For the past 14 years, I've taught, on average, three to five cooking classes a week. I've noticed that a lot of people have similar food-preparation habits -- good and bad. No one cares about other people's good habits. I'm sure of this because I've never been asked what went well, while I'm asked nearly every day, "What's the worst thing that's happened in a class?"
The recipe says brown the meat, but yours came out wet and gray. Meat (and other food) browns when it spends time touching HOT metal. When meat doesn't brown it's almost always because the pan isn't hot enough. When the pan is not hot enough to sear the meat, it is often just hot enough to make the meat steam. Even a little steam will warm the meat enough to make it sweat, which means more water and more steam. Once there's a little water in the bottom of the pan, you begin to boil the meat. If you're a fan of old-style English cooking, you're on the way to a good old-fashioned boiled dinner.
There are a number of reasons why your pan might be too cool.
When the recipe says preheat, it means it. If you put cool meat into a lukewarm pan, the bottom of the pan never gets hot enough to give you a brown crust. When in doubt, add one cube of beef or a teaspoon of ground meat. If it sizzles, add the rest. If not, be patient for two extra minutes.
Size matters; at least when it comes to pan size. For some reason, people love to use the smallest pan possible. I think there's a vague belief that a smaller pan is easier to clean. Funny, but when the pan is too small, meat gets all over the stove when you stir. I use the biggest pan that seems reasonable. The meat should fit into the pan in a single layer (for ground meat it should be no more than an inch thick in the pan -- with some gaps, so that you can see the bottom of the pan and steam can escape). A thin layer of meat cooks faster -- and it browns. That's why a lot of recipes tell you to brown in batches.
You need a little oil -- even if you end up draining the fat. I'll use a potato analogy. Cook a potato in water or steam and it stays white and soft. Cook it in oil and it browns. The same is true for meat. Add a little oil to the PREHEATED pan immediately before you add the meat -- and you'll get nice brown, whatever it is you're cooking.
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If you'll forgive the expression, this all boils down to 1) use a big, hot pan; 2) use oil; and 3) don't crowd the pan.
Check back next week for another common kitchen mistake.
Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.