This cooking method is easy to do ... but you need to know the many variables involved.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Culinary school. Day 1. Pound cake. I ask the instructor how long to leave it in the oven. “Until it’s done,” she says. “I know,” I say, “but how long do I leave it in the oven?” And she says, again, annoyed, “Until it’s done.”
Now, my memory’s a bit fuzzy on the details, but, as I recall, we went back and forth like this for several hours until, finally, after clonking me on the head with her rubber spatula, I understood her point: Cooking, like everything else in the known universe, follows the laws of the universe (I know I’ve said that before).
This means that, in order to predict an outcome, say, the time it takes a pound cake to get “done,” you need to understand all the variables: How hot is your oven, really? How thick is the batter? I could go on. What I learnt that day was, I had a lot to learn and a lot to practise. Oh, and the value of a good clonking. Today, we’ll apply those principles to one of the most common kitchen methods: pan searing.
Why you need to learn this
Pan searing is great for any relatively small piece of protein, like your steaks and your chops, your chicken breasts and fish fillets. All those meaty, meaty things we like so much.
The steps you take
We call this method “pan searing” because it produces a lip-smacking, golden brown crust surrounding a perfectly cooked inside. For chicken breasts, that’s an internal temperature of 74°C. For steaks and chops and fish fillets – well, what do you like? Medium rare? Well done? Obviously there’s no one “right” way. And that’s part of the challenge.
First, the good news: Pan searing is easy. Now the bad news: There’s a caveat.
Here’s what I mean: It’s easy in the sense that there’s not much to it: Drop a seasoned piece of protein in a hot, lightly oiled pan, then flip it halfway through. Done.
Here’s the caveat: There are a gajillion variables, and the only way to know those variables is to practise, practise, practise.
Sure, I can give some good advice that will increase your chances of success: Have a pan that’s just big enough to hold what you’re cooking and get it nice and hot first, then dry your protein thoroughly and season it. But, the sad truth is that, just like me with that pound cake, the main thing you want to know is, how long do we cook it? And the answer, always, is, “Until it’s done.”
You see, because of those aforementioned gajillion variables, there’s no way to predict exactly how long something will take to cook. Consider:
> Pan materials: Different metals conduct heat differently
> Pan shape: Straight-sided pans trap moisture, preventing meat from browning as quickly as it would in sloped-sided pans
> The protein: What is it and how thick?
> Burner temperature: What does “medium high heat” mean, anyway?
Yikes. Here’s my best advice: Accept the fact that cooking well is not easy and requires practice. You’ll cook some things imperfectly, and that’s OK. Approach every meal as practice. The more you practise, the quicker you’ll understand those variables. Plan on having chicken breasts or pork chops or salmon fillets three times this week or, better yet, invite some friends over and cook 10 pieces of whatever in quick succession. Pay attention. Take notes. Use an instant read thermometer to track the speed at which the meat cooks. And press on the top to feel it firm up as the meat cooks. Yes, it’s science. But, it’s not rocket science. You can do it.