Here’s a Way to Make Browning Stew Beef *Much* Faster

published Nov 1, 2019
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: Brett Regot/Kitchn

As I was working on this recent recipe for Instant Pot beef stew, I started thinking about browning. Browning the meat is one of the very first steps to making a beef stew taste so good, but it’s arguably the messiest, fussiest, and least fun part. There are hot oil spatters everywhere, and you have to pay constant attention so that things don’t scorch. But here’s a little secret about browning beef that will make the whole step faster.

Why Brown?

Let’s first talk about why we want to brown the beef in the first place. I mean, braising in liquid over the course of a few hours is what really tenderizes all the tough muscles and connective tissue in beef, so why brown it? Very simply put, browning equals flavor. As beef sears, the outside caramelizes, adding extra flavor to the beef, not to mention creating these tasty little browned bits that form on the bottom of the pot. Without browning, the finished stew just won’t taste as good and the sauce won’t be as dark.

How to Brown Faster

Now that we’ve established that we need to brown the beef, the next question is: How much of the beef do we have to brown? Most recipes call for cutting the beef into cubes and browning all sides.

A few years ago, however, I spotted this tip from J. Kenji López-Alt, where he concludes that it’s better to brown one large piece of beef all over before cutting into cubes and proceeding with the recipe. This retains more of the juices, helps prevents overcooking, and still gives you plenty of flavorful browned bits for the stew.

After reading about this, I realized that there were times when my beef stew was a little dry or overcooked when I cut the beef into cubes before browning. While all the meticulous browning did indeed produce yummy flavors, it was at the sacrifice of juiciness. Also, it just took an annoyingly long time. But I also didn’t want to fuss with browning the beef, then removing it from the pot, and cutting it up. Cutting up the raw beef into cubes lets me trim off any tough pieces early and get the seasoning evenly over each beefy bite.

So I modified the tip: I still cube the meat, but instead of browning it on all sides, I just gave it a really deep sear on one side, then continued on with the braising. There was no noticeable flavor difference in the finished product, but I was able to shave off a big chunk of the the initial cooking time and didn’t have to monitor things at the stove as long.

I’ve actually put this technique to use in other braised recipes too, including for chicken. I just focus my energy on getting the first side really dark and browned, and then just keep going with the recipe. This tip is really just for braising small cuts of meat you plan to put in a soup or stew — if you’re pan-searing a steak or pork chops, or cooking a whole cut like brisket, make sure to brown well on all sides for maximum flavor.