The secret to great chilli and outstanding stew; understanding the maillard reaction
Browned meat should look like this
The maillard reaction
Make outrageous chili, stew and other braised dishes. Understanding the maillard reaction will make you a better cook.
When I was a beginner cook, I used to read recipes that called for meat to be browned prior to its addition into stews or other braised dishes; and I would do it, but I never really understood why I was doing it; and consequently, never really did it right.
The reason for this step in most braised or stewed dishes is to brown the meat enough to cause a condition called the maillard reaction to occur. What you are trying to do when you brown the meat is too cook it over a relatively dry heat, until it is rich and browned.
The maillard reaction is a reaction similar to the caremalization of sugar, but in this case occurs through amino acids in meat. When cooked at a heat of over 115 degrees Celsius, these amino acids will react, and create a whole range of new and complex flavors. The maillard reaction is why a crusty brown steak looks and tastes a whole lot better than a cooked, but grey brown steak.
When you are braising or stewing meats, you are using liquid heat, and consequently the temperature won't rise above 100 degrees Celsius, and will hopefully be lower than that. Without the heat needed for the maillard reaction, the meat in a stew cannot get rich and browned, unless it is first browned prior to its addition to liquid.
The flavor difference in a stew or braised dish is substantial, and a thorough browning is one of the best ways to improve the taste of your braised dishes.
Basically, all you do is cut the meat into cubes and season it with salt and pepper. Heat a little oil in the heaviest fry pan that you have, over a medium heat, and brown the meat until it is richly browned on all sides. You don't want black, but you do want almost a mahogany. Take your time. Most braised dished require very little attention and effort after the initial assembly of the braise, so it's worth it to take the time to do this step right.
Don't overcrowd your pan, and brown the meat in as many batches as you need to. It can be tempting to raise the heat up to finish this off a bit faster, but a slow and steady browning will create the tastiest meat.
Brown your meat well prior to adding it to a stew or chili or braise, and you'll be amazed at the difference.