Was anyone else drooling over Sarah’s gorgeously golden chicken cutlets a couple weeks back? I’ll tell you why they looked so fantastic. Because the girl knows how to pan-fry.
Ah, the pan-fry. It seems straight-forward, but there are so many places where you can go wrong, and when you do, what ends up on your plate is not pretty. To get the pan-fry right, you’ve got to get it perfect. Ain’t no half-steppin’ on this one, I’m afraid.
I have tried and miserably failed at pan-frying more times than I’ll fess up to. To think back on all of those beautiful cuts of meat that unwittingly fell victim to my lukewarm frying pan, my overactive spatula … at least that’s all behind me now, thanks to a complimentary video lesson at the online cooking school Rouxbe.
Rouxbe has a super cool model that lets you pay as you go for pick-and-choose tutorials or shell out a flat annual rate for unlimited access. The pan-fry lesson is one of many you can try for free, which is just what I did.
Here’s a recap of the essentials. If you practice and pay attention to these key factors, you’ll soon be proudly serving juicy meats with golden-brown crusts, straight from the frying pan.
MAKE IT HOT
Absolutely essential to the art of pan frying is that your pan is plenty hot before the meat or oil ever touches it. A semi-hot pan is the first mistake you can make, and the most common. Not only will you fall short of that sizzling brown you’re going for, chances are your meat will stick to the pan in the process, which is never good.
As Rouxbe explains, this is because of the movement of your pan’s molecules. As it heats, this movement causes the pores of the pan to open and close. If you add your protein at this time, the pores will bite and latch onto your meat, causing it to stick.
Once it has reached the optimum temperature, though, that movement subsides and you’ll no longer have the stick risk. Use “the water test” to gauge whether your pan is ready (this doesn’t work with cast iron)—pour about 1/8 teaspoon of water into the pan. It will sizzle and evaporate increasingly quickly. When the water drop stays intact and moves about the surface like mercury, the pan is ready. Be prepared to hustle, because it can get too hot fast.
Turn down your heat slightly, add your high smoke point oil (just enough to coat the surface, so that no more than a teaspoon gathers when you tilt the pan), and wait for it to shimmer and show “legs” like a nice glass of wine. Pat any excess moisture off of your protein and go for the fry.
PATIENCE IS GOLDEN
Do not be tempted to move or lift your meat within the first minutes; give it time to form that tasty golden crust, or else you’ll be prone to break up the outside of the cut. Different types and cuts of meat need different cook times per side. Lift a corner to check the color before you flip sides. If it seems to stick, leave it be. In another minute or so, shake the pan and it should come away on its own.
Don’t be tempted to cram all of your servings into the pan at one time. Too much at once will bring down the temperature of your pan, elongate your cook time and allow more grease to seep into your goods. Instead, fry in small batches. The first side you fry will typically come out better (with more even color and crust), so think about which side you want to present and cook that one first.
GET A GOOD PAN, AND USE GOOD JUDGEMENT
A stainless steel frying pan is a worthy investment. It’ll last you long and is easy to lift, maneuver, and scrub clean. Copper and cast iron are also good choices. If you go with cast iron, give it plenty of time to heat up and add your oil when it seems ready—if it is, it will shimmer right away. Nonstick pans and their oil can be heated together, but keep in mind that they won’t produce as much sucs (those delectable brown bits that you can later deglaze and turn into a fabulous sauce).
Don’t walk away from your pan, and don’t be afraid to tweak and adjust as you go. If you’ve got a violent sizzle, turn your heat down a bit. If it’s lackluster, give it some gas. Thinner cuts cook more quickly at higher heat, while thicker ones need longer at a slightly lower heat. Big honkin’ cuts can be fried on all four sides rather than just two, and/or finished in the oven after you’ve got good color.
Watch the color of your meat change as it cooks and give it a little love press with your fingers to get an idea of when the middle is cooked through. If it’s still very soft, give it a little more time. Medium rare feels fairly firm with a good bit of give, while medium should only give a little. The firmer it gets, the closer to well done it will be.
And there you have it, folks! Go give that pan-fry a try.