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Sear-Roasting for Crisp and Juicy Results

An ovenproof skillet and two quick steps give you fish, chicken, or steak that's seared but still tender outside, moist and perfectly done inside

Fine Cooking Issue 31
Photos: Ben Fink
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At Pastis restaurant in San Francisco, the kitchen gets pretty intense when dinner service is in full swing — heat, noise, bustle — and it’s my job to make sure every dish goes out the door cooked to perfection and looking beautiful. It’s often fast and furious: on a busy night, I cook more than 120 individual dinner orders. For many of them, I rely on a technique that I call sear-roasting, where I quickly brown one side of a piece of steak, chicken, or fish on the stove and then finish it in the oven with a brief roasting. The skillet searing gives a delicate, golden crust on the outside — and the enveloping blast of high heat from the oven ensures that the food cooks completely and stays moist inside without developing too much of a crust.

At the restaurant, of course, we use professional-strength burners and ovens. But cooking this way works just as well in my tiny apartment kitchen, when I have a couple of friends over for a bottle of wine and the type of dinner I’m apt to make at home — a fillet of salmon  with a dollop of compound butter, a boneless chicken breast in a crushed peanut crust, or a strip steak coated with peppercorns  and finished with a lusty pan sauce made with red wine and butter. Many other dishes can be prepared this way as well (see “More ideas,” below).

More ideas for sear-roasting

Sear-roasting works best with flat cuts of meat, poultry, and fish that are at least 1/2 inch thick. Thinner cuts of meat, such as veal paillard, or delicate fish, such as sole, cook too quickly for sear-roasting. Try this method with:

Turbot or halibut seared on one side, dredged in minced parsley, breadcrumbs, and garlic, and then roasted.

Tuna steaks served with a dab of tapenade or tomato-avocado salsa.

Duck breast drizzled with a pan sauce of sherry vinegar, beef stock, and a little butter.

Center-cut lamb chops rubbed with garlic and fresh rosemary.

Pork chops served with a sauté of sliced onions, cabbage, and apples.

Veal chops with a pan sauce of rosé, a little stock, and a bit of butter.

Seared outside, perfectly cooked inside

Just as the name implies, there are two steps to this cooking method. The initial searing is where you get good color and flavor; the roasting phase gently completes the cooking without toughening the outside of the food.

Make sure you take the fish, poultry, or meat out of the refrigerator in time to bring it to room temperature so that it cooks thoroughly. It’s also important that whatever you’re cooking is thoroughly dry before you season it and put it into the hot pan; moisture will interfere with the browning.

A hot skillet creates a delicate, tasty crust. You’ll heat the pan over a medium-high flame and use just a little bit of oil. The pan is hot enough when you see the bare beginnings of smoke. When you tilt the pan, the oil will look ripply. But I caution you, don’t let the oil actually smoke: have everything right near the pan so you’re ready to sear your ingredients the second your oil is hot enough.

To get that nice, brown crust, you’ll need to leave the food alone in the skillet (no poking or nudging). But at the same time you need to make sure the food isn’t sticking: here’s where pan temperature is key. You can check by holding whatever you’ll be cooking with a pair of tongs and touching one edge to the pan surface. If the pan is hot enough, the food will slide easily on the light film of oil. If it sticks, the pan needs to be hotter.

A very hot oven produces a juicy interior. You’ll need to turn the oven on as soon as you start getting ingredients together so it has plenty of time to reach 500°F. As soon as the searing part is done, you’ll flip the food over and transfer the skillet to the hot oven. By the time you close the oven door and wipe down the stovetop, it will be time to check if dinner is ready.

“I cook this way every night at the restaurant,” says Isabelle Alexandre, “but it works just as well in an apartment kitchen.”

A heavy, ovenproof skillet is an essential tool

The only equipment you need for sear-roasting is a skillet and a spatula or tongs.Choose a skillet that’s oven-safe up to 500°F, which is the oven temperature I’m using here. Obviously, a pan with a wooden or plastic handle is not acceptable.

Heavy-duty aluminum, an aluminum-stainless combination, cast iron, or commercial-weight nonstick all work well (Analon and Circulon Commercial nonstick pans, available in most well-stocked kitchen stores, are both safe up to 500°F). I’d advise against nonstick for the steak, though, because the recipe involves making a sauce by deglazing the brown bits that stick to the pan.

If your skillet is small, work in two batches. When you crowd the pan, you run the risk of each piece of meat or fish steaming and not getting the intense heat it needs to create a proper crust. If you’re making any of these recipes for a dinner party, you could use more than one skillet or sear in batches.

Poke the salmon to feel for doneness. With fillets this size, a two-minute roast gives you medium-rare salmon.

The pan — and the handle — will be blazing hot, so watch out

A final safety warning: the pan’s handle will be extremely hot when you take it out of the oven, so use a thick kitchen towel. As soon as you rest the skillet on the stove, the handle will be sticking out, inviting you and anyone who walks through the kitchen to grab on — and get burned. For safety’s sake, I strongly advise you to adopt the restaurant kitchen habit of wrapping a dishtowel around the handle, which serves both as a shield and as a warning flag.


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