Lots of recipes for stews and braises say to brown the meat "being careful to not overcrowd the pan." What does this mean and why does it matter?--Lisbeth
The basic idea of searing meat is to create a nice brown crust on the meat that adds flavor to the dish through a process called the Maillard Reaction. Note that searing meat does not seal in juices, as many cooks believe (see KitchenSavvy Kitchen Science). To brown meat correctly, you want to have the pan at medium hot and brown a few pieces of meat at a time. Dry the meat with a cloth or paper towel just before browning to remove any surface liquid. A good rule of thumb is to have at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) between pieces of meat, and to not cover more than about half of the surface area. If necessary, brown the meat in batches. If possible, do not use meat that was previously frozen, and have it at room temperature when you start cooking.
So, what happens if you put in too much meat at one time? The meat makes the pan cool down, due both to the lower temperature of the meat and the evaporation of liquid on the surface, and instead of browning, the meat oozes out juices and steams rather than browns. Even at the best of times, this still happens occasionally, depending on whether the meat was previously frozen or other factors.
Does this ruin a recipe? No! In fact, quite some time ago, when I was in my teens, I made beef stroganoff for a friend whose family was the majority shareholder in a national restaurant chain. To my horror at the time, the beef started to swim in its own juices and I had visions of a ruined dish -- flavorless with tough, chewy meat. Not having any other choice, I simply soldiered on and browned the meat as it dried out. The stroganoff turned out perfect. In fact it was so good my friend offered to see if there was any way I could get into training to be a cook at the restaurant, if I wanted. That was the path untraveled, but the moral of the story is that it isn't necessarily fatal to overcrowd the pan.
What should you do if this happens?
- Make sure there is room in the pan for the leaking juices to evaporate. If necessary, take a few pieces of meat out of the pan and cook them in another batch.
- Keep up the heat. Don't be tempted to turn down the heat while the juices evaporate.
- Turn the pieces often. As the liquid dries, the protein and sugars in the juices will adhere to the meat and brown. After all, the Maillard reaction comes from the heating of amino acids, found in protein, and sugar.
- Look out for the juices burning to the bottom of the pan. One trick I have learned is to hold a piece of meat in my tongs and use it like a wipe to clean out the fond browning in the bottom of the pan. If the juices start to burn, take the pan off heat, remove the meat, and then use one piece to wipe out the bottom of the pan. Unless the stuff in the bottom of the pan has started to turn black, you can just put that piece of meat into the final dish as it is cooking and it will add even more flavor. You can do the same trick if you need to clean the pan between batches of meat that you are browning.
- Don't be tempted to drain off the juices and put them back into the final dish. Because they contain proteins, the juices may make the end product cloudy. If you must drain off the liquid, throw it out, or save it for a soup.
Sometimes overcrowding a pan may not be salvageable, so it is better to avoid having it happening in the first place, but if it does happen the dish will still taste the same and, if you are even a little bit lucky, the meat will still be tender.