Ever wonder how your favorite restaurants prepare chicken with perfectly crispy skin, steaks that are evenly medium rare all the way through, and fish that is seared to perfection while being perfectly cooked and delicate inside? It’s not some kind of cooking magic, no. It’s a really simple method called Pan Roasting and I am going to tell you how to do it. Read and re-read this whole thing before you begin!
What you need:
Meat (pork chops, skin-on chicken legs or boneless breasts, fish filets, steaks)
An oven-proof stainless steel skillet or cast iron pan
Oil with a high smoke point (peanut oil or rice bran oil)
Salt (Kosher or sea)
The first thing to consider is the temperature of what you are about to cook. Meat that is cold on the inside is not going to cook evenly. Ever have a steak that was burnt on the outside and too rare in the middle? It was probably too cold when it was cooked. If you are cooking a thick steak it’s probably good to take it out an hour or so before you cook it; longer for roasts. Obviously there are all sorts of food safety things to keep in mind and you shouldn’t leave it out all day, but for the most part it’s a standard practice to let red meat and pork steaks sit out at room temperature for a little while prior to cooking. I even like to let chicken sit out at room temperature for a half an hour or so prior to cooking. Fish you don’t need to worry about as much because it is delicate and cooks very quickly and it’s more prone to developing nasty flavors when it’s not kept ice cold.
Thick steaks: Leave out at room temp for 30 minutes to an hour prior to cooking.
Pork chops/steaks: Leave out at room temp for 30-45 minutes prior to cooking.
Chicken: Leave out for 30 minutes prior to cooking.
Fish: Don’t bother leaving this out prior to cooking.
The second thing to consider is salt. Ever have a steak that didn’t get that delicious crust on the outside and instead it seemed to “steam” in the pan? Chicken with floppy skin? Gross, dude! We don’t want that. Unless you are cooking a big roast that needs the salt to penetrate which will also spend enough time in the oven to dry it out, don’t salt your meat until RIGHT before you cook it. Salt draws the moisture out of meat, thus creating moisture on the surface which will steam while it cooks. This prevents the sear from forming. I pat everything as dry as I can with paper towels prior to salting and cooking. If you are cooking chicken, it also helps to rinse it in the morning, pat dry, and chill uncovered in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it. This dries out the skin so it will get nice and crispy.
On a related note, there are several other factors that prevent a sear or crispy skin from forming.
1. Crowding your pan. Always use a pan bigger than what you are trying to cook, particularly if you are cooking multiple pieces of meat. Give them some space, you never want them touching.
2. Temperature. You want to get that pan HOT prior to putting the meat on it, but not so hot that it burns the oil. You can test the temperature by pouring a tiny drop of oil onto the pan. If it smokes like crazy, turn down the heat a bit and wait until the oil only shimmers when hot. Burnt oil tastes bad. NEVER use olive oil for searing as it has a very low smoke point.
3. Movement. Never, EVER, move the meat until it’s time to flip. Don’t be all nervous and constantly check to see if it’s browning. Trust me, it is. You will know it’s time to turn it when the sizzling noise quiets down. That means most of the moisture is gone and it’s searing. You can check progress by lifting a tiny corner, but don’t ever lift the whole thing with a spatula until it’s done.
Now, with all these very important things considered, you are ready to begin.
1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
2. Get your oven-proof skillet hot over medium-high heat on your stovetop (but not too hot).
3. Salt your chicken, pork or beef generously (fish less generously). Grind some fresh pepper over it too.
4. Pour a little oil on the pan, just enough to coat the surface when you turn it. You don’t want oil pooling. We aren’t deep frying.
5. Throw down your chicken skin-side down. If you are not cooking chicken with skin, it doesn’t matter what side you start on (duh). You should hear a loud sizzle; if you don’t then your pan didn’t get hot enough and you should let it get hotter next time.
6. Let it cook over medium-high heat until the loud sizzling becomes less loud. Don’t mess with it or move it around. Generally this takes around 3-4 minutes for pork and beef. Bigger pieces of meat will take longer. Once the sizzling quiets down, lift a tiny corner to see how it’s doing. If you are cooking fish, this is going to happen much faster so keep an eye on it.
7. If it’s nice and brown, flip it with a spatula (fish) or tongs (pork chop, steak, chicken). Nothing should stick if it’s seared properly. Chicken should be skin-side up now.
8. Turn off the stove-top heat and put the whole pan into the pre-heated oven.
Now comes the tricky part. Every oven is different, and every cut of meat cooks at different speeds. Additionally, everyone likes their meat cooked to different doneness. It takes time and practice to get this down perfectly, so be patient and don’t give up.
Chicken: This is the easiest protein to cook. I cook my chicken legs (drumstick and thigh as one piece) for exactly 20 minutes after they go into the oven. Chicken breast I cook for exactly 15 minutes (if they are big) and 13 if they are small.
Beef: Cooking time will vary based on the thickness and size of your steak. I like my red meat perfectly medium. I am able to tell how done it is by poking it with my finger. The squishier it is, the rarer it is. The firmer it is, the more done it is. If you are going for medium like I would, I would check my filet mignon after 4-5 minutes. Ribeye I would check after 5-6 minutes. Lean meat cooks faster than fatty meat. Try to resist the urge to cut into it to check because this causes all the juice to leak out. Get intimate with your food. Poke it with your bare finger and learn how it feels when it’s at different levels of doneness.
Pork: This is pretty much the same as beef. I like my pork perfectly medium. If you have never tried a medium pork chop, do it immediately. You will not get a parasite. Restaurants can legally serve pork at 140 degrees (medium).
Fish: Fish is going to cook in a flash. I like my fish a little on the rare side. Depending on the thickness, start checking it around the 2 minute mark. Don’t overcook it!
Once your meat comes out of the oven, remove it from the skillet to a warm plate in a room temperature part of your kitchen (not cold, not hot). Always take your meat out RIGHT before it’s reached your preferred done-ness, as the “carry-over heat” will continue to cook your meat after it comes out of the oven. So if you take out your steak when it’s perfectly medium, it will be medium-well after it rests. Do NOT cover it with foil, this will create trapped steam and all that crispy skin and sear will become mush. Just let it be. Let all of your meat rest for about 5 minutes before serving. Fish you can serve immediately as it will get cold quickly.
That’s it! This is really easy to do once you get the hang of it and you will be cooking restaurant-quality meals in no time. I will cover pan-sauce another time, but that will be your next step once you’ve mastered pan-roasting. Bon Appetit!