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Does leaving a stew overnight really improve the flavor?


Chris Hill
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Something you often see in recipes for stewing dishes is that you should leave it overnight for a better flavour (for example, it's mentioned in this chilli recipe I just used: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/may/12/cook-perfect-chilli-con-carne).

In my household it's taken as a matter of fact, and instinctively feels true. But is really? Has anyone actually put this statement to some scientific rigour? I've had a dig around this site, Googled around a bit, flicked through McGee's book, had a butcher's at Modernist Cuisine, yet can't find any concrete information. I'm constantly reading statements like "it allows the flavours to mingle" which is just meaningless, and makes me think this is just one of those cooking fallacies like "sealing meat". For example, in "Meat" Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says (in addition to repeating the seemingly meaningless "mingling" statement) that the cooling "settles the texture of the meat giving it a chance to re-absorb the liquid", but I understand resting meat to be more about letting the juices gel a little and to help prevent further moisture loss on carving, and that "re-absorbing moisture" is not something that is physically possible.

Personally I suspect it might simply be down to the re-heating process causing further reduction, thus concentrating the flavour a little more, and nothing more to it than that. But I would love to know firstly whether there's been any testing done in this area to prove whether this is fact or fallacy, and if fact what the scientific reason for this phenomena is. Any ideas?

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"Does leaving a stew overnight really improve the flavour?"

I dunno the science behind it but HELL YES it does! Especially chili or anything with tomatoes (Iraqi stews are prime candidates for aging, as it were).

Somewhere, possibly on Good Eats, or possibly in article by Kenji on Serious Eats, it was recommended braised meat be cooled overnight and gently reheated before serving. Something sort of along the lines of what you said here:

"settles the texture of the meat giving it a chance to re-absorb the liquid", but I understand resting meat to be more about letting the juices gel a little and to help prevent further moisture loss on carving."

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I can't say why, but it invariably seems to be the case that cooling thoroughly and reheating improves a stew or braised dish, even compared to just cooking longer and slower. It also makes it easier to skim the fat. A little fat is okay, but too much feels greasy.

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I dunno the science behind it but HELL YES it does!

QFT. I can't say why but flavors and texture are both better the next day, and by a pretty wide margin.

(Don't know if these are technically stews, talking about meats cooked in various sauces here).

This is my skillet. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My skillet is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, as I must master my life. Without me my skillet is useless. Without my skillet, I am useless. I must season my skillet well. I will. Before God I swear this creed. My skillet and myself are the makers of my meal. We are the masters of our kitchen. So be it, until there are no ingredients, but dinner. Amen.

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I think that some of it is psychological, to do with the way that cooking something for a long time fills your kitchen/house with its aroma, and you become accustomed to it - just like the way you can't smell your own cologne/perfume. Eating the same meal that you have been smelling for hours will not have the same level of impact as eating the meal in an environment that smells neutral. So if you reheat a meal a few hours or days after the smell has dissipated then it tastes more intense. That's my theory, anyway...

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I think I am one of the only people who absolutely HATES leftovers! Everyone else I know raves about how things taste better the next day, but I just don't feel the same way. Sure, it tastes different to me, just not better! I hate the idea of stale food and feel that there is a certain "leftover taste" in such dishes which I dislike. I am sure it is all completely psychological!

For what it's worth, there are dishes I make that I think benefit from sitting for an hour or so, but I don't like to eat things that have been sat around for a day. On the other hand, I love love love pickles (Indian style pickles I mean) and often age mine for a very long time, so I don't know how that fits in with my particular variety of crazy!

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I think I am one of the only people who absolutely HATES leftovers! Everyone else I know raves about how things taste better the next day, but I just don't feel the same way. Sure, it tastes different to me, just not better! I hate the idea of stale food and feel that there is a certain "leftover taste" in such dishes which I dislike. I am sure it is all completely psychological!

For what it's worth, there are dishes I make that I think benefit from sitting for an hour or so, but I don't like to eat things that have been sat around for a day. On the other hand, I love love love pickles (Indian style pickles I mean) and often age mine for a very long time, so I don't know how that fits in with my particular variety of crazy!

Physics and chemistry are at work here, not just psychology! I recall reading in one of the ATK publications that flavour-bearing molecules migrate about in food, so (for example) that browning the crust of a loaf of bread will impact the flavour of the interior; oxidising and other chemical processes also alter flavour.

I usually make two days' worth of stews and such, because although it's good on the first day, on the second day, the flavour tends to be better balanced, more seamless.

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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<p>

Physics and chemistry are at work here, not just psychology!
My comment about it being psychological was a little jab at myself - I was mocking my tendency to feel "icky" about leftovers! I am sure that there are indeed scientifically explainable changes that happen on a chemical level in leftover food.
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Making a blanket yes or no statement about stews being better the day of or the day after seems senseless. What kind of stews are we talking about? Some meaty stews or braised dishes like briskets, coq au vin various types of slow cooked shanks hold up really well and often seem better the next day. For me that is the result of ingredients that only gain from resting and the fact that often the next day means a labor-free opportunity to simply appreciate what I made without a lot of prep work or clean-up.

Things I find less appealing the next day are soups or stews that include rice or noodles and delicate vegetables, soupy bean-pot dishes that tend to thicken up, or anything that tends to suffer in textural quality after sitting around. Generally if I don't love leftovers at least I appreciate them; the exception is any dish made with fish or shellfish. Seafood risks getting overcooked just sitting for an hour in the stew-pot and definitely underwhelms after suffering overnight in the fridge.

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Definately yes for meaty types, especially braises with beef. The meat is so much more tender and delicious after sitting a day or two. It tastes dry if you eat it right away.

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Jenni - absolutely. The only veggie dish I've ever had that was better on the reheat was a braised eggplant thing, and it wasn't too spectacular in the first place....

(edit - good splellar!)

Edited by Panaderia Canadiense (log)

Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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This is interesting and may be confirming a suspicion that I have....the "leftovers are better" rule seems to apply most of all to meat dishes? So as a vegetarian, there may be some logic in my hatred of leftovers?!

Actually, I've found that legumes seem to hold up quite nicely.

Michaela, aka "Mjx"
Manager, eG Forums
mscioscia@egstaff.org

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I think that some of it is psychological, to do with the way that cooking something for a long time fills your kitchen/house with its aroma, and you become accustomed to it - just like the way you can't smell your own cologne/perfume. Eating the same meal that you have been smelling for hours will not have the same level of impact as eating the meal in an environment that smells neutral. So if you reheat a meal a few hours or days after the smell has dissipated then it tastes more intense. That's my theory, anyway...

There's definitely a mellowing process with some dishes, especially spicy ones, but I think the environmental factor mentioned here is generally the larger factor. In fact, someting along these lines is what I came into the thread to post.
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I think reheating does make a stew or curry more flavoursome .My top tip though

is on the day of consumption, stir through a finely chopped raw tomato and a repeat of

the kind of fresh herbs you used in it's initial construction.

All that flavour and a fresh taste.

Martial.2,500 Years ago:

If pale beans bubble for you in a red earthenware pot, you can often decline the dinners of sumptuous hosts.

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I think everyone here has made the mistake of putting a raw onion next to a block of butter in the fridge, or next to eggs, or mild cheese. Heck I had an Aunt who would send us chocolates that had a distinct aroma of "Chanel #5", she must have kept the chocoaltes in a drawer next to her perfume

Eveyone knows that the fat from the stocks has a lot of flavour

What I'm striving to say is that fats absorb odours and flavours. We can use this to our advantage--using the fat from stocks to sweat our soup vegies with, "marinating" butter with aromatics a day or two before hand before making, say fruit cake, storing truffles in a jar with butter cubes....

Well, that's my version of "Science"....

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I think that some of it is psychological, to do with the way that cooking something for a long time fills your kitchen/house with its aroma, and you become accustomed to it - just like the way you can't smell your own cologne/perfume. Eating the same meal that you have been smelling for hours will not have the same level of impact as eating the meal in an environment that smells neutral. So if you reheat a meal a few hours or days after the smell has dissipated then it tastes more intense. That's my theory, anyway...

I like this answer. Some time ago on twitter I remember reading someone speculating that maybe it tastes better because you have to put less effort in to get something tasty. Clearly the stew left for 24 hours will have undergone some changes, and it sure seems to me that often the flavour improves. Still, it's probably hard to pin down to a particular effect, and to show that it really is a genuine effect probably requires more stew, time and willing participants than most people have access to.

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This is interesting and may be confirming a suspicion that I have....the "leftovers are better" rule seems to apply most of all to meat dishes? So as a vegetarian, there may be some logic in my hatred of leftovers?!

Hmm. Last night I put some reheated leftover curried zucchini (just sauteed grated zucchini deglazed with creme fraiche with a good dose of curry powder) over pasta and it was incredible. The first round was good, but this was lovely.

eGullet member #80.

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Allowing a pot of chili or stew or a braised brisket to cool and age overnight certainly makes it better. As with many foods a little fermentation adds new and evolved flavors. Given the average home fridge's ability (or lack thereof) to quickly cool hot things, I wonder if a little microbe activity improves things.

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I'll repeat myself: Fats absorb odours, as well as flavours. If there is fats or oils in the sauce and/or meat, they will take on the surrounding flavour .

Sure, but over what timescale (and temperature) does this occur? Are there significantly more fat soluble molecules dissolved in the fats after overnight resting, and what about the same for the water component? If it really is the reason for improved flavour then can the effect be reproduced by simmering for longer? At what point do you reach equilibrium?

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