Dear Home Ec 101,
I’ve been reading your site for a long time now, and I love it. You’ve answered a lot of questions I didn’t even know that I had, but one thing has been bothering me lately: I don’t know how to sear a piece of meat or fish without making a horrible mess of my skillet. I’m talking about recipes that say heat up olive oil till it’s very hot, and then throw in, say, a tuna steak, to cook it really quickly on both sides. Inevitably, I have burnt-on disgusting plasticky oil left in the bottom of my pan, and burnt-on oil splatters all over the sides that I have to clean with steel wool and/or (everybody’s favorite) Bar Keeper’s Friend. I thought maybe it’s because olive oil’s smoke point is too low so it’s not really appropriate for this type of cooking, but I have the same problem with other oils too. Does searing demand this mess, or am I doing something wrong?
Sticking in Stillwater
The reason your oil is polymerizing (turning into that plasticky mess) is your pan is not hot enough. I know this sounds counter intuitive, but hang with me for the explanation.
There is a very simple trick to learning when it’s time to add the oil and then the meat to your stainless steel pans. The water test will tell you when your stainless steel pan is hot enough to add the oil, immediately followed by the meat you intend to sear.
Sometime before you need to sear your next cut of meat take the time to conduct this little experiment.
a stainless steel saute pan
1/8th teaspoon measuring spoon
a cup of water
and your stove
Place the pan on the stove over medium high heat and add 1/8th teaspoon of water to the pan. Observe how it just sits in the bottom of the pan and then eventually evaporates.
Add another 1/8th teaspoon of water to the pan. This time it may bubble shortly after it’s added. You’re going to keep repeating this process until the water no longer sits in the pan but begins to disperse into tiny beads of water that roll around the bottom of the pan. It is very important to understand that this point is past when it sizzles right after dropping, so keep letting the pan heat. When you reach the point where an 1/8th teaspoon of water stays in a single ball and rolls around your pan (thanks to the Leidenfrost effect ) your pan is finally at the perfect temperature to add a good quality extra virgin olive oil.
Swirl the pan, look for the oil to shimmer a tiny bit and then add the meat. That really cool Leidenfrost effect is what keeps your meat (and oil) from sticking to the pan. It takes practice to really get the hang of keeping your pan in this narrow temperature window and you should keep in mind that you’ll probably need to reduce the heat of the burner to prevent from overheating your pan.
The exact amount you’ll need to reduce the heat depends on your pan and your burner. So get in your kitchen and begin experimenting, after awhile cooks get a good sense of this point and no longer need the water test to know when their pan is ready to sear meat.
Remember cooking is a craft and everyone needs practice to get the hang of some of the best practices.
Best of luck!
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