A lesson in pan searing

  • Article by: JAMES P. DEWAN , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2014 - 1:19 PM

It’s a relatively simple cooking method, but the only way to really get a handle on searing is to practice, practice, practice.

Pan searing produces meat with a golden-brown crust that’s perfectly cooked inside. Start with enough oil or clarified butter in a pan to just cover the bottom. Place the meat in the hot oil and begin cooking. Flip the meat after one side reaches the desired doneness.

Photo: Bill Hogan • Chicago Tribune,

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Let’s look at one of the most common cooking methods: pan searing.

It’s 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.

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 165 degrees. 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 zillion variables, and the only way to know those variables is to practice, practice, practice.

Sure, I can give some good advice that will improve 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 most cooks simply want to know how long it should be cooked. And the answer, always, is, “Until it’s done.”

You see, because of those aforementioned 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 type is it and how thick is it?

• 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 practice, 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.

Here are the basics:

• Set a sloped-sided sauté pan, just big enough to hold your protein comfortably, over medium-high heat.

• When it’s hot, add just enough fat — oil, clarified butter — to coat the bottom of the pan.

• Add your seasoned protein to the pan, presentation side down. (“Presentation side” is the most visually appealing side.) Don’t touch the meat until it has developed a nice crust and is about halfway done, then flip it and cook until done.

Once again, what’s “done”? Well, here’s where that practice comes in. A good indication of doneness is touch. Raw meat is spongy. The more it cooks, the more the proteins tighten up and the firmer it becomes. Make a point, whenever you cook protein, to poke it and poke it some more. Feel the changes as it cooks. Insert an instant-read thermometer frequently to make the connection between internal temperature and firmness. Take notes. You’ll get it.

One last thing: It’s true that, instead of flipping proteins only once, flipping them every 30 to 60 seconds throughout cooking can result in more even doneness with reduced cooking time.

Personally, I find the constant flipping somewhat bothersome and the results are not better enough to warrant the annoyance. If you want to try it, though, feel free. And take lots of notes.





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  • Pan searing meat produces a lipsmacking, golden brown crust surrounding a perfectly cooked inside. Start with enough oil or clarified butter in a pan to just cover the bottom. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT) ORG XMIT: 1152135

  • Pan searing meat produces a lipsmacking, golden brown crust surrounding a perfectly cooked inside. Place meat in the hot oil and begin cooking. Unfortunately there is not set time on when to turn or how long to cook. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT) ORG XMIT: 1152135

  • Pan searing meat produces a lipsmacking, golden brown crust surrounding a perfectly cooked inside. Flip the meat after one side reaches the desired doneness. Unfortunately there is not set time on when to turn or how long to cook. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT) ORG XMIT: 1152135

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