When cooking a meat stew, I normally sear the outside of each lump in a hot frying pan first. It creates an attractive crust and develops flavours that don’t come out with the slower, liquid immersion of a stewpot. On Saturday evening I was cooking a venison stew using a large bag of diced chunks (on offer, so it wasn’t too dear!). I decided that browning my way through 2.5kg of meat would take too long and create too much mess so I only applied that process to about a fifth of pieces, putting the rest in raw before topping off with boiling liquid.
What surprised me on eating the results, after a few hours of slow cooking, was the difference between the browned and unbrowned pieces. Both were cooked through. They were hard to visually distinguish, being coated with a thick gravy, and the taste wasn’t noticeably different. That would sound like enough to scotch the arguments in favour of the extra process. However, the seared pieces (you could tell the difference if you scraped the gravy off) were much more tender.
I think that the intense heat of searing must break down the connecting tissues round the outside of the meat. Once in the stew, it never gets the chance to reach a high enough temperature to do that. When you bit into it, your teeth can slide between the outer fibres rather than having to cut through them and the result is a tender texture.
The next experiment in this series? Probably to see if there is a particular threshold I need to heat the meat to in order to get this effect. Waiting until there is a strongly visible sear (when the Maillard reaction kicks in at around 154°C) takes a long time and produces a lot of fat spitting round the stove-top. However, the proteins involved should denature at a lower temperature and so perhaps a shorter time in the pan would create the same result.