Friday, 28 March 2014

Browning Minced (Ground) Meat - how to get maximum flavour

I thought this would be a valuable mini-post, for those who like to pack in as much flavour as possible to their dishes!

See below for how to get the most out of your mince, when browning it.

The key to getting the best flavour from meat, is the reaction between the surface area of the meat, and the cooking medium. In other words, browning it gives you flavour - also known as the 'Maillard Reaction' (which comes from amino acids and reducing sugars - more about that here, if you want to know the science-y stuff! Think about the difference in flavour between a slice of buttered toast, and a slice of crust-less bread - which one makes your mouth water?) - you wouldn't want a grey steak or burger, would you, it just wouldn't taste the same. So we need to make sure we get those same flavours when we're cooking mince. Here's my way of doing it - which isn't the only way, or even necessarily the best way, but if you're not the most confident cook in the world, or even if you are, but love picking up little tips along the journey, hopefully it will give you another weapon in your culinary arsenal!

If you can take your meat out of the fridge at least half an hour before cooking it, that's great - if not, don't worry. The photos here depict 500g of organic lean minced beef (just in case you needed to know!).

Get a large, heavy-based, non-stick pan (a heavy wok is fine for this - the heavy-based part is important as it means even distribution of heat and good heat-retention, so adding the cold meat to the pan won't instantly cool down the surface of the pan, and leave you with meat slowly boiling in a grey heap, and no browning).

Heat over a medium to high heat, until flicking in a few drops of water gives an instant and satisfying sizzle - then you know it's hot enough.

For 500g of minced meat, I find with a good non-stick pan, a mere 1 tsp of oil (don't use olive oil, certainly don't use extra virgin olive oil, although extra virgin coconut oil is great - use a neutral oil with a high smoking point, such as sunflower, vegetable, canola, corn etc.) is plenty - you don't need to saturate it, but you can use more if you prefer.

If appropriate to the recipe, season your mince with a little salt on the side you're going to put down in the pan first (you don't need to season with pepper, as the pepper will actually burn as the meat browns, so save adding pepper until right near the end of your recipe for the best flavour) - don't break it up before cooking - if it's in a 'block' or compacted, this will make it easier for you to brown, initially.

Add the oil to the pan, swirl around to coat, and add your mince, seasoned-side down. Then just leave it,
without moving, for about one minute, or a little more, until the underside is browned.

Season the top of the mince (with salt, if appropriate), and then flip it over (in one piece, if you can manage it!) and leave for another minute or so, for the other side to brown.

Once both 'sides' are browned, break it up quickly (I like to use two flat, wooden spatulas, which are great for stirring, scraping down the sides of pans, as well as being almost like chopping devices, so that with one in your hand you can quickly 'chop' and toss the meat), so that some of the the raw mince inside, is now in contact with the bottom of the pan, and leave to brown again - this will be for a shorter time, as you will probably notice the juices starting to be released.

Once you do, you can either be ambitious and attempt to toss the whole lot over, a bit like flipping a pancake, or be more sensible, and turn it over in a few sections, and leave again to cook for a short time.

If you notice the juices starting to bubble, it's time to get the meat moving by turning and tossing it. You don't want to overcook it before the next stage of cooking, as it will benefit more from a gentle braising that a swift boiling, which will toughen it, so don't feel like you have to get rid of all the/pink/red meat before you add liquid/wet ingredients (obviously stir-fried mince dishes are a different matter, and you must make sure it is all cooked through!). You've got the meaty flavours from the parts you've browned, which is perfect, and once those juices have started to be released from the meat, you're not going to brown it any further, just boil it, so if it's for a dish like a ragu (Bolognese sauce), chilli (con carne), curry (keema), shepherd's/cottage pie etc. etc. stop when you  get to that point, don't worry about any pink/red parts, and add the next ingredient. Your meat will be all the more tender for it.

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