If your Mama is like most, she taught you to cook things nice and easy. Stove turned up no higher than medium and, oh so gently, coax raw chicken or meat into a cooked state. A very well-cooked state.
This is not the best way to get a piece of tender, juicy meat. It is the best way to keep the stove clean and the kitchen unspattered while cooking that meat but juicy and tender, not so much.
It’s very hard to admit, but Mama was wrong. It’s never happened before and may never happen again, but Mama messed this one up. There, we’ve said it. Let’s move on.
It’s all about what happens when heat is applied to food. Proteins coagulate starting at 160°F. That sounds disgusting, but mostly it means they start to shrink. At 212°F, water evaporates and at 338°F., starches and sugars caramelize.
What that means is that by the time meat develops a nice, charred crust, it has long since dried completely out. And since poultry and pork only needs to cook to an internal temperature of 165°F. and beef between 125°F. for very rare to 165°F. for well done, there’s no need to get it up to the point where all the moisture evaporates.
Problem is, pan-frying slowly and gently on the stove is never going to give you both a nice sear and a juicy piece of meat.
It’s time to turn up the heat.
Send Mama out of the kitchen and turn the heat up to high. You want your pan so hot, a few drops of water will crackle and disappear. Then splash in just a bit of fat, a tablespoon or so. Don’t worry about the low smoking point of olive oil. We’re moving quickly here.
Just before that oil starts to smoke — don’t let it smoke — Mama was right about that. That will cause a nasty taste. When the oil starts to shimmer and look striated, it’s just about to smoke. Throw the meat in the pan, pretty side down.
Yes, its going to spatter. It’s going to splatter. It’s going to sound like all hell is breaking out in your skillet. If Mama is within earshot of the kitchen, her heart will break.
Within moments, your piece of meat will begin to shrink up and turn color around the edges. That means the bottom part touching the pan has reached 160° and the proteins are coagulating. You want it to be about 3/4 cooked before you turn it. That gives maximum sear to the presentation side. It’s going to look pretty.
Don’t think too much about time. It’s about results. When the meat has shrunk some and the edges have changed color, flip it over. Use tongs if you have some. You can stab it with a fork, but you’ve worked so hard to keep those juices sealed inside, why let any of them out?
If you’re cooking beef and you want it on the rare to medium side, by the time you get it charred, you’re probably there. Check the temperature with an instant-read meat thermometer. They only cost a few dollars and you need one. Get one of the cool digital ones.
If you’re cooking chicken or pork, it may not have reached a safe temperature by the time it’s charred, so you have another step. If you’re going for well-done beef, then you clearly don’t have any problem eating dried out meat, so proceed any way that you’d like.
When your meat is seared on both sides, take it off the heat and let it rest on a plate while you cool down that pan. First, turn down the heat to medium but that’s going to take hours. There’s a better way.
You need to bring down the temperature of the pan really fast and the best way is with a cool liquid. Wine works really well. If you poured yourself a glass when you started cooking, slosh a bit out of the bottle into the pan. If you don’t care for or have any wine, use some stock. Even water will do, but it doesn’t add any flavor.
As you may have guessed, the liquid in the super hot pan is going to make quite an impression. While it’s splattering and popping, scrape loose any brown bits from the pan. At this point, you may need to physically lock Mama out of the kitchen.
When the bubbling stops, you know you’ve gotten the pan temperature below 212°F. so it’s safe to put the chicken or pork back in the pan so it can continue cooking without drying it out.
Gently heat until your thermometer reads about 158°F. because the temperature will go up about seven more degrees after removing from the heat, bringing it to the magic 165.
The wine or stock and crusty bits in the pan could be the beginning of a pan sauce or could be the first step with something more complicated. It’s up to you.
You have a beautifully cooked piece of meat to work with. Just remember to clean up the stove before Mama gets a look at it. You know she’s going to have something to say. She may cry.
Deconstructed Chicken Parm
Using the cooking method outlined above, it’s easy to make something that, though technically not chicken parm, contains most of the elements of chicken parm and can be finished in 30 minutes.
Cook two or three boneless chicken breasts as outlined above. When you start heating your sauté pan, put on a pot of water to boil pasta. Also, if you had the presence of mind to make a double or triple batch of marinara sauce last time and froze the extra in quart-size zip-lock bags, get one of them out of the freezer and start defrosting it in the microwave.
If you are not so lucky as to have homemade marinara sauce, grab a jar of store-bought sauce from the pantry.
While you’re sautéing your chicken breasts, cook the pasta when the salted water boils. If you get very lucky, the pasta will finish cooking just as the chicken is finished, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t. Drain the pasta and rinse to cool it down if it’s going to be waiting for a few minutes.
When the chicken is done, add the sauce to the pan, right on top of those crusty, wined-up bits of chicken. Place the chicken back in the pan and sprinkle a good bit of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese on top. Scatter with chopped basil leaves if you have any.
If you’re using a cast-iron skillet or other oven-proof skillet, you can shove the whole shooting match under the broiler to melt and brown the cheese for a very close-to-chicken parm experience. If not, heat gently on the stovetop until everything is warm. Just don’t cook too long. It would be very sad to dry out your carefully cooked chicken breasts this late in the game.
You can serve each diner their own hunk of chicken breast or slice across the grain into slices. It’s up to you. Almost-chicken parm in 30 minutes. Mama may forgive you.
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Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.