What's Wrong With Plain Ol' “Brown”?
To my increasing annoyance, I notice that a lot of people cooking on TV these days appear to be educated beyond their intelligence. It's a common failing among those who feel compelled to demonstrate a higher level of erudition than they actually posses. The most common example of this compulsion is the employment of “big words.” I'm sure you're familiar with the phenomenon. Everybody knows somebody who tries to impress with excessive grandiloquence. As one who frequently uses “ten dollar words” when fifty-cent ones will do, I am quite familiar with the practice. The difference, however, is that I know what the big words mean and I use them appropriately. I would much rather sound supercilious than stupid.
The particular focus of my ire today is the ubiquitous culinary buzzword “caramelize.” “Caramelize” is a great word. When pronounced properly, it has four syllables rather than three and it means one of two things: either to change sugar into caramel by cooking it, or to cook something containing sugar slowly until it becomes brown and sweet. It is not, however, simply a synonym for “brown.” And anybody who has ever opened a textbook at a culinary school should know that.
For example, here is a quote from Cooking at Home, a book published by one of those culinary schools, the Culinary Institute of America: “The first step in many braises or stews is to brown the surface of the meat or poultry quickly in fat over high heat.” Later in the paragraph; “Brown the meat in batches without overcrowding.” Still more; “After the meat is browned, remove it from the pot and sauté a mixture of aromatics in the same fat.” “Brown” and “browned,” not “caramelize” and “caramelized.” Did you catch that, CIA graduate and rampant caramelizer Michael Symon?
The only way one can “caramelize” meat is if the meat has been glazed or coated in something containing sugar. Only then can the surface of the meat “caramelize.” Otherwise, it browns through the Maillard reaction. I refer to the well-respected Harold McGee, whose exhaustive work On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is almost an industry Bible. On page 688, McGee states, “Caramelization is the cooking of plain sugar syrup until it turns brown and aromatic. It is similar to the browning or Maillard reactions that give color and aroma to roasted meats, baked goods, and other complex foods, but unlike the browning reactions it proceeds in the absence of amino acids and proteins. It requires higher temperatures than the browning reactions, and produces a different mixture of aromatic compounds and therefore a different flavor. Cooks have spoken of “caramelized” or “carmelized” meats for better than a century, but this is not really correct.”
Are you listening, Rachael Ray, Lidia Bastianich, and a host of other caramelizing TV cooks? Maybe this will bring home the point: On page 299 of his excellent book, What Einstein Kept Under His Hat, food scientist and former Washington Post food columnist, Robert L Wolke, writes: “Much confusion exists between Maillard browning and sugar browning or caramelization. Both a sugar molecule's carbonyl group and a protein molecule's amino group must be present if Maillard browning, also known as sugar-amine browning, is to take place. Heat accelerates the Maillard browning reactions, but they can take place at temperatures as low as 122° F (50°C). The reactions can even proceed slowly at room temperature, such as when foods turn brown from age. In contradistinction, the browning of pure sugar or other carbohydrates at temperatures higher than about 250°F (120°C) – in the absence of an amino acid or other nitrogen-containing compound – takes place by a completely different set of complex chemical reactions, called caramelization. Many chefs seem to love the word caramelize, and use it indiscriminately to describe any food that turns brown upon being cooked. But meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other protein-containing foods do not caramelize. They simply brown. Not as fancy a word, perhaps, but accurate.”
Let me reiterate that last line: “meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other protein-containing foods do not caramelize. They simply brown. Not as fancy a word, perhaps, but accurate.”
And therein lies the crux of the issue, the education beyond intelligence to which I alluded earlier. “Caramelization” is a “fancy” word. “Brown” is not. So in order to sound more erudite and brainy and perhaps more authoritative, TV cooks toss “caramelization” around at every turn of a spatula, even though by any and all standards it is quite incorrect. And once one TV cook starts doing it, they all jump on the bandwagon because nobody wants to sound dumber than the next guy. And that's how a perfectly legitimate cooking term becomes a meaningless buzzword.
I will promise you this: in 99% of professional kitchens, you will find chefs “browning” meat. They graduated from the same schools that some of the TV cooks attended, but they are not out there trying to impress people sitting in a studio or in front of a TV with their extensive vocabulary. I deliberately laid on some big words throughout this piece because I wanted to illustrate a great old philosophy that says, “If you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullshit.” And that's just what many of these TV cooks are trying to do. You're just a little ignorant home cook. You should be impressed by them because they “caramelize,” while you merely “brown.” Don't be intimidated. Just because you don't make duck confit as a regular thing doesn't mean you are any less than the TV whiz kids. When it comes down to it, we're all just cooks. “Chef” and “star” have become almost meaningless. And if you need proof, just look at any of the "chefs" competing on “Food Network Star.”
You just keep on browning, home cooks. Brown long, brown loud, and brown proud! Because you're entirely right and those caramelizing kooks on the boob tube are completely wrong.