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You can ruin an entire meal just by having an overcrowded pan. It is a common kitchen mistake. If you can’t seem to figure out why good recipes keep causing you disappointment, I can help you: Give your food some space.
Yes, cooking in batches takes longer, not to mention that using an addition baking sheet means one more dish to wash. But, this extra time and/or extra dish also mean the difference between a soggy meal and or a restaurant-quality meal you would pay good money for.
The Science Behind Browning:
The Maillard Reaction is the reaction that comes from the heating of amino acids, found in protein, and sugar. This reaction gives browned foods their desirable flavor. This is a process that takes place whenever you cook a range of foods. It is the process that makes the flavors in cooked meat, fried onions, roasted coffee, and toasted bread.
- Pat damp food dry with a paper towel before cooking also helps.
- The pan should be medium hot. Only brown a few pieces of food at a time. Make sure the pieces of food aren’t touching one another in the pan. A good rule of thumb is to have at least 1-inch between food, and never cover more than about half of the surface area.
- If your pan or baking sheet isn’t large enough to get the job done, cook in batches, keeping the first batch warm on a plate tented with foil or in a low-temperature oven while you prepare the second. (I have found that my microwave makes a nice cozy place to put food if my oven isn’t on.) You could also use two pans or baking sheets (switch the position of the baking sheets in the oven halfway through the cooking time if you don’t have a convection oven).
- Turn the pieces often. As the liquid dries, the protein and sugars in the juices will adhere to the meat and brown.
DON’T DO THIS!
- Don’t be tempted to turn down the heat while the juices evaporate.
- Unless the stuff in the bottom of the pan has started to turn black, you can just put that piece of meat into the final dish as it is cooking and it will add even more flavor.
- Don’t be tempted to drain off the juices and put them back into the final dish. Because they contain proteins, the juices may make the end product cloudy. If you must drain off the liquid, toss it out, or save it for a soup.
I learned a lot researching what happens to an overcrowding pan. I am becoming quite the food geek and learning about the science of food is a lot more interesting than the science I learned in school.
My hope for you is that having an understanding of the Maillard Reaction helps you create better dishes in your kitchen. Never cook with an overcrowded pan!
Try out this method with this recipe for Easy Weeknight Chicken Fajitas.