The Slow Cook (Part 2)
Last time, we began our stew with the initial steps of salting and marinading the meat, talking about how this rather passive and time-consuming step plays a major role in the flavour of the final dish. It’s finally time to turn on the gas, put on a pot, and start browning.
Many Indian dishes involve browning the meat along with the yoghurt marinade, in which case you caramelize the sugars in the yoghurt along with browning the meat, a technique common in multiple Indian dishes. Most Western braises and stews on the other hand simply involve browning the meat at a high temperature, sans marinade. In fact, it is necessary to pat the meat dry after marination, since excessive liquid on the surface of meat will cause it to boil rather than brown.
While a neutral tasting oil like vegetable oil works just fine, a great alternative would be to use rendered bacon fat in a French boeuf bourguignon. Browning is where our old friend the Maillard reaction comes into play, the reaction between amino acids and sugars that produces an amazing array of flavour compounds which contribute to the final dish (check out my kosha mangsho article for more). Take your time with this step, ensuring that the meat is thoroughly browned. The more browning we achieve at this stage, the more flavourful the final dish will be.
It is time to bring variety to the party with the flavour foundation of our stew, aka the aromatics. Almost all Indian dishes begins with a tempering of whole spices, followed by a trinity of onion, ginger and garlic. Chinese dishes start off with a base of ginger, garlic and scallions, with touches of spices like star anise and Sichuan peppercorn. Cajun dishes from the American south start with a mix of onion, celery and bell peppers, often referred to as the Holy Trinity.
And then there are the European flavour bases. From the famed French trio of onion, carrot and celery called a mirepoix to its Italian equivalent called a battuto that cooks down to a soffritto, to the similar sounding Spanish sofrito that combines onions with garlic and tomatoes, the base for classics like paella. The choice of spices and aromatics at the start of the cooking process is what makes each dish unique, and lends the dish a geographical identity.
Then comes the question of how to cut up the veggies. You could cut the veggies very finely if you want it to melt away eventually, as in a bolognese, where you definitely do not want huge chunks of carrot. Sliced onions, on the other hand, define the texture of a kosha mangsho, so it is essential to cut it accordingly. Rustic stews can do with more random chunks of veggies and if you’re planning to strain them out at the end anyway, it really doesn’t matter. That being said, having pieces of roughly the same size does help, as they cook uniformly.
This aromatic base plays a supporting role in the dish, enhancing the flavour of the dish from behind the scenes. If you cut or mince things finely enough, these aromatics will practically turn to mush during the long cooking process, but take it away, and you’ll definitely notice. Why? Even Harold McGee, the master of kitchen chemistry, is vague about it. Well, whatever it may be, this flavour base brings to the dish a certain something.
With the foundation in place, it is time to introduce the liquid. Both browning meat and cooking aromatics occur at relatively high temperatures, and the initial splashes of liquid helps bring the temperature down, and allows us to scrape off the bottom of the pot that all-important layer of brown bits produced by the Maillard reaction, which the French call fond. The technique of releasing fond off the bottom of the pot is called deglazing, a crucial step of virtually all slow-cooked dishes.
If the aromatics play a more discrete role, the cooking liquid is a lot more upfront. It is what forms the sauce, so the choice of cooking liquid determines the appearance and texture of the final dish. It has a major role to play in flavour as well, and the choice of cooking liquid, much like the choice of aromatics, gives the dish its identity. There are a lot of options when it comes to the cooking liquid, which is what we will explore in the next part.