C ulinary 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.
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 learned that day was, I had a lot to learn and a lot to practice. Oh, and the value of a good clonking.
Today, we’ll apply those principles to one of the most common kitchen methods: pan searing. This 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.
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.
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 practice, practice, practice.
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:
• Different pan metals conduct heat differently.
• Straight-sided pans trap moisture, preventing meat from browning as quickly as it would in slope-sided pans.
• The protein: What is it and how thick?
• Burner temperature: What does “medium high heat” mean, anyway?
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:
1. Set a sloped-sided saute pan, just big enough to hold your protein comfortably, over medium-high heat.
2. When it’s hot, add just enough fat — oil, clarified butter — to coat the bottom of the pan.
3. 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.
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.
PORK CHOPS WITH APPLE CREAM SAUCE
2 pork chops
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Canola oil or clarified butter
1 apple, peeled, cored, cut into medium dice
1 shallot, minced
¼ cup apple cider
½ cup chicken broth
¼ cup heavy cream
Season the pork chops with salt and pepper; pan sear them in fat over medium-high heat until done, 3 to 6 minutes per side, depending on thickness.
Remove chops to a warm plate; add apples and shallots to the skillet. Saute until lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes.
Deglaze with cider, then add broth and reduce by two-thirds.
Stir in heavy cream, heat to a boil to reduce, then season with salt and pepper. Pour sauce over pork chops and serve.
Makes two servings.