Dry heat creates new colors and flavors
If you want the exterior of your food to be browned or crisp, dry heat is the only way to go. Dry, relatively high heat spurs molecular changes in the amino acids and sugars on the surface of food, turning them brown, sweet, and crisp. Allowed to progress unchecked, these browning reactions can take the exterior of your food from deliciously golden brown to bitter and burned. So the challenge of all dry-heat cooking methods is getting food cooked through before the exterior overcooks. The key is to choose the right dry-heat technique for your ingredients (see the table below), or to combine two methods, such as searing first and then roasting.
Searing, sautéing, and pan-frying. When food hits a very hot, oiled pan, surface moisture on the food quickly evaporates, and a nice brown crust begins to form on the surface of the food. A common pitfall with these dry-heat methods is overcrowding the pan, which hinders evaporation, causing food to steam in its own juices instead of brown.
The ideal foods for these stovetop techniques are fairly thin, tender cuts of meat (chicken breasts, steaks and chops, or fish) or uniformly chopped or sliced vegetables. If the food is too thick, you risk burning the outside before the inside is done—the surface of the food receives intense heat (up to 450°F) by being in direct contact with the hot pan, but heat travels comparatively slowly to the center of the food. Tony Rosenfeld tackles that problem in his story Sear, Roast & Sauce, where he sears thicker steaks, chops, chicken breasts, and salmon fillets on the stove and finishes cooking in the gentler heat of the oven.
Roasting and baking. When we bake or roast, we surround food with hot, dry air (300° to 500°F), which heats the surface, evaporates moisture, and allows browning to occur. It takes much longer to roast or bake food than to sear or sauté it because air is a poor heat conductor (you’ve probably noticed that you can put your hand in a 400°F oven but not in 400°F oil or in boiling water). This makes roasting ideal for cooking large cuts of meat or whole vegetables.
Deep-frying. This might seem a lot like boiling, but submerging food in hot oil is actually considered a dry-heat cooking method. Hot oil gets far hotter than boiling water, so it’s able to dry out the surface of food and brown it.
Grilling and broiling. When you grill over glowing embers or slide food beneath a fiery broiler, infrared heat cooks the food. The temperature of glowing coals and broiler elements can be off the charts—from 2,000° to 3,000°F—so you can quickly achieve amazing browning and flavor. But as with searing and deep-frying, if you’re not careful, your kebabs or steaks will be charred outside and raw inside, so these techniques are best for thin, tender cuts of meat and quick-cooking vegetables.