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Flash in the Pan: Shades of brown

—Ari LeVaux

The Maillard reaction is what happens when you brown meat. This chemical combination of amino acids and sugars at high temperatures produces hundreds of aromatic compounds, a bouquet of flavors, and smells that deserves much of the credit for making meat taste good. You don’t need to be a chemist to properly create the Maillard reaction, but if you want to be a cook, you have to master it.

Once I was watching my friend cook dinner. He had some burger meat he wanted to stir-fry with veggies, and I suggested he first brown the meat.

“Good idea,” he said, reaching for an onion.

“What’s up with the onion?” I asked as he began chopping.

“I like to brown meat with onion,” he said. I winced, because you can’t brown meat with onion—you’ll end up with either gray meat or burnt onions, because browning meat correctly takes more heat than onions can handle.

“Gimme that meat,” I said. “And that pan.”

It’s scary how few people know how to brown meat, especially when you consider how many recipes call for it. There are many reasons to do it, including improved flavor, texture and appearance, and in some cases to seal in moisture. The nature of the dish you’re cooking, and the kind of meat you’re using, will determine which method you use.

The broiler and the pan are the most common tools for browning meat. In most cases I prefer the broiler, where the Maillard reaction is elegantly simplified to its bare bones: heat and meat.
My preference for the broiler puts me in good company. In James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Cooking, he writes of the broiler technique: “Not only does it draw out fat, rather than adding it, but it gives a crusty exterior and flavor.”

As far as I’m concerned, the only reason to use a pan is if you’re browning smallish pieces that are part of a dish that will be further cooked in the same pan. Such was the case with my clueless friend, who wanted to stir-fry his burger meat with some vegetables.

While the browning of large cuts of meat seals in the juices, with burger you want the opposite—to get rid of the moisture in order for the meat to brown. Start by preheating the pan. If the meat is fatty enough, no oil is required; otherwise, put some heat-tolerant oil, like safflower or grape seed, in the pan.

First the meat turns gray as water weeps out and steams it, but soon the water evaporates and the Maillard reaction kicks in. Keep stirring lest the meat stick to the pan and burn. If it does stick, take a few steps backward by adding liquid to the pan. Try sherry, wine, stock, or even water. This process, called deglazing, can add flavor to your dish by incorporating the browned and caramelized materials—what the French call fond—that are stuck to the bottom of the pan. If you think it was lack of oil that caused the sticking, add a little more oil when you deglaze. As the moisture hits the pan and starts sizzling, gentle scrape the fond from the bottom. Of course, if you do fully burn the meat to the pan, you have to acknowledge your mistake and not pretend it didn’t happen by stubbornly scraping the blackened bits of carbonized carcinogenic bitterness into your food. Better to transfer any un-burnt meat to a new pan and set the burnt pan aside to soak.

Once you’ve pan-browned your meat to perfection, you can now add those chopped onions. When you do, you will be rewarded with one of life’s finer smells, the interaction of browned meat and raw onion on a hot pan. This is part of the magic behind a good burger or Philly-steak sub, and wouldn’t be a bad place to stop cooking and start eating if you’re so inclined. Otherwise, proceed with your stir-fry or wherever your final culinary destination may be.

The reason I usually prefer to brown under the broiler is that the broiler produces picture-perfect browning with less mess, and it’s easier. Whether I’m cooking a tough piece of meat long and slow—either by braising, stewing, or in a crock pot—or cooking a rare steak or roast, the process begins in the broiler.
Steaks and roasts should be browned whole. If making stew or some other kind of chunky dish, it’s best to cut the meat into its final size to increase the surface area on which the Maillard reaction can take place. (It only happens on the surface because water inhibits the reaction).

Place the meat on a pan or broiler rack about four inches beneath a preheated broiler, and watch it carefully, turning as it starts to gain color, until it’s nicely browned, but not black. And that’s it—a single sentence to perfectly browned meat.

Be warned that the product of this most basic of cooking processes is so delicious that you might want to start with more meat than you need for the final product, since you can expect to lose some to snacking. As a safeguard, you might want to hide the red wine, too. Especially if I’m around—there’s no end to the amount of meat I can put away if the wine is flowing.

Indeed, while browning is a crucial step toward many a good dish, a browned piece of meat can also be the end point of the cooking process. If so, you’ll want to use a tender cut of meat, and season it with salt and pepper before broiling it. Uncork that wine, and when the oven opens, it’s business time. Brown on the outside, red on the inside, and you’re golden in more ways than one.

Ari LeVaux lives in Placitas where he writes his nationally syndicated column Flash in the Pan.


Still wild

—Mary Morton/Writers on the Range

Not far from my house in the high desert of northern New Mexico is a large tract of land run by the Bureau of Land Management. Some years ago, two horses were dumped there and left to fend for themselves. Nobody looks after them, but they seem to do pretty well. They have the Galisteo River for water, a few cottonwoods for shade and several hundred acres of scrubby grass. Now unapproachable, the horses are not wild by birth, but made so by circumstance.

One morning I was walking my four dogs, following a rutted path that snakes across the vast treeless plateau. As we came over a small rise, we found ourselves less than a hundred yards away from the now-wild horses. We were downwind, and both grazers startled when they saw us. I had seen the chestnut and palomino before off in the distance, but never so close. Now I could see the scruff of their red and cream winter coats and the snarls of tumbleweed in their tails.

The three older dogs and I all stopped and stared, but the horses ignored us and focused on my puppy, Dio, who had been racing on ahead. He was much closer to them than the rest of us, oblivious to any danger. Worried, I whistled for him. At the sound, the horses charged.

In my experience, most horses will run down a dog if they have a chance. My own childhood pony loved to harass any strange dog, cat or small child that dared enter her pasture. Some horses chase dogs just for fun, and some will kill a dog if they catch it. These two horses shared their land with a pack of coyotes. Although no coyote could take down a healthy horse, they evidently had a strong distaste for anything resembling a four-legged predator.

Little Dio took one look at the rushing horses, turned and ran back to me full-tilt. The other three dogs, having already learned their loose-horse lessons, bunched close behind me. The horses galloped towards us, ears back, teeth bared. I stooped low and clapped, encouraging Dio to run fast and not look back. The horses were about 15 yards away when the panicked puppy reached us. As soon as he did, I stood up straight and raised my hands, palms outward, facing the horses. My fingers were tensed like claws. At the top of my lungs, I yelled “Hey!”

The charging horses stopped short as if I’d reached out and physically yanked them back. They snorted and tossed their heads, looking for some sign of weakness. I held my ground and kept my hands up. The two horses began to circle us tightly in hurried canters, their eyes rolling and their ears pinned back. I turned with them, hands still raised, and spoke softly. After a few more passes, their ears relaxed, and I felt their tension ease. I lowered my hands, and the two animals came to a stop a short distance away, facing me. They had decided we were not a threat; the whole dance had probably lasted no more than a minute or two.
I stood still for a minute, catching my breath, watching the horses. They were unkempt but beautiful, as wild horses always are. The chestnut took a step towards me and I raised my hands again, stopping him. I wanted to touch him, to run my fingers over his rough coat, but even more than that, I wanted him to stay wild. So I stepped forward and said loudly but evenly, “You two are lovely, but you’d better give us some space.” The horses took a few steps back together, side-by-side, keeping pace with my advance. I stopped and so did they, their eyes softer now, ears pricked forward. They watched and listened to me, more curious than aggressive or afraid.

Then one of the dogs whined, reminding me that all four canines were still cowering around my feet. I waved the dogs on ahead, keeping between them and the horses. I faced the horses to make sure they were going to let the dogs go, but they ignored the pack and kept watching me. I studied their blazed faces and long whiskers — and I watched recognition come into their eyes.

I wondered if they were remembering a person they trusted long ago, before they were abandoned to run wild. Slowly, I lowered my hands, and turned and walked away, down the path towards home. But every few steps I glanced back. Each time I did so, the horses were still there, standing where I left them, still watching and still wild, letting us walk away.

Mary Morton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer and photographer in Cerrillos, New Mexico.


Heard around the west

—Betsy Marston/High Country News

COLORADO
Christopher Hitchens and his godless views attracted only a dozen cadets from the Air Force Academy recently, probably because the get-together, which took place at a Colorado Springs restaurant, was forbidden on campus. An Academy spokesman said Hitchens was not welcome because he’d made comments that were “degrading to others,” reports the Colorado Springs Independent. Hitchens, of course, is nothing if not confrontational; in his book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, he railed against religious belief as irrational, old-fashioned and unnecessary. During his conversation with the students who were curious enough to show up, the British-born atheist warned them about the military’s top chaplain in Afghanistan: “Good people are going to get killed because of his stupidity,” Hitchens said. A video of the chaplain has been widely seen on the Web; in it, he advises U.S. soldiers to “hunt people for Jesus” by converting Muslims to Christianity. Hitchens, who paid his own expenses, spent more than two hours talking to the cadets. He concluded with this advice: “Don’t keep the faith. And don’t fly too close to the sun.”

MONTANA
Who knew bears, elk, bobcats, owls and even river otters were so adaptable? But give them an opportunity to avoid fast-moving trucks and cars, and they’ll choose to travel through a manmade underpass. To reduce deadly wildlife-car collisions, the Montana Department of Transportation placed 42 underpasses underneath a 55-mile stretch of Highway 93, from Evola, north of Missoula, to Polson, on the southern tip of Flathead Lake. The culverts range in size from four feet in diameter to 22-foot-wide tunnels, reports the Missoulian, and most have infrared digital cameras that take pictures as soon as something moves. Biologist Whisper Camel of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes says she’s counted up to 150 “animal occurrences” a month in the passages. She was especially pleased to see a cow elk, because elk tend to be “skittish … around new features.” The underpass may have saved the elk’s life, since animals on the road are a major — and expensive — hazard for drivers. “An elk collision packs a bill of $17,500,” estimates the Western Transportation Institute. Camel is convinced that the concept of road ecology is catching on, though the Highway 93 system is probably still the most extensive in the country. Coming up: underpasses for the highway south of Missoula, and, close to the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, “a few turtle-sized pipes.”

OREGON
California is overrun with as many as a million feral pigs that do tremendous damage to native wildlife such as ground-nesting birds, and Oregon does not want to follow suit. If a bill now in the state Legislature passes, landowners in Oregon will be legally required to trap or kill any wild pig roaming their land. That could put 32-year-old Jody Cyr in a bind. He’s been trying for three years to kill a single wily pig on his land in Powers, in rural southwestern Oregon, but nothing so far has worked, reports the Houston Chronicle. “Spotlight it. Bait it. You name it, and I’ve tried it,” he says. ‘I really want to kill him.” Cyr says he’s considering penning up a sow to lure the big pig into a trap. It’s a little extreme, he says, “but I’m not above it.”

COLORADO
At first, the sign on a building in Basalt, a small town within the exorbitant orbit of Aspen, seemed almost unthinkable: It offered free rent for a 967-square-foot commercial space. There’s a predictable reason: The owner told the Aspen Times that the corner store had been empty for about a year. The lucky tenant, however, would still be required to pay utilities and other charges, which amount to $1,200 per month.

ALASKA
What a surprise: It’s usually assumed that global climate change will melt most glaciers, with the newly released water flooding the coastlines and eventually drowning cities around the world. But not, apparently, in Alaska, where global warming is causing the land to rise and the sea to fall back, reports The New York Times. Morgan DeBoer, the owner of a nine-hole golf course in Glacier Bay, says that 50 years ago, his driving range area was under water. Now, however, “it just keeps rising.” Here’s the skinny: Once the ice melts, the land rises much like a “cushion regains its shape after someone gets up from a couch.” You can really see the effects in Juneau, “where most glaciers are retreating 30 feet a year or more.” There’s a downside as water tables fall, channels dry up, salmon have nowhere to spawn, and property owners find they have new and different property boundaries to argue about. For DeBoer, though, who owns the fastest-rising place in America, the big question is what to do with all his new property. His high tide line, for example, is now almost a mile out to sea. Recently, he’s begun talking to The Nature Conservancy about preserving some of the newfound land.

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (betsym@hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado.

 

     

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