Why Flour Meat Before Browning

May 5, 2009 8 Comments

Flouring Meat Before Browning – What Does It Do?

Meat Dredged In Flour

Just the other day, I decided to braise some lamb shanks. Most recipes that I see call for the meat to be dredged in flour before browning, so I began to wonder why. Is it really necessary at all?

As with most cooking questions, there is a lot of conflicting information, both in cookbooks and out on the Internet. I am not sure why this is, but I imagine that most cookbook authors and chefs learned from people who just used different techniques. Perhaps in one culinary tradition, flouring the meat before browning is standard operating procedure whereas in other traditions, it might be unheard of.

Thickening The Sauce

Most resources that I found agreed that flouring the meat before browning helps to thicken the eventual sauce. This stands to reason, as a very common method of thickening is through the use of a roux.

A roux is a mixture of equal parts flour and fat which is then cooked to achieve a certain color and complexity of flavor. When we flour meat and then brown it in oil, we are essentially making a roux””the flour on the meat mixes with the fat in the pan and cooks, providing thickening power when additional liquid is added.

Flavorful Crust

Aside from its thickening power, flouring meat, especially with seasoned flour, can provide both a flavorful crust and insulate the meat from the high heat in the pan. Whenever a recipe calls for flouring, it pays to look at the rest of the ingredient list to see if you can add any additional flavoring to the flour””flavors that will complement the dish.

For example, if you are making a Cajun-inspired meal that calls for flouring meat, you might consider adding some cayenne pepper and some Cajun seasoning to the flour before dredging the meat in it. Since flour contains both proteins and sugar, the browning is the result of Maillard reactions, just like when you brown meat.

The difference is that, during cooking, the starches in the flour mix with meat juices and gelatinize, or swell up. The gelatinized starch provides a sticky coating that serves as an insulating layer between the meat and the hot pan. This can be particularly useful in the pan searing of delicate foods, especially fish. The fish cooks nicely without drying out and ends up with a thin but crisp and flavorful coating.

When you flour meat, the meat itself gets cooked, but since it is insulated, it doesn’t necessarily brown. The flavors produced from the Maillard reactions in the flour will be slightly different than the flavors produced from browning unfloured meat, but there will still be complexity.

I imagine that, when having to choose between browning floured meat and not browning the meat at all before cooking, the dish with the floured and browned meat would have a more complex flavor.

Other Options

There has also been some discussion about using floured meat as a thickener. Many chefs consider browning in flour kind of a cheat and think that thickening and enriching should be done through reduction””slowly simmering a sauce to reduce the water content, thereby thickening it and intensifying the flavor. At the end of the day, the choice is yours: dredge your meat in flour before browning and then add liquid to provide some body and thickening, or reducing the sauce after cooking to produce a slightly thickened silky sauce.

In the case of thickening, there are a couple of other options available. While some professional chefs might consider it cheating, you can thicken a sauce by adding a slurry of flour (or corn starch, arrowroot, potato starch, etc) and cold water (or broth) to the sauce and then boiling for a few seconds. The boiling cooks off the “raw starch” flavor and helps the starches to swell up, thickening your sauce.

Another option is to knead equal amounts of butter and flour together into a paste and add this to the sauce as it simmers. This is called a beurre manie and will enrich as well as thicken a sauce. As far as I’m concerned, if my goal is to get a meal on the table on a weeknight, I will not feel bad about “cheating” with one of these thickening options.

Question For You – Do You Flour Your Meat, Chicken, Fish or Vegetables Before Browning & Why?

Last modified on Tue 10 December 2013 5:28 pm

Comments (8)

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  1. helil says:

    From the meat perspective, floured and not floured, result in different products, one should try and have both versions under the sleeve.
    Sometimes, more than thickening, you want to group, smooth things together in the sauce, when liquid aren’t fully homogeneous.
    Cheers

  2. Julsofthenile says:

    I am not a professional, however I feel that i know enough due to my love of cooking. In most instances, flouring the meat before browning imparts flavor more so than thickness. While some flour does thicken up a liquid, the most distinctive difference is that of taste. Also to consider is that of keeping the juices in by searing…forming a thin crust with flour. Most of the time, I opt for pan searing with floured meat. Why? The taste is more complex and desirable…Try it yourself. throw a piece of meat in an oiled pan and cook it. Then, try it dredged in a light coating of flour and cook it. You will see and taste the difference. My favorite would be to try pork tenderloin. Cut the loin into 3rd’s, Dredge them in some lightly seasoned flour, and brown it in some oil- on all sides until golden. Scoop some orange marmalade and put a dollop on the top of each piece and place in 400 degree oven for 12-15 minutes.
    Try the same recipe, but omit the flour dredging. You will then have your answer. What a difference in flavor and texture. its also another step in prep…so it takes longer, but I feel its worth it in most applications of beef and pork.

  3. RG says:

    Excellent comment Juls.

  4. erik says:

    makes sense, but why is it some recipes require you to soak meat in buttermilk or eggs before dredging in flour? is that for flavor also?

    There is some evidence to suggest that the active cultures in buttermilk might help to tenderize whatever is soaking in it, but I think it would take a pretty long time to make a difference. If the soak is only half an hour or so, it’s probably for a little “tang” and also to give the flour/breading something to stick to.

    Dipping in egg and then dredging in flour will form a kind of dough, so the coating will be a bit thicker than if dipping in buttermilk Remember, egg + flour = pasta. While the egg might add a bit of richness, it’s most likely function is to help form a crust.

  5. Skylar Bird says:

    One thing that I have found, is that if you brown your meat heavily after it has floured, it’s thickening ability will be reduced. It stands to reason the darker a roux the less thickening power. The same applies to flour browned on meat. For the best thickening result. The meat should be only blond on each side before the liquid is added to the pan. Then the seared meat can be briefly simmered in the liquid the thicken the sauce and some cold butter can be added to the pan to finish. Obviously this technique is not good for say steak, but then why would you be flouring your steak anyway. For dishes like chicken Marsala this seems a good technique.

    Interesting – RG

  6. Gordon Hutchings says:

    Hi, just discovered your blog. Like your explanations (scientific, like Alton Brown).
    I would like to bake poultry breast down (for juicy meat) and in an old fashioned enclosed roaster (or roasting wrap) to eliminate spatters (I don’t like to constantly clean my oven). How can I fake browning (as there will be none) and get some browning flavors?
    Impossible?

  7. tomaso says:

    Hi Thank you if you could help me, I’m oven roasting two turkey Brest, and how should I roast the top with flour or other?
    Thank you.

  8. John Holmes says:

    as a learner cook form South Africa, thanks for your insight and carefully thought out analyses

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