Friend of The Food Geek, Amanda, asks via Facebook,
“making roast in crock pot for dinner…all the recipes say to brown meat before putting in crock pot- is this really a NECESSARY step? Does it add anything or should I just throw meat and veggies in there w/o browning?”
For the schools of proper cooking, I like to imagine a line with Italy on one side and France on the other.* For the Italians, you take good, really fresh ingredients and you do just a little work to them, and in the end you have amazingly good food. For the French, you take whatever ingredients you have, though good and fresh are often better, and you do everything that you possibly can to them in order to wrangle the last possible ounce of flavor and presentation that you can with them.
Both are perfectly valid schools of cooking, but there’s a reason that French cooking is more often associated with fine dining than with home cooking, Julia Child notwithstanding.
When you brown the stew meat, you’re doing a couple of things. First, you’re adding flavor that you can’t get in any other way to the meat itself. The chemical reactions are called the Maillard Reactions, and they are the things that brown everything from chicken to bread crust. A simple rule of the kitchen could be, “Whenever you can, you should brown the outside of food as much as it can be browned before it burns.”
The second thing the browning does is it leaves some of that flavor in the bottom of the pan, which gets dissolved into the stew if deglaze the pan, or stir some liquid into the hot pan and scrape up the bits from the bottom. That flavor gets distributed into the stew and is really great.
On the scale from the Italian “let the ingredients do what they’re going to do” to the French “take every opportunity to use your skill to maximize the results of the dish”, browning your meat is probably 1/3 of the way down the scale, but definitely closer to the Italian side than the French side.
What does this mean? It means that, no, you don’t have to do it every time. If you’re using top quality ingredients, or close to, and you use salt properly, then you will have a lovely stew. I’ve even skipped the step from time to time, myself. I understand that people are busy and you can’t always get everything done that you’d like to.
On the other hand, if you have the time, and we’re really talking about 5 minutes here, your food will taste better with the browning. It’s not a hard step, it just takes a little time and will probably dirty another dish or two. I encourage you to do it, but you won’t ruin the dish just by leaving out this step.
Of course, if you’re using, shall we say, “discount meat,” something that isn’t overflowing with flavor or has been sitting at the store for a while, then browning becomes much more important. Fresh, good-quality vegetables will help in the stew as well, as well as a quality liquid (real stock, not the stuff from a can, cube, or box, or possibly a nice wine or a good beer, depending) will go a long way towards helping things out.
As I say, it’s a continuum, and there’s no one way to do anything. There are only ways to make it better, which you have to balance out with the time and money that you can devote to it.
*-We could get more complicated by adding other parts of the world to this, but we’re just talking about one concept right now, so don’t worry about China or Mexico or Vietnam or the like.