Archive for the General food knowledge Category

How to Choose a Chinois

Posted in Books and gear, General food knowledge on December 24, 2008 by restaurantouring


A while ago, during Thanksgiving, I was reading Michael Ruhlman’s blog.  In the comments section, someone asked what distinguished a good chinois from a bad one.  It was late at night and I had work early in the morning, so I wrote a freaking essay in response to the question (I have problems).  Anyway, I’m going to be lazy here and copy and paste the question and my response here.  Don’t be too angry at me for recycling please.

Without further ado:

Semi-related question:

Does anyone have any insight on what distinguishes a good chinois from a bad one, for the purposes of stock, etc.? Is it simply a matter of getting what you pay for?


As far as a chinois goes, it (unfortunately) really may come down to how much you pay. For straining stocks, sauces, purees, etc. you want a fine mesh. A fine mesh ensures that all the tiny bits and particles (bits of fat and coagulated blood in stock, fibers and cellulose from fruit and veg purees, etc.) get caught, especially if you’re trying to make a very clean, refined soup or sauce (carrot soup, for instance). In my experience (I prowl the aisles of every store that sells kitchen gadgets for fun. I lead a sad existence.), the “best,” finest-meshed chinois (what’s the plural form of “chinois”???) are found in high-end kitchen gear stores (Williams-Sonoma, for example). Other chinois that I have come across have mesh that isn’t nearly fine enough for my tastes, and some even had fairly large-sized holes rather than a mesh.
But don’t worry. You have options. Unless you’re set on getting a chinois (which are pretty expensive), you can find fairly good metal strainers with a decently fine mesh that can substitute for a chinois. I bought a fairly good one at an asian grocery store for 9 bucks. It doesn’t work as quickly as a chinois, but I was willing to make that sacrifice.
Alternatively, you can use any combination of layers of cheesecloth, a clean bandana or handkerchief ($1 or less at arts and crafts stores), or coffee filters to achieve the same or a similar effect. Obviously, just be sure to remove as many of the larger particles before attempting to strain through cloth or filter, since they can get clogged quickly, which kills your attempts at straining.
Remember to never push the liquid through, to force it to strain faster. If you think about it, pushing (with a ladle, spoon, or spatula, etc) may force those particles through the mesh, which completely defeats the purpose of trying to strain your liquid in the first place. This is another reason why I didn’t buy the $70 chinois (too expensive for my poor ass) at Williams-Sonoma — it came with a wooden, cone-shaped . . . thing. The instructions on it said to push your liquid through with the wooden thing (it looked more like an awkward and painful sex toy more than anything), which is so obviously wrong to me (on many, many levels).
Get a strainer or chinois of a sensible size. Make sure it is not too small, large enough for your purposes (which may not be apparent until you start using it), and not so large as to be cumbersome and awkward (a chinois is too large and awkward for my small and awkward kitchen).
Finally, buy what makes sense to you. Buy what is most useful first and decide whether or not it is worth the extra expense on a higher-end, finer item. This applies for every item in your kitchen. For me, this means a $15 non-stick skillet (mostly for eggs. I’ve had it for 3 years and there’s hardly a scratch on it.), a 12″ cast iron skillet (less than $10 at a yard sale and I wouldn’t sell it for less than $100), and a 10″ All-Clad copper core fry pan / sauteuse ($185). This also means an $8 serrated knife from and a 285 dollar 10″ Shun Kaji chef’s knife (good Lord, I wish I got kickbacks for name-dropping/advertising). And obviously, as I mentioned, this means using a combination of a clean handkerchief inside a fine mesh bowl-shaped strainer (I use binder clips to hold the cloth in place). I think I get pretty good results.

Apologies for the wordiness. I have a problem.

Questions about Breading Chicken

Posted in General food knowledge, How To's with tags , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2008 by restaurantouring

This question comes from my good friend Catie:

“What purpose does coating chicken in flour before the egg/flour-breadcrumbs serve [in fried chicken]? The egg never seems to stick to the [first coat of] flour, so I never do it. [I just do] egg/flour-bc (breadcrumbs).”

The reality is that the egg never really sticks to the chicken. I mean, raw chicken is wet and kinda slimy-feeling. Raw egg is the same way. When those two things meet, the egg just kinda sloshes around and eventually slides off of the chicken.

Egg sticks to an extremely thin layer of flour. The reason why it seems like the egg doesn’t stick to the flour is because there’s too much flour on your chicken. When dredging chicken in flour, it’s important to apply a very light coat and to vigourously shake off as much excess flour as possible. By ensuring that the chicken is as lightly, but completely, covered in a thin layer of flour as possible, you then ensure that as much egg can stick to as much surface of the chicken as possible.

The purpose of the egg is twofold: 1) it provides a sort of glue for the breadcrumbs to stick to, and 2) it provides moisture and protection for when you’re going to fry it. Foods that are frying have that characteristic, almost violent, bubbling because proper frying results in near-instantaneous boiling of water inside the target food. The water inside boils to create steam which tries to rush out of the food. This is good because it provides pressure against the oil which is trying to soak into your food. If your oil isn’t hot enough when you’re frying, the water inside the food won’t boil fast enough. Or, if you fry for too long and the food runs out of steam (literally), oil will soak into your food, which results in shamelessly greasy food. Since egg is made up of mostly water, the egg coating protects our food from getting too dry when it fries.

Finally, there is the breading. This is partially for protecting the chicken from the violently hot oil, but it is mostly there for texture and flavor. The breading (among other obvious things, such as seasoning) is what sets one piece of fried chicken apart from another one from a different recipe. For example, chicken coated in plain breadcrumbs can be very different from chicken coated in herbed, flavored breadcrumbs. These both can be very different from chicken coated in panko (Japanese style breadcrumbs, valued for their size and texture), crushed potato chips (whoo, trash cuisine!), or even crushed corn flakes (the breakfast cereal). Try different coatings and combinations and see which you like best!.

Cooking with Wine

Posted in Food experiments at home, General food knowledge, Home cooking and more with tags , , , on November 30, 2008 by restaurantouring


The late, great Julia Child proclaimed in the 1970s that you should never cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink.  Her reasoning was that as the wine reduced in your food, flavors concentrated.  If the wine you cooked with had a good flavor, it would taste better as it reduced.  If the wine you cooked with had a bad flavor, the bad flavors would concentrate as the wine reduced.  Things seemed to make sense.

Of course, another aspect to this good wine / bad wine debate involves the tannins in wine, as well as general balance of flavor.  Thus, contrary to what Ms. Child advised, it may not be a bad idea to cook with cheap wine, either.  The idea is that as a good wine reduces, so do the tannins (besides the good flavors of the wine).  Too high a concentration of tannins and you potentially have bad tasting food on your hands, despite how nice the wine was that you used.

On the other hand, if you used a cheap wine, the flavors could potentially get better as things reduced and reached a better balance of flavors and tannins.  This has the added benefit of the fact that if you screw up the dish, at least you’re not wasting all that good wine for bad tasting food.

This all seems to make sense, despite the two schools of thought being at odds with each other.  So which camp should you choose to side with?

I say drink the good stuff and cook with the cheap stuff.  Not just because I’m poor (low level government employees/chumps like me don’t make a lot of money, despite the corruption that is the whole of New Jersey).  Note that I did not say that you should cook with bad wine.  Bad wine is bad wine, no matter how you look at it.  Not much can be done to improve a bad wine.  But there are plenty of cheap wines out there that don’t taste too bad after some cooking — especially if you’re cooking something already heavily flavored with it, like a well-seasoned beef stew or braise.

Likewise, there are plenty of good-tasting wines out there which you could potentially ruin by cooking it.  Besides, if it’s the good stuff, wouldn’t you want to drink as much of it as possible?  That way, you’re getting the pure flavor of the wine, without having all the tastiness get masked up by your food.  Flavorful dishes, like red wine braised short ribs, can hide the more subtle qualities of a good wine more than other foods cooked with wine, so it seems like there is tremendous potential for tremendous waste here.  If you want to cook with wine, I say you’re better off finding something less expensive with a similar flavor profile.

Experiment.  Try different wines.  If you find a wine you like to cook with, keep it in mind.  Stick to that wine if you’re really happy with it, but I say always leave your options open.  Try everything.  Be objective.  Taste your food.  And enjoy it.  Especially that fancy bottle of red you’ve been aging for ever.

But maybe with those braised short ribs, rather than in those beef short ribs, yeah?

Toasting and Grinding Your Own Spices

Posted in Books and gear, General food knowledge, Home cooking and more, How To's with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2008 by restaurantouring

Why you should toast and grind your own spices:

Spices are valued because of their essential oils, which remain locked up in whole spices.  To unlock, you simply grind those spices.

The reason why you should grind your own spices is because those essential oils are very volatile, meaning that they dissapate very quickly.  Logically, the pre-ground spices you buy at the grocery store are probably pretty flavorless already, since grocery store spices are typically months, if not years old already (And yes, this is true even if the bottle still has the stay-fresh-seal intact.  Sorry).

The reason why you should toast your own spices is because the act of toasting sort of “wakes up” those flavors and essential oils.  Suddenly, decent-tasting spices become extraordinarily deep and flavorful, and you really do get more bang for your buck.  Trust me, there is no substitute.

How to toast your own spices:

Toasting your own spices is easy.  Heat a clean, dry pan (I like stainless steel.  I use my clad pan.  A dry cast iron pan or a nonstick skillet both work very well, too) over medium or medium-high heat.  Once it gets hot, add the spices you wish to toast.  Keep the spices moving — toss the spices in the pan, stir it with a heat proof spatula, or just jiggle the pan vigorously on the stovetop, kinda like you’re making stovetop popcorn.  Once the spices start to smell really fragrant, remove the spices to a cool bowl or plate (plates are better, since there’s more surface area to spread the spices.  That way, the spices cool faster and steam doesn’t build up).  The whole process should only take a couple of minutes.  Just be careful not to burn anything!

Grinding your own spices:

This is where things get a little more creative.  There are many ways to grind your own spices.

First, before you grind anything, make sure that your spices have cooled.  Grinding spices that you have just toasted isn’t the best way to do things for two reasons: 1) steam may be built up in the spices, so that when you grind them, the spices get gluey and stick together in a clump, rather than in powder form; and 2) I think grinding hot spices promotes the dissipation of those volatile essential oils, which would negatively impact flavor and be counterproductive, considering the trouble you went through to toast your whole spices in the first place.

I own a terrible mortar and pestle, so that doesn’t really work for me.  My mortar and pestle is made of smooth, light-weight wood, which is why it does such a bad job at grinding things.  If I owned a marble, ceramic, or other stone mortar and pestle, I’d use it all the time.  There’s something quaint, satisfying, meditative, and cool about grinding your own spices with a mortar and pestle.  Just be sure that the grit on the interior surface / bowl of the mortar and on the end of the pestle is fine enough, and to your satisfaction.  Otherwise, your grind may be too coarse.  I should add that to my holiday wishlist: mortar and pestle, NOT MADE FROM WOOD.

When I grind spices, I use an electric coffee grinder.  It’s sweet.  It’s got a rotating blade in it, kind of like a mini blender or food processor.  The blades are thick and sturdy, and rotate extremely fast.  The model I own (which is actually different and more expensive than the one in the link above, yet they perform equally well) is actually detachable, which makes cleanup a snap.  The best part is that it only cost me around 20 or 25 bucks, and it makes things so much easier.  If your coffee grinder can’t be disassembled for washing, you can just run some dry, uncooked rice or kosher salt through it to clean it.

You can also simply use a knife to chop or crack spices.  Sometimes, this is even more advantageous.  Black pepper, for example, tastes very different when used whole, ground (especially when it’s finely ground), or simply cracked.  Cracked black peppers are great for brines and for steak au poivre, for example.  You can rough chop spices with a knife or even lay the knife flat and pound on the side of it with your fist to crack spices open.  Be careful not to cut yourself!

Alternatively, you can put your spices into a cloth bag or fashion a satchet out of a couple layers of cheese cloth.  Then, you can use a rolling pin, a meat mallet, or the bottom of a heavy pan to smash the spices until it reaches the consistency you desire.

There are tons of possibilities, really.  It is up to you how you wish to grind your own spices, but please do not be discouraged.  For the sake of flavor, it’s worth it.

Where to get spices:

Internet sources are probably best for buying spices, as long as it is a reputable, professional source.  Alternatively, you can usually sniff out spice markets in your area by simply looking around (especially in foreign, unknown places).  You can also search for stores nearby on the internet.  I go to my spice guy, Mark, whom I wrote about in a previous blog entry.

Thomas Keller and Michael Ruhlman: Under Pressure

Posted in Books and gear, Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Food in the news, General food knowledge with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2008 by restaurantouring


I have to admit that I’ve been pretty irresponsible with my money.  What can I say?  Last week, I came to the realization that I had been alive for a whole year since my car crash, and I became overwhelmed with joy.  I was so happy, in fact, that when my date cancelled on me an hour and a half before dinner, I went out and bought a knife.

Oh God, that sounds horrible (I’m mentally stable and a very nice guy, I swear)!  What I mean is that I went out and got something for the kitchen that I’ve been eying for a very long time — a GOOD, quality, 10-inch chef’s knife — as a sort of present to myself for still, somehow, being more-or-less alive.  Cost me around 315 bucks.  Irresponsible, I tell you.  But enough of this preachy, sentimental, boring self reflection.  On with the content (more or less)!

After spending some time in the kitchen with my new knife, attempting to perfectly brunoise some onions, I went over to Michael Ruhlman’s blog and found a post on preparing and eating bone marrow (One of my many, many, many favorite foods) and a slightly older blog post about Thomas Keller’s new book, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide.  Reading on, I found that both Ruhlman and Keller would be speaking in Manhattan, at the Astor Center, on Saturday night, November 22, 2008.  To purchase a ticket meant forking over $125, and I was pretty low on funds (especially after buying that new knife), so I (of course) bought a ticket for myself.  It was worth it!  Or at least it would be.  Like I said — irresponsible.  Worth it!

Saturday came quickly, and I spent the day with my friend, Catie (the Editor), and one of her co-workers.  We ate at Shake Shack (but that’s another blog) and sat in a Starbucks (that’s definitely not another blog) to eat and chat. Time flew by and we parted ways so that I could go to this event (Many thanks to both Catie and Cristina for figuring out subway directions for me when I wasn’t paying attention!  To think that I was just going to wander somewhat aimlessly until I found the place — HA!).

The Astor Center is up the short flight of stairs next to Astor Wines & Spirits, near the corner of Lafayette and 4th St.  Upon entering the Astor Center, I gave my name to the girl at the front entrance to confirm my ticket reservation, hung up my jacket (I really need to get a coat, man.  It was freeeeeezing outside), and was offered some wine.


I started with the 2003 Sierra Cantabria Rioja, a Spanish red wine.  I figured that would help to warm me up a bit, after walking around all day in the bitter New York winter cold (Technically still autumn, but when it’s 28 degrees outside and windy, I don’t care what season it is — it’s cold as balls).  Then, I made my way over to the trays of hors d’oeuvres.


I started with the miniature sandwiches, reading the sign and snapping a picture before sampling the sandwich itself:


This was followed by  3 bites of food, each on a little crostini.  All of them were fantastic, the pate campagne and the foie gras (naturally) being my favorites:


At that point, the two speakers walked into the room.  I introduced myself to Mr. Ruhlman and told him that I couldn’t stop reading his books, which is true.  I read The Soul of a Chef in about 3 days and I read The Reach of a Chef in less than 2 days.  I’m on the T’s or maybe the U’s in The Elements of Cooking right now, and I will curiously start to read The Making of a Chef last, after I’m done with Elements.

I also said hello to Chef Keller, but all I could really bring myself to say was just that — “Hello!”  I guess I was starstruck.  And I thought I was better than that (HA!).

The two made their way to the front, where the chairs were set up on the small stage, and the discussion was soon under way.

projection_resize1The two were projected onto a screen behind the stage so that the people sitting in the back could see the action up front.  I would have preferred if they just worked on their sound system, since it was noisy and staticky and you could not make out what they were saying at times.

Still, the discussion between the two was interesting.  Ruhlman asked a lot of questions for the chef to answer, and I took notes about a few interesting things I learned that night.  For example, Chef Keller said that the cell walls of vegetables (root vegetables such as carrots, in particular) break down at 83 degrees Centigrade.  If you tried to cook a carrot sous vide at 82.9 degrees Celsius, it would remain forever crunchy because plant cell walls would never break down at those temperatures (Plant cells, of course, are made up mostly of cellulose, which is strong, crystalline, not soluble in water, and not digestible; pectins, which ARE water soluble; and hemicellulose, which are fairly easily broken down by acids, bases, and heat).

Additionally, I learned that despite being able to hold food at a certain temperature indefinitely (short ribs at 134 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 days, for example), you could still overcook food.  The wonder of sous vide cooking is that meat can still look rare or raw, have the texture of cooked meat, and be overcooked like a well done steak.

Attention was also given to the vacuum sealer machines that they use in the French Laundry and per se kitchens.  The kitchen staff discovered that you could compress foods such as spinach and watermelon inside one of these machines.  These discoveries have led to inspired new dishes, such as the vegetarian version of beef carpaccio:  compressed watermelon topped with a gelled mango puree “yolk” (When I saw a picture of this dish, I was disheartened to see the mango yolk idea being used here, since I originally wanted to use a mango puree “yolk” for my bacon and eggs dessert idea.  I should probably just make it, take pictures, and blog about it instead of talking so much about it.  I know gelling fruit purees with compounds like sodium alginate and calcium chloride isn’t original — Ferran Adrià’s been doing it for at least 7 years — but I was still disheartened).

Keller answered a few more questions by Ruhlman, and then the floor was opened up for questions and discussion.  There were only a handful of professional chefs in the audience, and almost everybody in the audience knew what sous vide cooking was.  I was quite impressed with that response, although I guess it’s not a surprise, since we’ve been seeing a lot of sous vide cooking on, for example, the Food Network.

Then, as quickly as it started, the discussion was over, and it was time to line up to get free, personalized copies of the book.  I hung around for a bit first, enjoying a glass of the sparkling white wine that was also offered at the event:



The two [Ruhlman and Keller] were very nice, and Thomas deviated from his usual message when signing books (“It’s all about finesse!”) to a more appropriate, “It’s all about time and temperature!”  I also managed to get my copy of The Elements of Cooking signed by Michael Ruhlman, although I felt embarrassed to have that book signed at this particular event, since I did not want to insult Chef Keller in anyway (it’s Thomas freaking Keller, after all).


All guests received a parting gift as well.  I believe it is a brownie or similar chocolate cake type treat.  I have not opened mine yet.  I will do so as soon as I take a picture of it in good lighting, and I will post up pictures of that as well.

Cast Iron

Posted in Books and gear, General food knowledge, Home cooking and more with tags , , , , on November 18, 2008 by restaurantouring
fire eater

fire eater

This is my cast iron pan, Fire Eater.  Yes, I name my pots and pans.  Don’t judge me!

Anyway, Fire Eater is a 12 inch cast iron pan, made by Lodge.  He came pre-seasoned, which was nice, but seasoning cast iron really isn’t all that difficult.  But I’ll get to that.  First thing’s first:

What is cast iron?

Cast iron and cast iron cookware is made by pouring molten pig iron into molds made of clay or sand.  The molten metal cools and is removed from the mold, and thus a new pot or pan is born.

Cast iron is tough and durable.  It can take a beating, and it can dish out a hell of a beating too, if you’ve ever been attacked by one.  It’s heavy as shit!

Cast iron is a pretty bad conductor when compared to other common pan materials (copper, aluminum, stainless steel), but because it is so heavy and dense, it can dish out a lot of heat over a long period of time.  When cooking with cast iron, be aware that the parts of the pan directly over the flame will be hotter than other parts of the pan, so don’t be surprised if food closer to the middle of the pan burns or browns first.

Cast iron is elemental.  It is, after all, made from iron.  Without proper care, cast iron will rust.  This can be prevented by seasoning the pan and rubbing it with oil or fat to give it some resistance to water and moisture.


The black sheen on a properly seasoned cast iron pan is actually a thin layer of carbon residue from the seasoning process.  With proper seasoning and care, cast iron’s surface is virtually non-stick.  It has the added bonus of being durable and tough enough to withstand scratches from metal utensils and tongs, unlike teflon coated non-stick pans.

Cast iron, if it is unseasoned, is easy to season.  Additionally, cast iron benefits from periodic seasoning.  Seasoning your cast iron pan once a year is perfectly fine.  In fact, it is recommended.

How to season a cast iron pan

To season a cast iron pan, preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  Gently scrub your cast iron pan with a mild dish detergent, plenty of hot water, and a mild abrasive or green scrubby (Scotchbrite, or something similar).  Dry the pan thoroughly by either wiping it with a towel or by heating it on the stove until the water evaporates.

Apply a thin layer of oil to the pan.  Try to get into every nook and cranny: inside, outside, and all around the pan.  Refined, pure oils work best.  In fact, vegetable shortening is probably the best choice here, despite the trans fats in hydrogenated oils.  This is because the seasoning process essentially “burns” off the hydrogen atoms in the fat rubbed on the cast iron pan, leaving only a thin layer of carbon behind.

Once the pan is properly lubricated, place it upside down in the hot oven and leave it there for an hour.  It would be wise to place a sheet pan underneath the cast iron, on a lower rack, to catch any oil or fat that might drip off the cast iron pans.

After an hour, shut off the heat and allow the cast iron to cool before removing it from the oven.  It is seasoned.

Washing cast iron

Don’t.  If you must, use some kosher salt and a napkin to act as an abrasive.  Strictly speaking, cast iron probably should not be washed.  It should not touch soapy water.  If necessary, use a scrub brush or scrub pad and plenty of hot water, but never soap.

After washing, it should be dried and rubbed with more oil or fat, and heated.  Saturated fats work best, so bacon is your best friend (bacon is my best friend anyway).

If you have a problem with this, do not use cast iron.  If you wish to wash cast iron regularly, do not use cast iron.  If you think this is unsanitary, do not use cast iron.

What is cast iron good for?

Almost everything.  It is great for searing foods because it can hold so much heat and dish out that heat so well.  It’s great for transporting foods too, since it gets hot and stays hot for a long time.  It’s amazing on camping trips, since it is so durable and useful that it can be used right on top of coals or on the fire.  It’s dirt cheap to buy new and worth its weight in gold in the right hands.  Plus, plenty of it can be had at garage sales and yard sales for just a couple bucks.

A cast iron pan, for example, can serve as a pan, a griddle (if you flip it upside down), a fire tamer / heat diffuser if you place other pots or pans on top of it (this works especially well with cheap stockpots when making soup or a stew), a meat mallet (although it does not do this job especially well sometimes), a weight, and more.  You can cook in it, roast in it, and even bake in it.  Yes, bake.  As in cakes and breads.  Yes, cakes!  And breads!

Some dishes just taste better when cooked in a cast iron pan or dutch oven.  There doesn’t seem to be a good explanation of why this is true, but it does seem to be true.  For example, a New England clam chowder just won’t taste the same if it’s not made in a cast iron dutch oven.  Most stews benefit from being cooked in a cast iron dutch oven as well.

Cast iron is also great for deep frying or pan frying because it can stay so hot.  When frying, it’s always a struggle to try to maintain your oil temperature (350 degrees Fahrenheit, for example).  With cast iron, it is less of a problem since any heat that gets sucked up by the cold food you are frying is replaced by heat stored up in the dense cast iron.

Health benefits

Just about everything cooked in cast iron picks up extra iron, which is a good thing, especially if you’re anemic.  Additionally, since the surface is virtually nonstick, you don’t need to use a lot of fat or oil to cook in it.  In some cases, cast iron can be used in lieu of a nonstick skillet.  This is healthful because plenty of nonstick skillets are coated in teflon, which can produce harmful fumes and chemicals when heated up to about 550 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cast iron does no such thing.

What you shouldn’t do with cast iron

As mentioned earlier, you shouldn’t cook too many acidic foods in cast iron pans.  Acid may eat away at the seasoning.  Additionally, soap may also eat away at the seasoning, which would ruin the surface of the pan.

Extreme changes in temperature are also not recommended for cast iron cookware, since the pans could crack or split due to thermal shock.

You shouldn’t let cast iron sit, soaking in water.  Remember that iron rusts.

Remember that cast iron retains heat very, very well.  So be careful around it.  You never know when it might be hot.  Always handle pans with a dry side towel, just in case.  Bigger pans often have a loop cast into the opposite side of the handle.  This is very useful.

Finally, never hit someone with a cast iron pan.  Them shits are heavy and can easily be used as a deadly weapon.  Otherwise, anything goes.

The Finer Points About Searing

Posted in General food knowledge, Home cooking and more with tags , , on November 16, 2008 by restaurantouring


Searing, or browning, is the result of a complex set of chemical reactions collectively known as the Maillard reaction.  It is important to know the method for searing, because it is a very useful skill to have in the kitchen. To read a tutorial on how to sear something, please click here.

1)  Searing meat, in fact, does not lock in juices, as some people like to think.  The high heat required for searing actually ruptures more cells than gentler cooking methods do, so the food you are searing actually ends up losing more moisture than if you cooked the same food gently.

2)  Searing foods and giving it that golden brown crust is good for flavor.  The Maillard reaction results in deep and complex flavors, which can mean the difference between a delicious steak and a very bland, gray hunk of cow flesh.

3)  Usually, when searing food, browned bits are left on the bottom of the pan.  This stuff is delicious and should be utilized whenever possible by deglazing the pan with a liquid (preferably a flavorful liquid like wine or homemade stock, but water will do in a pinch).  The French call this stuck-on brown stuff le fond, or “the foundation.”

4)  Too much Maillard reaction results in burnt food, so be careful and pay attention.

5)  Searing is different from caramelization, because caramelization involves sugars, whereas the Maillard reaction involves proteins and carbohydrates.  Although the sugars in the food you’re trying to sear may caramelize, this alone is not the only thing involved in searing, or the Maillard reaction.  Some chefs refer to the brown crust on steaks and chops, etc. as caramelization.  This is technically wrong, but you probably shouldn’t be an asshole and point this out to the chef, especially if you work for the guy and want to keep your job and fingers.

6)  Do not overcrowd the pan you are trying to sear in.  Overcrowded pans, or pans with too much food in it, trap moisture and prevents water vapor from escaping as it evaporates in a hot pan.  This results in steaming your food, rather than searing it.

7)  The Maillard reaction occurs at around 230 degrees Fahrenheit and above.  Water can only reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit (the boiling temperature) at sea level.  Thus, to ensure proper browning, make sure the outside surfaces of the food you’re trying to sear is as dry as possible.  Paper towels are cheap.  Use them.

8)  Alternatively, if you choose to salt the food prior to searing (and, in most cases, you should*), there may be a lot of liquid on the surface of the food as a result of the salt pulling out moisture.  Some experts advise that this liquid be patted dry with paper towels as well.  Other experts say that this liquid is full of water-soluble proteins and insist that they will assist in proper searing.  I say leave the liquid on, unless there’s a ton of it.  You should probably leave it on anyway, if you’re planning on making a pan sauce.  I doubt the water-soluble proteins will assist that much in browning, since the water will still need to evaporate before browning can occur, but this may result in more fond on the bottom of the pan.  Yay, sauce!

9)  Properly searing meat is not possible in a conventional microwave oven.  Microwaves act on polar molecules such as water.  The radiation causes these polar molecules to vibrate very very quickly, which creates heat.  Since water is the main polar molecule that gets heated this way in microwaved food, browning is impossible since food in a microwave won’t reach temperatures hot enough to create a browned crust (unless you plan on nuking your food to death, but even then it won’t work very well).

10)  Oil can get much hotter than water and so is a very good conductor of heat from the pan or from the hot air in an oven.  Oil helps to ensure an even brown crust and also provides lubrication so that food does not stick as badly to the pan.  Of course, a little sticking is good, since it results in fond. Additionally, once the proteins have coagulated enough in a piece of meat, the food should more or less auto-release from the pan it is cooking in.  Oil the pan shortly before cooking, or (better yet) rub oil onto the outside of the food you are going to cook.

11)  Foods that have been seared or that have been exposed to high heat for long periods of time (a roasted Thanksgiving turkey, for example), should be allowed to rest so that the juices can settle and redistribute inside the meat before cutting or carving.  Heat excites water molecules and meat that has not had a chance to rest after cooking will leak a lot of its juices if cut or carved too soon.  Be patient!  Aim for 10 minutes for smaller items, such as a steak.  Aim for about half an hour for larger items, like that Turkey or a slowly roasted pork shoulder or Boston butt.

There’s no doubt more to know about searing, but I think I’ll leave it at that.  If I think of anything important to add, or if anyone has any suggestions, I’ll come back and edit this entry.  Other than that, go out and sear something!  Happy browning!

* More delicate foods should not be salted too far in advance to cooking.  For example, soft, white-fleshed, delicate fish may be adversely affected by too much salt too soon.  Additionally, some foods, such as scallops, may be “burned” by the salt and develop an unpleasant appearance and texture on the surface.