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2 Stew Questions - easy stuff

When browning meat for braise-based dish.. you can hear the hysterical voice in your head screaming "Don't crowd the pot!!! Your meat will just steam!!". But for a long/ slow braise type meal.. is it really that much of a problem? YES it's going to take a lot longer to get the oil / meat to a browning temperature but it's going to get there eventually. And yes that means it had to cook a lot longer and lose a lot more moisture to get there.. but it's going to stew for hours afterwards. What's the science at play here?

2nd question: How do folks like to get the thickening into their stew? A few options: 1) flour the heck out of your meat before braising and this residual flour will act as a thickener 2) add a roux later 3) add cornstarch later 4) your potatoes will lose enough starch that they will thicken

Option 1 seems problematic in that it may not be enough flour AND the flour will be cooking for so long it's going to lose a lot of the thickening properties. Option 2 is good but adds a lot of fat to an already fatty dish. Option 3 is easy but the texture is not a great one for me. Also makes reheating dicey as it'll break if not done right. Option 4 is a wildcard- not sure if that would work or not.

Other thoughts or convincing arguments for any of the options above?

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  1. Question 1: yes, it makes a difference, a huge one. Brown your meat in batches if necessary. Here's the thing, if you over crowd your pot, it will never brown. it'll cook, sure, but it won't brown. it will steam. You'll never get that maillard reaction, which is where all the flavor is.

    Question 2: Combination of options one and 4 in my usual stews. :) Oh, and in my experience, the flour doesn't lose the thickening power unless you boil the heck out of your stew. don't do that. :)

    5 Replies
    1. re: tzurriz

      tzurriz said exactly what I would have said for Question 1, except I can never remember the term "maillard reaction."

        1. re: tzurriz

          So we're disconnecting as I didn't explain myself well enough. I wasn't asking to understand the browning process.

          To your point "if you crowd your pot, it will never brown" I say horsecrap.

          It will brown, it will just take a while to get there. Eventually the excess moisture will disappear, the temperature will rise and even a crowded mass of beef will start to brown.

          Remember that when cooking an entire roast beef it is browned first.. now that's a crowded pan.

          I'm simply trying to understand the difference between fast-browning long braise and slow-browning long braise.

          Perhaps the only way to know is to follow KenGK's advice and try it both ways and look for a difference.

          Thanks to all who rec'd beurre manie- I hadn't considered that for some reason and it was perfect.

          1. re: e_bone

            A "brown braise" is an oxymoron.

            You cannot brown meat via braising.

            And although you say "fey" to the notion of not crowding the pan when you brown meat, doing so defeats the purpose of QUICKLY searing the beef before cooking it using another method.

          2. re: tzurriz

            Questions answered. Don't crowd the pot while browning. You want that browning for added flavor (and the fond on the bottom of the pan will add additional flavor).

            And toss the the beef cubes with flour, salt, pepper and whatever herbs/spices you might want before browning. (Option 1). I don't add potatoes to my stew as I prefer them cooked separately so they specifically *don't* fall apart.

          3. The science is that the Maillard reaction (browning) takes place at about 300 °F and above, so steam (at 212 °F) interferes with that. It won't ever reach 300 when the stew is put together, so you have to dry the meat and brown it first to get the effect.

            1. 1. I recommend trying it both ways and see if it makes enough difference to matter to you. I go both ways depending on my mood.

              2. I prefer a beurre manie to thicken stews.

              1. The central key to great beef stew is that browning process, so don't stint on it. Best advice I got was on this very website, when a Hound said, don't just brown the meat to a tepid color, get it to a mahogany color.

                If you flour the meat first, it helps with the necessary drying as well as providing some thickening, as you note. If you get to the end and want a thicker gravy, buerre manie, as advised above.

                1. 1. Oh that brown stuff you get when you don't crowd the pot is worth the extra effort.

                  2. I don't understand this thickening of stews. I don't thicken my stews ever. Don't like the flavor of flour, and love the sauce. If I serve my stew with potatoes, I do them separately but I am just as likely to serve over polenta.

                  1. To add, the browning/ Maillard reaction produces hundreds of flavor compounds that add complexity, flour or not.
                    For thickening, I'll add tomato paste.

                    1. I usually don't flour the meat because then you brown the flour not the meat.

                      I get the meat nice and brown because that's where all the meaty flavor comes from.

                      I'll thicken toward the end if it needs it.

                      1. Q1. Yes, don't crowd it. Q2. Roux, if needed. That way the flour is cooked before it goes in. But you may not need thickening at all. As for fat, all stewed/braised dishes should be cooked the day before using as much fat as needed, cooled, refrigerated overnight. Then you can remove all/most of the fat off the top before reheating. Personally, I would not remove all of it.

                        1. Some times I brown the meat plain sometimes lightly floured. I have found it fares better when the meat is browned in batches without crowding.

                          I never have an issue with it thickening. Time and gradual reductions takes care of it!

                          1. I documented my project yesterday. Crowded pan, brown meat.

                            7 Replies
                            1. re: kengk

                              Except they all seem to be in a single layer, yes? I think when people say "don't crowd the pan", they mean dump 2-3 lbs. of stewing beef in all at once, so there is beef on top of beef and the steaming process happens instead of browning.

                              1. re: LindaWhit

                                That is about five pounds of pork shoulder in a 9x13 pan. People can draw any conclusion that they like. The pictures are clear and accurate as far as lighting etc.

                                1. re: kengk

                                  A picture is worth 1,000 words seems to apply here. I've never understood the "don't crowd the pan" rule, but if phrased as "keep meat in a single layer to brown", I get it. Your meat looks nicely browned to me. Was that done stovetop (if so, what technique works for a 9 x 13 over a burner) or in a hot oven?

                                  1. re: MidwesternerTT

                                    Indeed this is a crowded pan and it browns. We all know that no matter how crowded.. a mass of meat will brown at Some Point.

                                    I think that the principle still applies to things that if you are *not* going to slow braise afterwards: if you crowd the pot you will lose a lot of moisture from your meat before the browning starts. This will result in a dry final result if you are doing lean meats that won't be slow cooked afterwards.

                                    I'm not arguing that point- I'm questioning whether crowding a pot is an issue with a slow cooked, long braise, fatty meat. I'm suspecting its not but I'm not convinced either way through this thread. As someone mentioned, I need to do an experiment myself I suppose.

                              2. re: kengk

                                That *is* a crowded pan, ie: NO NO!! Yet, the browning is perfection.
                                The thing is, if crowding causes steam, which is water, doesn't water evaporate and perhaps then the browning can occur after evaporation?
                                Anyway, great color on the pork.

                                Is that an electric skillet?

                                1. re: monavano

                                  Low sides to the pan so the steam can escape. If you used a dutch oven with 4 or 5" sides, the results would have been different.

                                  1. re: smtucker

                                    I always use a LC French oven to brown meat for stew.

                                    Works great. Plus you save the find which is essential to making any tasty meat dish.

                                    As stated repeatedly, one just cannot crowd the bottom.

                              3. I always use a seperate saute pan to brown my meat. There is more surface area and the pan is shallower which helps it brown better. I dredge the meat prior to browning, and add a slurry, or beurre manie towards the end of cooking time if needed. I know that cornstarch looses it's thickening properties after prolonged cooking, but not flour.

                                1. My technique (from my grandmother) is to brown the beef in as many batches as necessary, removing to a platter when brown, and continuing until finished. Add all browned beef back to pot, toss with flour, cook for a few minutes, then add the wine/stock/other liquid. If the sauce isn't thick enough after it's cooked for a while, add buerre manie (sp?).