Should you brown meat before making a slow-cooker casserole?

Browning meat before adding it to the slow-cooker improves flavour and colour.
Browning meat before adding it to the slow-cooker improves flavour and colour. Photo: William Meppem

I want to cook a casserole in the slow-cooker. I have read that it is better to sear meat before putting it in any sort of casserole dish but I am not sure of the advantages. P. Watson

Flavour and colour. It all comes down to our old friend the Maillard reaction, which sounds like the title of a lame spy novel but is actually an essential part of day-to-day flavour creation in the kitchen. When you sear meat in a hot pan the amino acids and sugars in the meat rearrange themselves to create new compounds that are not only flavoursome but more richly coloured.

Fennel baked with milk and toasted breadcrumbs.
Fennel baked with milk and toasted breadcrumbs.  Photo: Paul Jeffers

So yes, you can throw everything into a slow-cooker and turn it on but the dish will never be as attractive as one made with meat and vegetables that have been browned first. Appliance-makers understand this and there is now a new generation of slow-cookers on the market that have a sear function.

​How do I make my breadcrumbs go golden brown on top of baked dishes? P. Barnes

Heat. Once again the Maillard reaction comes into play, causing the carbohydrates and amino acids to interact, browning the crumbs. For bread, the reaction takes place between 120C and 160C. It happens every morning in toasters across the nation. If you have a particularly wet dish under the breadcrumbs, the evaporating moisture can create a zone of cooler air above the dish, preventing the Maillard reaction and keeping the crumbs as pale as an Englishman's legs. If you have a fan-forced oven, make sure the fan is on. This moves air around, effectively blowing off the layer of steam.

Vine-ripened tomatoes.
Vine-ripened tomatoes. Photo: Domino Postiglione

You could also finish the dish under the grill part of the oven if the crumbs are not brown enough. You can make the breadcrumbs in the food processor by tearing up several slices of day-old sourdough, add 20 grams of grated parmesan, some roughly chopped herbs and whizzing them to form coarse crumbs. Add 30 grams of cubed butter, whizz a little more and store in the freezer in resealable plastic bags with the air squeezed out.

Does it make a difference to the flavour of market-bought tomatoes if they are sold on the vine? R. Mischlewski

Tomatoes on the vine look great. They are also more costly. The way they need to be harvested means a lot of careful manual labour, which increases the price. They also smell wonderful. That aroma of fresh tomato leaf and stem makes them very appealing. But that is about it. The action is in the green stuff. At this time of the year the true tomato season has finished. They are an annual plant ripening over summer and into early autumn. The tomatoes on the market now are hydroponic or being trucked down from up north. A wise Frenchman named Gabriel Gate once told me, "The only thing you should buy in a tin is tomatoes. They are picked when ripe and have flavour."

Brain Food by Richard Cornish.
Brain Food by Richard Cornish. 

Send your vexing culinary conundrums to brainfood@richardcornish.com.au or tweet to @Realbrainfood.

Brain Food by Richard Cornish is out now from MUP (RRP $19.99, eBook $11.99).