Stove-top sautéing and browning are two of the most common cooking techniques in Italian cuisine. Unfortunately, many cookbooks gloss over these important methods, leaving it to the home cook to determine how it should be done. Temperature, amount of fat, and cooking time all contribute to a recipe’s success.
When you brown food, three things happen:
- The surface moisture rapidly evaporates
- The food’s proteins, carbohydrates, and/or fats begin to caramelize, forming a firm crust that turns golden in color, which deepens and improves the flavor of the food
- The crust continues to harden and turns black, creating a bitter char
In English, we say “brown” to describe this process. In Italian, the verb is dorare, which means to “gild”. Something gets lost in translation here, probably because there is no specific English word to describe the “gilding” of food. In fact, when you translate the Italian per dorare with Google, the English result is “to brown” when it should really be “to make golden”.
The word dorare is sprinkled liberally throughout Italian cookbooks and certainly has a different connotation from the English “to brown”. The result, I think is that we in America tend to pass the point of gilding and move into the territory of charring, to the detriment of optimal flavor.
Here are some points to remember in order to properly brown – or “gild”:
- The food’s surface moisture must completely evaporate. Until that happens, the food will never golden, but will merely steam. Pat any excess moisture from the food with paper towels before placing it in the pan. Be sure a crust forms, however slender, before turning the food.
- It’s best to use a generous amount of fat. Beware of recipes that specify the exact volume of oil or butter. The idea is to coat the bottom of the pan and create a hot layer between the food and the pan. Remember that added food will cool both the oil and the pan – even to the point where it won’t sear – which results in it sticking to the pan. A generous amount of oil will prevent such a drastic temperature change. Using too little oil usually creates more problems than using too much.
- Let the pan heat up before adding the oil. After the oil is added, let it heat up before adding the food. The oil will appear to ripple or shimmer when it becomes hot. Food should sizzle when it touches the hot fat. If you add food to cold oil and then turn on the heat, it will begin soaking up the fat before it cooks, rendering it limp and listless. An Italian would say, “it tastes boiled.”
- Cook at the proper temperature. Some foods, such as duck breasts, should be cooked over low heat to render the skin’s fat and make it crisp. Medium heat is the most common temperature, for items such as soffritto or meat prepared for braising. Very hot and lively heat is typically reserved for a few dishes such as sea scallops and pasta sauces using fresh vegetables.
The word sauté, used in both English and Italian, comes from French, meaning to make something jump, which is what relatively cool food does when placed in hot fat.
- Give the pieces of food plenty of room in the pan – sauté in batches if necessary. Crowding the food will entrap moisture, producing steam that will prevent proper gilding.
- Food will stick to the pan until the surface moisture has completely evaporated. The crust that subsequently forms will create a firm surface that will allow you turn over the food. Be patient, as this usually takes around five minutes or so.
- Turning the food too soon usually results in trouble – a torn piece will release its internal moisture into the hot pan resulting in more sticking.
- Scrape away any bits of food that may stick to the pan, as they will begin to burn – and any food that is placed on these bits won’t brown properly.
Proper browning (gilding):
Many times food is gilded in preparation for further cooking. These include soffritti (for soups, stews, and sauces), ragùs [Ragù alla Bolognese], and braises [Brasato].
- Any food that will be subsequently cooked in liquid should have no char whatsoever, as this bitter flavor will become stronger and more disagreeable after a slow braise. It’s best never to use a stove temperature above medium for this preparation.
- When adding a series of items (such as in a soffritto), begin with the onion, then add vegetables that are successively lighter in flavor and higher in moisture. Vegetables with the highest moisture content (such as cabbage or tomatoes) should be added at the end because their high moisture content would prevent any subsequent vegetables from becoming gilded (they would merely steam).
So the next time you see “brown” in an Italian recipe, think “gild”.
- Judy Rodgers has excellent discussions on this topic in The Zuni Café Cookbook
- Thomas Keller also touches on the topic in his latest cookbook ad hoc at home