Searing may seem more like an art than science – I mean, just look at that beautiful brown patina on a perfectly seared steak or the umami rich crust on a scallop. But what’s happening in the pan to create that color is in fact one of the most important chemical reactions in cooking.
The Maillard reaction is an interaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that browns food and gives it that roasty, toasty flavor. This process is essential to cooking, not only because it lends color, but because it creates hundreds of ester molecules that give rise to an array of aromas and flavors. Seared proteins, toast, and even chocolate and beer all owe their flavor complexity to this process.
When it comes to searing, every protein reacts differently, so learning the basics of proper technique can mean the difference between a restaurant-quality filet and a disappointing dinner. That’s why Hestan Cue is here to show you some simple tricks that can improve your searing skills:
Scallops – Brine & Dry
You may be familiar with brining your Thanksgiving turkey, but have you ever tried brining scallops? Most store-bought scallops are soaked in a phosphate solution that causes them to retain water. Dry heat is key to getting the ideal sear, so when you put a scallop straight from the bag into a hot pan, it will release this retained water and leave you with rubbery, pale scallops. To prevent this, we simply soak the scallops in a light brine (5% salinity), then thoroughly dry each scallop with paper towel before searing in hot oil. This helps to achieve a perfect, golden brown crust that contrasts beautifully with the scallop’s tender, sweet interior.
Steak – All About the Oil
Chefs sear their proteins over a dry, high heat to capture the magic of Maillard as quickly as possible. But as anyone who’s fried an egg in an unoiled pan knows, the Maillard isn’t the only reaction occurring. The food also reacts to the pan.
Oil creates a thin, super-heated barrier above the pan so you can rapidly denature and coagulate the proteins on the bottom of your steak before it even contacts the cooking surface. Though essential, oil should be used sparingly – use just enough to coat the bottom of the pan.
Salmon – Patience is a Virtue
One of the most important lessons of cooking, and possibly the hardest to master, is patience. No matter your experience level, there’s an urge to poke, prod, stir, but oftentimes the best thing you can do as a cook is simply let it be. Nothing highlights this better than searing crispy skin fish. When you sear salmon, or any skin-on fish filet, the rules are deceptively simple — get the pan screaming hot (but not smoking), add your filet, and then don’t touch it.
By moving the filet, you lose valuable heat and break the contact between protein and pan that is so crucial to color. Not to mention, if you try to move the filet before the skin’s proteins have coagulated and browned, you’ll be left with the best part still in the pan. It’s hard to know exactly when that heat transfer is complete and chef’s spend countless hours over the stove learning exactly that. But don’t worry – we’ve tested all of our sears to get it down pat, so now all you have to do is practice some patience.