Thoughts on Diffusion and Stews

I am not sure if anyone has written on this subject. A quick search on google using "stew diffusion" came back with mostly unrelated stuff, so I thought I would give my perspective on it.

One of my favorite kinds of dishes is stews. It's a very general category, but I am referring to large chunks of meat and veggies simmered in a somewhat thickened and heavily flavored sauce. I like the Chinese style beef in brown sauce (紅燒牛肉), which is flavored with star anise, chinese cinnamon, ginger, scallions, szechuan peppercorns, and soy sauce. I claim to know nothing about Indian food, so I feel no shame in admitting that I like the Japanese curry one can make from a box of Vermont Curry. It is especially good if one uses pork spareribs cut into 1" pieces. And then, there's of course the all time classic
Boeuf Bourguignonne, made incredibly rich by the wine, stock, aromatic herbs, and the buttery fonds.

All stews require long periods of cooking at simmering temperature. Accordly, this kind of cooking slowly disintegrate the connective tissues in the meat, rendering the tough gristles into melting and gooey gelatinous goodness. This gives the sauce body (a lot of it will make sauce/stock gel at low temperatures) and makes the meat taste juicy and tender. Notice that no grandma will ever tell you to cook a stew at high heat for a short period of time. This kind of kitchen wisdom is tried and true.

Modern needs for efficiency in the kitchen brought about the use of pressure cookers. At higher pressure, the muscle fibers break down much faster, and a similar effect is achieved in a short period of time. The taste, however, may still use a little catching up. You see, the long simmering time not only change the texture of the food. It also affords time for the flavors to develop and infuse the ingredients. Now I am going to jump into a more scientific mode. Imagine the aromatics and flavorings are all sorts of large molecules. For them to penetrate into a large piece of solid material, the only way is through diffusion. The rate of diffusion is directly correlated with the temperature, but it is also influenced by the tortuous path the molecues have to travel through. And that just takes time. Patience will reward in this case. Ever wonder why the potatoes in the curry taste so much better after it sat in the fridge overnight? Yup, now you know why :-)


charles said…
i love slow-cooked stews. not only is the resulting meat particularly tender and flavorful (as you've mentioned), i also like how you can just put it on the stove and walk away while you let it simmer. and that's exactly what i did on many nights when i was working. i'd put the meat on stove with the lowest heat, quickly run to the gym, then come back and cook a veggie dish, and there was my dinner.

have you used a slow-cooker? my parents bought one last year and had good things to say about it. but i was thinking how is that different than just cooking on a regular stove in low heat over a long period of time?
Albertitto said…
I don't have a slow cooker -- we have enough kitchen appliances as it is, and we certainly don't have more room for more. We just finished ~99% of the unpacking and arranging in our new home, and we cooked our first meal in the new kitchen. It's really nice to have a lot of room!

I think slow cookers are good. But if you want to create tasty food, you still need to do some sauteing/frying in the beginning on the stove to get those brown bits, and then deglaze the pan with stock/wine to extract all the flavor. If you just dump all raw ingredients into the slow cooker it won't taste as good. also you don't need to worry about keeping the stove on for long periods of time. I think stoves are more of a fire hazard.

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