Archive for searing

The Finer Points About Searing

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

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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.

How to Sear a Steak (or any piece of meat)

Posted in General food knowledge, Home cooking and more with tags , , , on November 15, 2008 by restaurantouring
The signs of a properly seared steak

The signs of a properly seared steak: even golden brown crust, no gray or dull spots, no black or burnt bits

This tutorial explains how to properly sear a steak (or any piece of meat, really).  Hopefully, this will help beginners who read this post to become better cooks.  For more information about some of the finer points of searing, please check this blog entry.

Lots of foods that are high in protein (a steak, for example) are better when they are seared.  This is not to say that this is the only way that these foods should be cooked, but searing results in a lot of great flavors.  Too much searing and you get burnt food, so care should be taken in avoiding this by paying attention, watching your food and flame, and by using your nose.

To sear:

1)  It is first necessary to ensure that the surface of the food is dry.  Wipe off any excess moisture from the food (especially if it has been washed or rinsed under running water) with a paper towel.

2)  Salt should be added for seasoning, but probably not pepper, since pepper can burn easily and create bad flavors.

3)  Prep a pan by placing it over medium-high heat for several minutes, depending on the pan*.  Cast iron pans are excellent for searing.  Clad pans are also excellent.  Otherwise, any heavy guage pans will do**.

4)  Add oil to either the hot pan or to the target food.  Rubbing oil to the outside of the food you are going to sear is probably the better choice***.

5)  Introduce the food to the pan.

6)  Don’t touch anything.

7)  Wait for about two minutes, depending on how hot the pan was, how cold the food was, etc.

8)  The food may stick to the pan if it has not finished searing yet.  Proteins love to stick, but as foods sear, proteins coagulate and release from the pan.  Check if you are unsure.  The surface should be a deep brown but never gray or dull.  If it is, or if there are parts that are not browned, proper searing has not been achieved (probably due to either water or the fact that the food has not had enough time to brown).

9)  Repeat the searing on all the sides you wish to sear by flipping your food with tongs.  Searing is best done on fresh metal, so flip onto a clean part of the pan if you can help it.

*  Cast iron is a pretty bad conductor in comparison to other common metals used in making pots and pans.  Thus it takes much longer to heat up than a clad pan.  The benefit of cast iron is that once it gets hot, it tends to stay hot.  Thus, it can dish out some serious hot loving to any steaks or fingers that touch it, so be careful — always use a dry side towel to grab hot pans.

**  Generally speaking, the heavier the pan is, the more heat the pan can hold onto.  This is very important in searing food, since as soon as the food hits the pan, it absorbs a ton of heat from the pan.  If the pan has a lot of heat to give, searing is enhanced, thus heavier pans produce better sears.

***  If oils heat up too much, they start to smoke and produce off flavors, since the chemical composition of the oil is compromised.  The “smoke points,” as they are called, of different fats vary from oil to oil and fat to fat.  In general, animal fats have a lower smoke point, so refined vegetable oils might be a better choice for high temperature searing.  Canola oil is a good and economical choice.