Why does food seared to a deep, dark golden brown taste so good?
What you're tasting is the delicious byproduct of the Maillard reaction, which occurs when the surface of your food hits 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Beyond the beautiful color change is a complex chemical reaction that's producing hundreds of flavor compounds which in turn create those rich, savory notes and tantalizing aromas we associate with seared foods proteins and vegetables.
While beautiful sears are commonplace at good restaurants, it can still be tricky for the home chef to nail.
So we asked our line-cook pals at some of the top NYC restaurants for their searing strategies. Here are the four essential steps to follow:
1. Dry Your Ingredients
The drier, the better. Food will steam (rather than sear) if there is moisture on the surface. Pat your ingredients dry with towels and season them just before you’re ready to cook. Chef's Bonus Secret: If you have the time, put proteins like chicken and steak in the fridge, uncovered, for an hour or two (or even overnight). This helps dry the protein more and get you an even better sear.
2. Get Your Pan Hot
A hot pan not only delivers the sears you seek but also helps ensure your food won't stick. Heat the pan over medium-high or high heat for two minutes. A fun way to see if your pan is ready is to add a few drops of water. If they form a single, mercury-like ball (this is called the Leidenfrost Effect) that shoots around the pan, you’re good to go. Similarly, you can quickly check with your hand by hovering it about an inch from the pan's surface. The heat should force you to move your hand within a few seconds. Finally, add oil. When the pan is properly preheated, add a thin layer of cooking oil with a high smoke point, such as vegetable or grapeseed oil, and swirl it around to coat the entire surface of the pan. This thin layer of oil will help evenly distribute the heat across the surface of your ingredients. When the oil shimmers and the first wisps of smoke appear, you’re ready to add food.
3. Don't Crowd The Pan
Giving your food enough room is critical. There should be enough space between ingredients for water vapor to escape—once again, you want the food to sear, not steam. When in doubt, sear your ingredients in batches.
Chef's Bonus Secret: Gently pat down the entire piece of meat, seafood or vegetable with your fingers as soon as it hits the pan to ensure that the entire surface is touching the surface of the pan. This helps get more even and complete browning.
4. Leave The Food Alone.
Good things will come to those who are patient in the kitchen. That's especially true when it comes to searing. Your impulses might tell you to poke, prod, and move the food around. "Hey, I'm cooking," you tell yourself. But ignore those impulses. The best thing you can do is leave your ingredients be. Don't touch them. Just let them sit and make sweet, sweet sizzling love to the surface of the pan. Give it time to develop that deep, dark crust.
Foods may stick at first. This is totally normal and a part of the process. Resist the urge to try and free it from the pan. Just continue to let it cook. After a couple of minutes (seriously, at least 120 seconds) check in by using tongs to lift up the food a little. If it's sticking, let it continue to cook. You can also give the pan a gentle shake to see if the food moves.
If you follow these four steps and use a quality, heavy bottom skillet like Misen's then you'll be living in a golden brown and delicious world from here on out.