When I became the chef at The Herbfarm Restaurant in 1990, I inherited an unusually simple herb crusting technique for meat from the restaurant’s co-owner and founding chef, Ron Zimmerman. Most herb crusting recipes I’d seen involved coating the meat with mustard or combining fresh herbs with breadcrumbs, but Ron’s method for rack of lamb was one step easier. He chopped up some parsley, rosemary, and sage and rolled the meat right in the herbs, and then he seared the meat in olive oil and roasted it to a juicy medium rare. The result was the best lamb I’d ever eaten—the herbs turned into a deep brown crust with a mouthwatering toasty flavor, and the tender meat picked up the pure, fresh herb flavor. Twelve years later, I still cook whole rack of lamb this way, but I’ve also adapted the technique for thin, tender cuts of meat so all the cooking can take place on the stovetop. The method is utterly simple and quick, and it’s a great way to use the fragrant sprigs from your backyard herb-garden.
Choose thin, individual cuts of meat
My basic method is most effective on thin cuts, such as chops, cutlets, and medallions. These have lots of surface area in proportion to their weight so the herb crust makes a big contribution of flavor to each bite. And because these cuts cook quickly, the meat is usually done by the time the herbs are browned.
Tender and lean cuts are top choices, including pork loin chops, lamb rib chops, beef tenderloin steaks or medallions, and boneless, skinless chicken or turkey breast. You can also use these herb crusts for firm, meaty fish, such as thick tuna steaks, sea bass, monkfish, or swordfish.
Choosing the right herbs
When selecting herbs for coating meat, pick those that can hold onto their flavor in the intense heat of a sauté pan. Robust herbs like rosemary, sage, and thyme have strong flavors that become mellow and toasty when browned in olive oil. These types of hardy-leaved herbs make excellent additions to an herb crust.
Some soft-leaved herbs are good as well. Mint, oregano, and marjoram, for example, pack enough flavor to survive the searing heat. But very tender herbs like basil, cilantro, chervil, and dill won’t hold up.
Parsley is essential. If you made the crust solely with robust herbs like rosemary and sage, their resinous quality would overwhelm the meat. I think of parsley as the breadcrumb of the herb world. It adds volume to the herb crust, it quiets the resinous aspect of other herbs, and it contributes a savory fresh green flavor of its own. I generally use about twice as much parsley as I do all the other herbs combined (so if I’m using 1/4-cup combined rosemary and thyme, I’ll bulk it up with 1/2-cup parsley). I prefer flat-leaf parsley because it has a finer texture and is easier to chop, but curly parsley is also fine.
See How to wash and chop fresh herbs for instructions.
A wisp of smoke means it’s time to start cooking
There are two keys to cooking herb-crusted meats on the stovetop. The first is to use a little more olive oil than you might think, enough to generously coat the bottom of the pan. Don’t cut back; it’s crucial to creating a firm and nutty-tasting crust. Second, let the oil heat up. If it isn’t very hot, the herbs will stick to the pan instead of the meat (although some of the herbs will fall off the meat and into the pan no matter what you do).
Be ready to go when you see the first wisp of smoke rising from the oil. You’ll need tongs to carefully pick up a piece of meat and gently lower it into the pan, front to back, to avoid splattering the oil. (Searing the herbs and meat can produce some smoke, so turn on the kitchen exhaust fan.) The meat needs to cook for 2 to 3 minutes without being moved; you’ll know it’s ready to be turned when most of the herb coating is deep brown. Thicker cuts of meat might need more cooking after both sides are brown, in which case you can turn the heat to low and cover the pan.