Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Three words to live by, folks: No Gray Meat! Have you ever cooked a steak or a piece of chicken and it just doesn't have that restaurant quality of perfect caramelization? You know what I'm talking about, that beautiful crust that encases a seared or grilled piece of meat. That crust is called the "Maillard reaction". It is the caramelization of sugars in the presence of amino acids. Three simple steps can turn your protein cookery from drab to fab!
Dry your meat. Whether its chicken, fish, steak, the protein must be dry. You can use a paper towel to dab off the excess moisture on your meat. The reason why we dry our meat is simple. That thin layer of excess moisture, if not removed, can boil once the meat touches the pan. This turns your cooking process from a dry cooking process to a moist cooking process. In other words, you will boil the surface of the protein before it has a chance to sear. Once the meat is dried off, you can season as desired. You are a third of the way to creating that Maillard reaction!
Make sure your cooking surface of choice has reached "smoke point". Your grill, cast iron pan, sauté pan, etc. should be visibly smoking. We are not trying to create a 4 alarm fire, just lightly smoking enough so that we can see the pan is hot. Next, add your cooking fat of choice, canola oil, clarified butter, something with a high smoke-point. Fat will begin to break down and smoke at different temperatures. The higher the smoke-point the fat has, the higher the chance we have to create the Maillard reaction. Extra-virgin olive oil has a very low smoke point. Its not ideal for searing proteins. Canola oil has a high smoke point, it's great for searing proteins. The smoke point will be listed on the back of the oil. You can also find out more information here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smoke_point
Once the oil begins to smoke in the pan, turn the heat down to medium-high heat. Always make sure that you have a fire extinguisher handy if you're not used to high-heat cooking. Next, place your dried, seasoned protein in the pan or grill. Your should hear a distinct sizzle sound. I would have this sound as my ringtone if I could. That sound means caramelization is happening, you're going to be a Rockstar to your guests. People seated at your dinner table are going to say 'my God, Jim, look at these gorgeous steaks, chicken fish, whatever'. And then they will lift you up on a chair like its your Bar mitzva. Welcome to your manhood/womanhood/personhood protein cookery coming out party!!!! Back to the protein sizzling in the pan. Do not stab at it. Let it cook. When you see the protein turning brown towards the edges, its time to flip. Flip it over once and only once. Let the other side cook. You can even move the whole pan to a 350 degree oven if its oven safe and let it finish cooking there.
Learn protein cooking temperatures and invest in a good food temperature probe. The internal cooking temperature for chicken and turkey is 165 degrees. The internal cooking temperature for ground meat (pork, beef) is 155 degrees. I cook my steaks to 125 degrees and let them rest. The point is, never ever ever cut into a piece of protein to make sure its cooked to your desired temperature. Use a thermometer and let the protein rest on a cutting board or plate. This gives the juices in the protein time to calm down and cool slightly, and will yield a juicier final product.
By following these simple steps, you too can cook beautiful, juicy proteins that will be sure to please your crowd. Next we need to tackle sauce...because as we say in the culinary world, 'chef wants sauce'. Stay tuned!