If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen

Cooking your own food is something every adult should be able to do. Unluckily, we’re not going to be college students forever, and there are no commons in an office building. So, unless you’re looking forward to eating Del Taco forever, you should start learning how to cook now. It’s time to learn how to stand the heat and get into the kitchen.

One of the easiest cooking skills you can learn is how to apply ridiculous amounts of heat to a piece of food in a short amount of time without setting off the fire alarm. If all the heat you’re applying is done in a pan, rather than over a fire, what you’re doing is called searing. Searing is delicious and simple. It might not be the prettiest thing ever, but critics tend to shut up really quickly when they’re eating.

The Science

The main culprit behind the flavors you get when you sear is not “sealing in the juices” or “sealing in flavor.” If the flavors and juices that are inside the amazingly porous piece of meat want to get out, they’ll get out. Lighting the outside of the meat slightly on fire isn’t going to help you.

Rather, the main chemical reaction behind searing is called the “Maillard reaction,” and it has to do with the breakdown of proteins and sugars when they get too hot, similar but not exactly the same as caramelization. The Maillard reaction is what forms the meaty tasting flavor in steak, as well as the flavors in toast, tater tots and even maple syrup.

Why is the science important? Well, the Maillard reaction can only take place at very high temperatures, so if you’re any lower than the five on your stovetop, it’s going to take awhile. Also, since water boils at the relatively cool temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re going to get absolutely no searing if you’re boiling something. To get a good sear you need high heat and low water content, so don’t be afraid of setting your stove top all the way to seven or eight.

The Gear

High heat applications demand the right gear. Whatever pan you’re using is going to have to get very hot, stay hot when you put a giant piece of meat in it and conduct heat really well. Casserole dishes, while great for casseroles and lasagna, are made of ceramic and glass which are such bad conductors that scientists call them insulators. Anything that has to do with paper or wood ignites pretty quickly. So really, what we’re left with is using metal.

Which metal is the best? Copper is one of the best conductors we have, but it’s also ridiculously expensive.

Aluminum is also great at conducting, but it’s also really light. Low density metals don’t have the mass necessary to hold onto the amount of heat needed for searing applications. You can heat it up to searing temperatures but once you put a steak in the pan the temperature will drop instantly. This leaves us with cast iron.

Cast iron is an adequate heat conductor, extremely cheap and, most importantly, heavy enough to bludgeon someone to death. All the mass keeps the pan from cooling down when you put meat in it so you’ll get a nice even sear and consistent cooking. A nice 10-dollar cast iron pan gives you the mass for the heat, the conduction for speed and a giant piece of metal that will last longer than you will if taken care of correctly.

The Situation

Searing is best used on meat. If you’re cooking steaks or pork chops, you should always start with a sear to get a nice meaty taste.

Another great application for searing is with meatballs. You should never let meatballs cook in the sauce you’re serving them with, the sauce can’t get any hotter than the boiling point and you’ll end up with some boring chunks of ground meat. Sear them quickly before putting them in the sauce to finish and you’ll have meatier tasting meatballs with a nice crust and better texture.

Finally, any meat that you’re going to use in a sauce gains a lot from being seared first. Not only will you get a less bland texture in your sauce, but you’ll get a better flavor as well.

The Procedure

Always use the larger burners on your stove to sear, they provide more surface area to heat your pan and more overall heating ability. Let the pan get hot before putting anything in it. To check if your pan is at temperature, wet your fingers and flick a drop of water onto the surface. The droplet should start steaming and float; it shouldn’t be able to wet the pan. If the water vaporizes almost immediately, your pan is too hot.

Once your pan is at the right temperature, brush the surface of your piece of meat with some oil — peanut or canola oil will work best because they both have high smoke points. Using your hands, lay the piece of meat down away from you in the pan. There will be steam, there will be smoke, don’t touch it. After at least two minutes, you can flip the steak to sear the other side. Once you have a good crust on both sides, you can finish the meat either on the stove, if you like it a little more red, or in the oven if you like it a little more on the medium side.

For meatballs, follow the same procedure but cut the time.

Things to Look Out For

There is a thin line between searing and burning, it’s easier to walk that line if you’re paying attention when you’re cooking. Also, when you’re using that much heat, there’s going to be a little bit of smoke. Open a window before you start cooking. For ground meat, you should make sure it’s cooked all the way through before eating.

Searing is an easy way to develop flavors in a meat sauce and quickly and deliciously cook a piece of steak. Though it might not be the most elegant or pretty way to prepare food, the flavor you get from a nice sear will keep anyone from complaining. The next time you get a piece of meat, don’t be afraid of turning it up all the way up to 11, your tongue will thank you for it.