I never fail to get excited every time I order pan-seared chicken from a restaurant and it arrives at the table complete with crispy skin and a perfectly moist interior. Pan-searing is a method in which the surface of a particular meat (or vegetable) cooks at a high enough temperature to brown the food. That browning, a result of the Maillard reaction, results in both a delicious, caramelized flavor (though the Maillard reaction is more than caramelization) and a crispy crust.
The process of pan-searing can be applied to various meats and vegetables; once you learn the method, you can easily adapt it as needed. Ready to get started? Read on below!
Equipment You Need for Pan-Searing
You will want to use a cast-iron pan or a stainless steel skillet or frying pan (not nonstick) for the best sear. Both of these pans are ideal for high-heat cooking, especially getting a solid, browned crust.
There are some exceptions — for example, delicate fish, such as salmon, can fall apart or stick to these types of pans, so in this case, a non-stick skillet is recommended. But in most other cases, a non-stick skillet will not achieve the sear you're looking for, especially for steak or chicken. Moreover, high heat can damage non-stick pans, degrading the coating.
The Best Meats to Pan-Sear
Most quick-cooking meats are ideal for pan-searing. You can start with a pan-sear to create additional flavor on the crust and finish with a braise for tougher meats that require longer cooking times. Here are some of my favorite quick-cooking meats:
- Skin-on or skinless chicken breasts and chicken thighs
- Pork chops
- Steak (for the thickest steaks of at least 1 1/2 inches, a reverse sear is recommended)
The Best Vegetables to Pan-Sear
Most vegetables make great candidates for pan-searing. You can either cook individual pieces (e.g., mushrooms) or cut up a heftier vegetable (e.g., cauliflower) into sturdy pieces. I recommend trying these vegetables:
- Cauliflower (cut into 1/2-inch to 1-inch "steaks")
- Cabbage (cut into thick steaks or wedges)
- Zucchini (cut into thick planks or rounds)
- Brussel sprouts (halved or quartered)
The Keys to Successful Pan-Searing
For the most flavorful pan-seared dish, try these tips:
- Don't overcrowd the pan: If the food is too close together, it will create additional moisture that slows down browning. Use a larger pan or cook in batches to ensure a browned crust forms quickly without overcooking.
- Use a high-heat oil: Make sure to use a stable, high-heat oil to prevent excess smoking (some smoking is okay!).
- Don't be afraid of browning: One of the most common mistakes I see with beginner cooks is that they are afraid of burning their food, so they flip it too early. A good sear needs a few minutes to get a deep golden brown color for chicken or cauliflower, while many red meats, like steak, need a deep brown color for optimal flavor and texture.
Method: How To Pan-Sear Meat And Vegetables, Step-By-Step
Follow these step-by-step instructions to pan-sear your meat, and you will be an expert in no time!
Prep the meat (or vegetable):
If needed, cut your meat (or vegetable) into portion-sized pieces. For example, chicken thighs are naturally portion-sized, so they don't need any prep. On the other hand, a whole cauliflower is too large to cook evenly, so you will want to cut it into 1/2-inch to 1 inch "steak"-like slabs. Generously season on both sides with salt and pepper. I use 3/4 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon salt per pound of meat as a rule of thumb.
Preheat a pan on high heat:
Set a large skillet on high heat.
Add oil to the pan:
Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil, swirling to coat the pan.
Reduce the heat to medium-high and sear:
Once the oil is shimmering and just barely smoking, carefully add your meat or vegetable(s) to the pan. Don't overcrowd the pan; if you need to cook in batches, you can do so. Let sear for several minutes until nicely browned on one side.
Sear on the other side:
Once browned, use tongs or a spatula to flip and sear on the other side. If a proper crust has formed, the food should easily flip without sticking. If you notice sticking, wait another minute or so before flipping. Sear again for several minutes until browned on both sides. For meat, be sure to use a meat thermometer to check that the inside has adequately cooked through.
Transfer to the oven (optional):
If desired, you can transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking. This is especially helpful with a thick cut of meat, such as a steak or chicken breast, where the outside might have perfectly browned while the inside is still undercooked.
Make a pan sauce (optional):
If desired, make a quick pan sauce with the pan drippings.
Our Favorite Pan-Seared Recipes
Be sure to test out your newfound pan-searing skills on some of our favorite pan-seared recipes!