Rethinking Beef Stroganoff | The Food Lab

For better beef stroganoff, don't slice your meat before cooking.

10/22/2021 1:00:00 AM

For better beef stroganoff, don't slice your meat before cooking.

Beef Stroganoff, when done right, is one of those magical dishes that acts and tastes like a stew, but is actually a quick-cooking dish in disguise. With just about 45 minutes in the kitchen, you can make a dish that comes packed with tender meat and rich, deep, rib-sticking flavors that taste like they were cooked all day. My goal: A beef stroganoff with the most tender, juicy beef around in a sauce that balances rich, browned flavors with brighter notes and most importantly, a creaminess that doesn't break or turn grainy under any circumstances. I decided to break down the process one step at a time to get there, starting with the meat.

) give the dish a Russian-by-way-of-a-French chef version of the story. Its true origin is more than likely forever lost to the creamy, murky, broken sauce of time.So where does all that leave me? Luckily, with so many variations and no real "true" version, I've got quite a bit of latitude to work with. My goal: a beef stroganoff with the most tender, juicy beef around in a sauce that balances rich, browned flavors with brighter notes and most importantly, a creaminess that

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doesn'tbreak or turn grainy under any circumstances.I decided to break down the process one step at a time to get there, starting with the meat.The MeatTo begin testing, I started with a very basic working recipe that I pulled together after examining over a dozen popular recipes online and in books. I started by sautéing beef in a skillet, removing it, then adding sliced mushrooms and onions and cooking them until browned. Then I added a splash of wine to deglaze, along with some chicken stock, allowing the mixture to cook down. I finished it off by returning the meat to the pan, seasoning with salt and pepper, and whisking some sour cream and fresh parsley into the mix before dumping it all over a big bowl of buttered egg noodles.

Not bad, but it definitely smacks of high school cafeteria. We can do better.Traditionally, tenderloin is the meat of choice for Stroganoff, and after testing out a few alternatives—strip steak and ribeye along with more inexpensive cuts like flap meat, hanger, flank, and skirt—I decided to stick with tradition (flap meat and hanger came in a close second). It's by far the tenderest cut of meat around, and though it's lacking in flavor, I figured I could compensate with a more flavorful sauce.

Next question: what shape should I cut the meat?Strips of tenderloin.The most popular way is to cut the meat into strips, but this leads to a big problem: with so much surface area, strips of steak end up exuding a lot of moisture into the pan as they cook. This moisture drastically reduces the efficiency of cooking (It takes about 500 times as much energy to get one gram of water to evaporate as it does to raise the temperature of that water by one degree F!). Unless you've got a jet engine installed in your kitchen, it's nearly impossible to get a good, deep brown sear on a thin strip of beef without completely overcooking it. Tenderloin also happens to be one of the worst meats around when overcooked—with virtually no fat to lubricate it, it gets very mealy and dry. Cubes of tenderloin fared a little better, but they still ran into the same problem.

Cubed tenderloin.I wondered if adding some sort of marinade or rub that improves browning qualities would help things out. I tried a rub with a bit of sugar, as well as a marinade that used some soy sauce, and a simple dredge in flour (another common technique in recipes). They all helped a little, but none of them was a silver bullet against overcooking.

Seasoning mixture.Then I thought: What's the point of cutting the meat before cooking it? Couldn't we get better results by simply cooking the meat whole as tenderloin steaks,thenslice it for serving?Tenderloin steaks.I brought home some thick tenderloin steaks, dried them carefully with paper towels (excess moisture can reduce pan temperature), then seasoned them up with a blend of salt, pepper, and some paprika (a common ingredient in many recipes that also improves browning), pressing the mixture firmly onto the steaks to make sure it fully adhered.

Pat to adhere.I then heated up some oil in a skillet over high heat until just barely smoking and added the steaks, flipping them occasionally until their centers hit a nice rare to medium-rare ().Searing the steaks.Typically, I prefer my steaks more towards the medium side, as this allows internal fat to soften, making the steak juicier and more tender, but with lean tenderloin, more rare is the way to go.

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Rare to medium-rare = juicy and tender.As soon as they'd developed a dark brown crust and came up to around 115°F in the center (they'd continue to rise about another five degrees off-heat as they rest), I pulled the steaks out of the pan and set them aside and let them stand while I finished up the remainder of the sauce. Finally, I placed the steak back into the pan along with their drippings to rewarm, slicing them and fanning them out just before serving.

Did the final dish look exactly like the stroganoff in my mind? Nope. But it tasted a damn sight better than any beef stroganoff I've had in the past. In my book that's a win.Now it was time to tackle the next element: the mushrooms and onions.

The VegetablesHaving spent enough time working in fancy-pants restaurants to know how they work, I could tell you that thefirstthing a high-class chef would do to elevate beef Stroganoff is ditch those plain old white button mushrooms for something classy, like teeny tiny flavor-packed

mousserons, or perhaps some nice seasonal chanterelles.What's that? You can'tgetmousserons? That's ok. Neither can I, these days, and to be frank, despite their pedestrian pedigree, white button mushrooms can offer plenty of flavor so long as you treat them right. Typically, you'd thinly slice mushrooms and sauté them for a dish like this in order to maximize brown-able surface area. But I'm the kind of guy who likes to get a bit of textural contrast in my dish as well.

Mushrooms: sliced vs. quartered.Instead of slices, I decided to go with nice, chunky, meaty quarters which still offer plenty of mushroom flavor, but give you something interesting to chew on as well. Cooking them in the skillet you just finished cooking the beef in gives you the opportunity to scrape up all those tasty browned bits from the bottom of the pan using the liquid that the mushrooms expel during the early phases of their cooking.

Browned and ready.You want to know the real reason why folks seem to think button mushrooms are bland? The real reason why mushrooms in restaurants tend to taste better? It's got nothing to do with the exact variety of 'shroom and it's got everything to do with how they're cooked. In a restaurant kitchen, with its insanely hot burners, you can get some good browning going on a skillet full of mushrooms in a matter of minutes. Back home, if you want to brown a big batch of mushrooms, it's going to take a bit more time.

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Looking through those recipes for Stroganoff I found, it's insane how short they give for the cooking times for a stroganoff-sized batch of mushrooms.Some call for a mere four minutes—barely enough time for them to even expel their moisture, much less take on any color. Others advise you to add the mushrooms and onions to the pan at the same time. This is a good way to end up with burnt onions and nearly-raw mushrooms.

Truth is, getting tasty mushrooms is a three-stage process. When they first hit the pan, their cell structure begins to collapse, releasing internal moisture into the skillet. Next, that liquid will start to evaporate. Only after that liquid has fully evaporated can we enter the third (and most important) phase: browning. You want tasty mushrooms? We're talking

at least10 to 15 minutes of cooking in a wide skillet (to promote evaporation) on a home burner.* Any recipe that suggests cooking a pound or so of mushrooms in less time should send up an immediate red flag.***Last weekend I was trying to sauté a skillet full of mushrooms at my aunt-in-law's country home in La Vega, Colombia, on a stove powered by a gas tank with a very thin lead. It took nearly 45 minutes to properly brown them at full blast!

**Unless said recipe happens to be on this site, in which case, uh... just trust us. (Or better yet, discreetly email me at so I can quietly take care of the problem and execute gently admonish the offender.)When a mushroom is properly cooked, it should shrink down to about half its original volume and actually be

brownon the outside. Not white, not pale gray, but brown. Are we clear here? Good.Shallots and thyme.While yellow onions might be the typical allium addition in classic Stroganoff, I find it difficult not to add shallots to mushrooms. It's such a natural pairing, like hamburgers and cheese or trips to China and Imodium.*** I added my sliced shallots to the skillet along with a few whole sprigs of thyme just for the last minute or so while the mushrooms finished cooking—just enough to soften up and add their sweetness to the mix.

***Not that I know from personal experience or anything.Cooked mushrooms.I figured that the shallots would add enough oniony flavor to the finished dish, but I found myself longing for some more substantial pieces to go with them.Onions: Pearl vs. globe.

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