Coming to Terms with Searing

Maximum flavor with minimum effort, however you call it.


It’s a vague term, when you think about it.

To begin with, you can’t just say you’re going to “fry” something. You have to be specific. “Deep” frying, for example, generally leads people to expect breaded and battered foods. Starch is what they want you to fry, not the thing itself.

“Shallow” frying is the obvious alternative. However, no one can tell you how shallow shallow is. It could involve just enough oil to lubricate the pan; foods could be half-submerged.

Shallow-frying, what’s more, frequently involves a hot oven in order to finish cooking things, a process that recipe-writers like to call “pan-roasting.” Be aware that pan-frying, on the other hand, involves no oven at all.

At least we can still say for certain that “frying,” like “roasting” and “grilling,” signifies an end in itself. No one grills a steak only to say, “And now I’ll cook it.”

“Frying” is important for us to come to terms with, at any rate, since we use the word all the time to refer to the everyday task of browning foods.

Browning. Now there’s a term we can work with.

Everyone knows what it means because it represents one of the major ways we have in Western cuisine of making things delicious.

Browning: One of the major ways we have of making things delicious.

Asia may have its many excellent condiments of fermented beans and fish, but Europeans and their ilk, descended as we are from barbarians, prefer the brute-force approach, basically torching things until they taste the way we want. In an encouraging display of refinement some three centuries ago, we began devising ways to incorporate the scorched residue left at the bottom of a pan into broths and sauces of subtlety and distinction.

That’s why browning is the first step in so many dishes we prepare, and why recipe-writers so often apply themselves to it with what they call “pan-frying” and “shallow-frying” and “pan-roasting,” and so on. The fact that they can’t settle on a term for such a basic task reveals a certain failure to comprehend it.

Browning has nothing to do with “sealing” ingredients, for one thing. Even Monsieur le Chef repeats this disproven hypothesis, which proposes to explain why meats seared over high heat release very little liquid. The idea is that cauterizing flesh very quickly closes surface pores, which blocks an escape route for internal liquids.

Some truth exists in that. Meat fibers are indeed hollow tubes filled with what we call meat juice, and high heat does cause the ends of these fibers to pinch shut, keeping the liquid in place.

The result is that very little liquid emerges onto the pan, and so very little heat is lost to evaporating moisture. High heat is key to browning, since it causes the chemical chain reactions that produce tasty, brown caramelization.

(Meat fibers do reopen, as they cool. Heat never “seals” them in a permanent sense.)

All moisture vaporizes eventually, of course, hence all foods eventually brown, even at lower temperatures. Delicate fare like fish fillets and sea scallops overcook very quickly, however, so the sooner they brown, the better.

And as for tough ingredients like a beef brisket—for which overcooking is the whole point—well, no one wants to stand all day in front of the stove browning five pounds of diced stewing meat.

There is value, in any case, in having one good way of dealing with a situation, no matter the circumstance—one great method to brown food in a pan on a stove, regardless of the particular ingredient or the role that it will play in any particular dish.

That’s what I’m going to show you.

One great way to brown anything in a pan on a stove—that’s what I’m going to show you.

So, first I’m going to elevate to culinary status a somewhat underutilized term, searing, which is exactly what you do when you lay an object against a hot surface and leave it there until it is practically charred.

To succeed at searing, you don’t need a method, per se. You need a temperature: When you know how to correctly heat your pan, searing practically takes care of itself.

A quick test is all you need to determine that temperature. You can use any pan of your choice, a spoonful of water, and a kitchen timer.

Apart from that simple experiment, which you perform only once, searing is a matter of simply having dry ingredients and using the right kind of oil.

So, you can disregard oft-repeated advice like holding your hand above a hot pan while counting the seconds until the heat becomes unbearable. You’re better off consulting a magic eight ball. Neither should you wait until you see the oil “smoke,” which is actually vapor, a signal that the oil is about to ignite. And never shake your pan in order to keep things loose, as if sloshing around scalding oil was ever a good idea.

Soon, you’ll know for yourself exactly what to do whenever recipe-writers call for situations that call for searing—whatever it is that they decide to call it.

    How to Sear Practically Anything

  1. Use the right pan.

A properly constructed pan on a properly sized burner eliminates any trouble with heat fluctuation. Foods will brown quickly and evenly, even when you add cold, dense ingredients.

So, the first thing you’ll look at is your stove:

Measure the diameter of your largest burner (the one that delivers maximum heat, in any case ).

A diameter is a line that intersects the center of a circle when measured from edge to edge.

(If you have a gas stove, crank the flame maximally, then back it off a quarter-turn and make your best guess.)

The bottom diameter of whatever pan you use should match the diameter of that burner as closely as possible.

If the burner is too small, the pan above it will form a scorching hot-spot where things overcook. (That mismatch between pan and burner may even warp your pan’s construction over time, eliminating its ability to distribute heat evenly.)

As for the quality of the pan itself, I hasten to say first of all that high-quality gear is never strictly necessary. It just makes learning much easier, and it delivers more predictable results.

I go into detail about pans and their construction in my article on Dutch ovens. I’ll summarize:

Don’t use a shallow skillet.
Do use a pan that conducts, distributes, and retains heat very well.

A pan with high, straight sides prevents grease from splattering everywhere and making a huge mess not only of your countertops but of your kitchen floor.

Pan walls of three inches in height are ideal. They keep in the grease while giving you easy access to what’s inside.

Well-constructed pans have three valuable qualities: excellent conduction, which permits the pan to get very hot, excellent distribution, which permits the heat to migrate evenly throughout the pan’s surface, and excellent retention, which enables the pan to remain very hot even with the addition of a cold, dense ingredient like a refrigerated steak.

Heavily gauged aluminum clad in protective stainless steel does the job very well. It’s less expensive than copper lined with tin, which is the top-quality choice, and it conducts and distributes heat better than cast iron glazed with ceramic, which is the traditional standby.

As for brands, I’ve used All-Clad pans for years and can vouch for their performance and durability. The company’s basic MC2 line is affordable, and it does the job.

Having said all that, if you already have a pan of cast iron (or even one of heavily gauged, carbon steel), then that will do just fine.

  1. Find the right temperature.

I’m going to acquaint you with a handy phenomenon called the Leidenfrost point, which is a temperature that will sear ingredients while leaving you with enough leeway to keep things from burning.

Have ready a glass of water, a quarter-teaspoon, and a kitchen timer.

Place your pan on its burner, then set the burner’s heat to halfway between the middle and highest points.
Start the timer.
Fill your spoon with water from the glass.
After one minute, hold the spoon right over the surface of your pan, then carefully overturn it.

The water will probably erupt into a tiny maelstrom of hissing steam, which indicates that the temperature of your pan is too low.

Wait another fifteen seconds, then try again.

Every fifteen seconds or so, try another spoonful of water.

If after three or four minutes, the water still boils off, then the heat of your burner is entirely too low. Turn it up just a little.

Eventually, the entire quantity of water will plop out onto the pan, completely intact like a fresh egg yolk or a bubble of mercury.

This is how it looks:

That phenomenon was named after an eighteenth-century German doctor who first described what happens to a drop of water when it encounters a surface heated to about 400°F (204°C): The first molecules of water that hit the hot surface instantly vaporize. Before they can escape, however, they are smothered by the rest of the oncoming liquid.

A kind of paradox ensues. The bubble of liquid doesn’t boil off because it is insulated from the pan’s heat by the layer of vapor; the vapor doesn’t boil off because it is held in place by the bubble.

(The whole thing does finally evaporate after about seventy seconds.)

Any hot surface whose temperature is below 400° simply causes water to boil away. Any surface hotter than that temperature, on the other hand, causes water to form not just one Leidenfrost bubble but several.

So, once you’ve achieved a single globule of water, gliding around the surface of your pan:

Note the amount of time that it took for your pan to reach the target temperature. Note the stove setting, as well.
Turn off the stove, then remove your pan.
Allow the pan to cool completely, then put it back onto the burner.
Set the burner back to the setting you recorded, set the timer, then perform your test all over again.
Note the precise amount time that it takes that pan on that burner at that setting to reach the Leidenfrost point.

From now on, all you’ll have to do is put the pan on the stove, crank the heat, and set the timer. No more guesswork.

Oil heated to the Leidenfrost point cauterizes the proteins and starches of your ingredients, binding them very quickly with one another before they do so with the molecules of your pan—before they “stick,” in other words.

So, pre-heating your pan has nothing to do with sealing “pores” in the metal, as you may have read.

The cooking oil itself isn’t a good gauge of its own temperature, incidentally. You can’t simply wait for hot oil to “shimmer,” as recipe-writers so often advise. The shimmering point of many cooking oils is fully 100°F (38°C) below the Leidenfrost point.

If you wait for the oil to “smoke,” on the other hand, then your pan is too hot. The smoking point of an oil is a signal that it’s on the verge of spontaneous ignition, in any case. You’re about to have a little campfire right in front of your face.

  1. Use the right kind of oil.

Which kind do you use? The answer is simple:

Use an oil whose smoking point is higher than the Leidenfrost point.

These include, from greatest to least heat-resistance:

Refined safflower oil

Refined “extra-light” (not “extra-virgin”) olive oil

Refined peanut and corn oils

Refined sunflower oil

Refined canola oil

Refined oils have been extracted using chemical solvents, then bleached and deodorized to remove anything that would spoil the oil’s heat tolerance. As long as they’re fresh, such oils are tasteless, odorless, and they do the job.

You might worry that such a process imparts certain unhealthful properties. That kind of thing concerns me, too. I haven’t been able to find conclusive evidence either way, however.

Feel free nevertheless to use the following traditional alternatives, which work very well:

Clarified butter (i.e., ghee), which tolerates heat as well as peanut and corn oils

Rendered beef tallow, which is equivalent to canola oil

In my Basic Inventory, I recommend keeping on hand a “high-temperature” oil or fat of some kind. Pick one of the above and keep it in your pantry.

Those oils and fats are simply cooking mediums. You’ll discard them after searing. Very little will wind up in the final dish.

  1. Use the right amount of oil.

How much to use?

Put enough oil into your pre-heated pan to nearly cover its bottom surface.

You don’t need to fill the pan entirely, since your ingredients will displace some of the oil.

Using enough to nearly cover the pan, on the other hand, is probably a few tablespoons too many. It’s a simple method of measurement, however, and it prevents you from pouring in entirely too much.

After all, you don’t want to end up deep-frying your foods, in which case the drippings of your ingredients would just float around uselessly, never clinging to the surface of your pan, where they might brown nicely and form the foundation of whatever sauce or broth that follows.

And that brings me to Teflon pans, which I don’t recommend, since non-stick materials prevent adhesion so well that not even drippings stick.

If you take the time to learn the simple technique for searing, then you’ll be able to prevent your ingredients from sticking without having to accept a lifetime of lackluster food.

  1. Dry your ingredients.
Whatever you put into the pre-heated oil must be dry.

That’s a matter of safety, first of all, since moisture splatters in all directions when it contacts hot oil.

Moisture also deprives your pan of the heat necessary to brown things quickly and efficiently.

That’s because browning is the result of another handy phenomenon, called the Maillard (my-YAHR) reaction, named after a Frenchman, this time, who first described the effect that high heat has on amino acids and sugars, causing them to undergo a series of chemical chain reactions that yield delicious flavors.

The Maillard reaction requires temperatures much higher than that of boiling water, which is why boiled foods don’t brown. A hot pan won’t brown foods, either, until the surface moisture has completely evaporated from each ingredient. The sooner that occurs, the faster that things will sear.

Steam carries away so much heat, in fact, that large quantities of it can even cause a temperature crash in your pan, bringing all sizzling to a halt. Having a properly constructed pan is a big help. Having quality ingredients is a big help, too: “Air-cooled” chickens, for example, aren’t water-logged like the typical, commercial variety.

So, the dryness of an ingredient is what keeps your pan nice and hot, not an ingredient’s temperature. Feel free to take a steak straight out of the fridge, as long as you’ve patted it dry. You don’t have to bring it to “room temperature,” as recipe-writers constantly advise.

What they actually mean by that, by the way, is to leave your meat out on a countertop for twenty minutes, which doesn’t succeed at all in bringing it to room temperature, only in warming its surface by a few degrees. If you actually left raw meat sitting out long enough for its interior to achieve 68°F (20°C)—room temperature—the meat would spoil.

(If Monsieur le Chef is the one telling you to leave your meat out on the counter, then that’s probably a legacy from his forebears of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Câreme didn’t have paper towels, after all; leaving meat out in the open air for a few minutes was probably the easiest way to dry it off. So, that was the method beat into generations of culinary titans, including Monsieur le Chef when he was a child apprentice, and probably what he now beats into his unpaid interns.)

  1. Pay attention.

Your pan is hot. The oil is in place. Now is the time to add your ingredients.

It’s also the perfect opportunity to pause for a moment and consider the mutilating effects of scalding oil—on you, that is, not your beef steaks.

Never simply plop your ingredients into the hot oil. Avoid making the oil splash at all, in fact.

Keep away from the pan, in general. Pockets of moisture, especially in chicken skin, have a tendency to explode like small firecrackers. In my list of basic kitchen tools you’ll see extra-long, 16-inch tongs. Now is a good time to use those.

Make sure that the handle of your pan faces the back of the stove, that it isn’t sticking out like a turnstile waiting to catch a passerby.

Get the kids out of the kitchen. Get the dog out of the kitchen. Stop trying to do two things at once, damn it, put down the phone. Focus.


Gently set each ingredient into the pan.
Ensure that nothing is touching, so that each item can shed its vapor efficiently.
Take care not to leave large gaps, however, as drippings can easily burn in those hot, empty spaces.

And that’s it. All you have to do is wait. In a minute or so, lighter fare like flattened chicken breasts will be ready to turn. Denser items like sirloin steaks typically stick at first, then gradually free themselves as they more completely brown.

When you’ve removed the last item:

Turn down the heat a little and wait for the moisture in the pan to quit splattering.

The drippings are still evaporating at this point, and you’ll see the pan darken as that essence gradually caramelizes. You’re capturing everything that your ingredients had to give.

As soon as that splattering stops:

Turn off the heat, then pour the cooking oil into a heat-proof container, such as a Pyrex pitcher.
Using your tongs—never your fingers—gently slide the container to the back of the stove.

After a quarter of an hour or so, it will be safe enough to pour into the trash.

(Don’t pour it down the drain, where it will clog your pipes—especially if you’ve seared meats, in which case the oil will be full of saturated fat, and congeal like axle grease.)

And that’s it.

Guided by Whim, Not Recipe
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