brown in "Good Eats." I just looked through some cookbooks and all of them tell you to season meat before you sear or brown it. Including Julia Child. Your teacher's got it wrong.

          1. Where are you taking the classes? I've found that quite a few "instructors" are often self-taught, unless you're taking it from a culinary institute (not all instructors, I know some have been to chef school). One of the most well known, Colleen who was on Hell's Kitchen a few seasons ago, had a cooking school and taught but seemed to know little about cooking. Anyway, I not only season before, I often dredge my meat in seasoned flour first. I don't know any chefs who recommend thickening with cornstarch slurry (not to say I know a lot of chefs) but that always seemed like a Sandra Lee-like shortcut. There are better ways to thicken sauce.

            4 Replies
            1. re: chowser

              I'm taking these courses at what is basically a community college in Berlin. The participants are non-professionals, but the teacher wears chef whites and has a massive collection of chefy tools she brings with her to class. I thought she was legit, but I'm starting to wonder...

              1. re: ChristinaMason

                I was wondering because my husband has a friend who was a bio major in college but his father owned a fairly well known Chinese restaurant. His father passed away and he inherited the restaurant. The next thing we know, he's teaching classes at different places and has popped up on TV periodically. I'm not saying people HAVE to have a degree in culinary arts or be chefs to teach or know what they're talking about, and many people who teach in places like are knowledgeable, as a disclaimer. It's just that you never know.

                1. re: chowser

                  I had some chef/instructors at Johnson & Wales that I often wondered where they got their cred from...One guy had been a cook in the Merchant Marines for 30 years. Hm...He did know his cooking in quantities stuff, though.

                  1. re: bushwickgirl

                    I had an instructor who was of Eastern European descent but had cooked for over thirty years in Chinatown. Knew all the tricks of the trade, which included always thickening everything with cornstarch and sherry. He was interesting and loved being in the kitchen, too bad he was sort of a pervert though, not the mentor type. I guess you learn a little from each chef you know and then you can hopefully put it all together yourself. Then if you have that type ego, you open a cooking school ;-)

            2. there is a very interesting and informative article about this subject here:

              http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/t...