How to, What to, When to Sear
Jim Berman CCI
Searing is profoundly necessary in the contemporary kitchen. Quick hits of serious heat can be a formidable technique for the right ingredients. And you can get some outlandish results. So why does searing prove elusive to even some otherwise competent cooks?
Fundamentally, the searing experience should start with a screaming hot sauté pan and a trace amount of high temperature-tolerant oil. The pan, preferably steel or cast iron should be dashed with a coating of fat. I stay away from the non-stick variety of pan, though; there has been talk about some funky chemical break-down going on with the coating of non-stick pans at the higher heat range. And, quite honestly, steel does searing a respectable job. What does that respectable job look like? Brown in color, crisp in texture and aromatic in the nose. Brown is defined as not black and not pasty white, paltry suntanned or soothing taupe. Rather, rich brown that can be crunched, felt and experienced. Anything short of caramel colored is wrong. It is.
To get the most from searing, the surface of, say, those little pearly scallops should be dry. Yes, the moisture on the surface can make for good glue when interacting with the gently fat-glistened surface of a sauté pan. But, more importantly, the moisture on the surface makes for a steamy experience. We want brown, not steamed and limp. So, pat dry the surface of the scallops before subjecting to the cruelty of intense heat. Water converts to steam at 100-degrees Celsius, so we have to eliminate the surface moisture to get the characteristic brown we so eagerly desire for our volcanic pan.
A blast of heat to the appropriate target food item can make for magical results. A dose of lightening-powered fire on a piece of tuna or some plump, dry-packed scallops makes for a fast, fix to some good ingredients. And we know searing works well for scallops and tuna... tuna is almost exclusively prefaced with ‘seared’ on menus far and near. So what qualifies an ingredient as sear-worthy? From Harold McGee’s On Cooking to Alton Brown’s Good Eats, we can find that surface to mass ratio has a lot to do with searing success. A tuna steak is well adept for searing. A whole tuna loin, well, not so much. You see, the heat has to hit the surface of the food item as quickly as possible, work its magic and go away. A quick hit and done. To work the energy through a large, dense cut of meat, fish or poultry would not be advisable and could meet with the most of undesirable of consequences. So don’t. And think protein! Seared potatoes, for instance, will simply burn on the outside and remain lifelessly raw on in the inside.
Searing is a quick-cook delivery method for a one-step protein preparation, like the aforementioned scallops. It is also the first step in combination cooking, like a braise or stew. The application of high heat, in the presence of amino acids creates complexity in flavor, changes albino-white chicken’s saggy skin to a well-suntanned brown and, perhaps most importantly, firms surface texture beyond rubber, gummy and otherwise less appealing than the crispiness of well-executed searing. So, searing the chicken parts before assembling chicken cacciatore is advisable prior to adding the wet ingredients to complete the braise segment of the combination cooking technique. And while we are on combination cooking, adding moisture and the like, searing and sealing are not the same words. Searing does not seal in juices. If those words cross the speaker’s lips, tune out and switch to another channel.