Flouring Meat Before Browning - What Does It Do?
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?
Is It Necessary to Brown Meats Before Cooking?
Browning meat is a common technique in cooking that involves searing the surface of the meat at a high temperature until it turns a brown color. While it is not necessary to brown meat before cooking it, browning can add flavor and texture to the final dish.
There are several reasons why browning meat can be beneficial:
- Flavor: Browning meat creates Maillard reactions, which are chemical reactions between amino acids and sugars that result in the development of new flavors and aromas. These reactions contribute to the complex flavor profile of the final dish.
- Texture: Browning meat can create a crispy, flavorful crust on the outside of the meat, adding texture and flavor to the dish.
- Moisture retention: Browning meat can help retain moisture during cooking, resulting in a juicier and more tender final product.
That being said, it is not always necessary to brown meat before cooking it. For example, braising, slow cooking, and stewing techniques do not typically involve browning the meat before cooking it.
Five Reasons to Flour Meat Before Cooking
There are several reasons to flour meat:
- To create a crispy and flavorful crust: Flouring meat before cooking can create a crispy and flavorful crust when the meat is fried or baked. This can add texture and flavor to the dish.
- To help the seasoning stick: Flouring meat can help seasonings and spices stick to the meat's surface, enhancing the dish's flavor.
- To help the meat retain moisture: Flouring meat can help it retain moisture during cooking, resulting in a juicier and more tender final product.
- To thicken sauces: Flouring meat before cooking it in a sauce can help to thicken the sauce and create a smooth, velvety consistency.
- To prevent sticking: Flouring meat can help prevent it from sticking to the pan or grill during cooking, making the cooking process easier and more efficient.
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. Therefore, 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, consider adding some cayenne pepper and some Cajun seasoning to the flour before dredging the meat in it. Since flour contains proteins and sugar, the browning results from 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 has a thin but crisp and flavorful coating.
When you flour meat, it gets cooked, but since it is insulated, it doesn't necessarily brown. Therefore, the flavors produced from the Maillard reactions in the flour will be slightly different than those produced from browning unfloured meat, but there will still be complexity.
When choosing between browning floured meat and not browning the meat before cooking, the dish with the floured and browned meat would have a more complex flavor.
Thickening The Sauce
Most resources I found agreed that flouring the meat before browning helps thicken the eventual sauce. This stands to reason, as a very common method of thickening is using a roux.
A roux is a mixture of equal parts flour and fat, which is then cooked to achieve a specific color and complexity of flavor. For example, when we flour meat and 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.
There has also been some discussion about using floured meat as a thickener. However, many chefs consider browning in flour a cheat and think thickening and enriching should be done through reduction, slowly simmering a sauce to reduce the water content, thickening it and intensifying the flavor.
The choice is yours: dredge your meat in flour before browning and then add liquid to provide some body and thickening, or reduce the sauce after cooking to produce a slightly thickened silky sauce.
Thickening a Sauce
In the case of thickening, a couple of other options are available. While some professional chefs might consider it is cheating, you can thicken a sauce by adding a slurry of flour (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.
Beurre manié is a French cooking technique that mixes equal parts of softened butter and flour to form a smooth paste. It is typically used to thicken sauces and soups.
The paste is then added to the sauce or soup while it is cooking, and it will help to thicken the liquid as it cooks. Beurre manié should be added gradually and stirred well to ensure that it is fully incorporated and there are no lumps.
Beurre manié can be used in various dishes, including sauces, soups, and stews. It is beneficial for thickening thin sauces or adding a creamy texture to soups. Remember that beurre manié should be added towards the end of the cooking process, as it can break down if cooked for too long.
If I aim to get a meal on the table on a weeknight, I will not feel bad about "cheating" with one of these thickening options.
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