Every time you sear a tenderloin or New York strip in a cast-iron pan, or stir-fry marinated strips of trimmed sirloin or flank steak in a wok, you unwittingly recreate a bit of a lab experiment in your kitchen. Once the heat brings the beef past 230 degrees Fahrenheit, flavors explode in the browned crust. This reordering arises from a chemical process called the Maillard reaction, during which amino acids break down and recombine in sensory new flavors and aromas. You want to bring these marvelous tastes to the plate by making the browning process foolproof and tailoring it to your specific dish.
Things You'll Need
- Chef's knife
- Sea salt
- Vegetable oil
- Skillet or wok
- Paper towels
- Colander or strainer
Prepare cuts such as tenderloin by trimming all visible fat and gristle, and tying the beef with cooking twine. Cut stir-fry beef against the grain into thin, evenly sized pieces. Season the beef with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, or use seasonings specified by your recipe.
Heat vegetable oil in a skillet on medium high heat. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons, for most cuts of beef and preparations and for a medium-sized skillet or wok; add more for larger skillets. You only need enough oil to serve as a transfer mechanism for the pan's heat to the beef's surface. For ground beef, start with a light film of oil.
Blot the surface of the beef dry with paper towels. If you've marinated the beef, lift the meat out of the marinade and allow it to drain in a colander or strainer and then blot it dry. This dabbing away of the marinade allows the beef to reach 230 F more quickly, kick-starting the browning process, which can't commence until the surface moisture evaporates.
Add the beef, especially if it is trimmed in pieces, in the middle of the pan or wok so that it has plenty of space. Work in small batches so that the heat can brown the meat and you avoid steaming or boiling the beef. Add a roast or tenderloin in a suitably sized skillet large enough for it to comfortably fit.
Allow large cuts of beef such as tenderloin or roasts to sit undisturbed until the bottom of the cut becomes browned; avoid the temptation to turn the meat at first, as it will stick and tear. Once the beef releases easily, turn the meat with tongs so that it browns evenly. With burgers and steaks, you can flip them every 15 seconds or so to retain juices and seek the perfect, brown crust. For ground beef, break the meat into large, medium, small and ever-smaller pieces with a spatula to allow the beef to brown. For stir-fry, allow the slices to sit for 5 to 10 seconds in the oil in the wok, and then lift and turn the beef -- let your eyes and nose be your guide to whether the slices are becoming brown and caramelized.
Continue browning until the outside of the beef displays a rich, even color. Remove cuts that are destined for two-stage cooking to your sideboard and a roasting pan, and continue with oven roasting or closed grilling to complete your recipe. For stir-fries, remove the beef with a slotted spoon to a bowl, and return it to the wok once you complete frying your vegetables. For ground beef, press open a few test crumbles of the beef to determine if they are cooked through and show no more pink areas.
Tips & Warnings
- To reduce the risk of food-borne illness, keep beef refrigerated until it is time to cook it.