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can anyone give me the secret of browning?

I think I am a reasonably competent amateur home cook: I am willing to (and do) try lots of new recipes for all sorts of things and don't have too many disasters. BUT I can never get it right when a recipe calls for browning things in a frying pan, like fishcakes or crumbed chicken pieces, for example. My results are always that they either start to catch and burn before seeming to go that lovely golden colour, or they just stay pale so long they start to fall apart. It's such a common technique that surely it must be simple! Why can't I do it? Is it to do with....

the temperature of the oil when I put the things in?
the temperature of the continued cooking?
the depth of oil?
the type of pan - is non-stick not good for this?

or something else?

any help gratefully received as I have mulled over this for years!

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  1. Don't use non-stick. If your oil has a "depth" to speak of there is probably way too much of it.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Xantha

      Generally it doesn't have a 'depth', you're right, I would just use a coating to try to be as healthy as possible - but it occurred to me that perhaps I should be trying to re-create a kind of mini-deep fat frying effect. Thanks so much for all this advice so far - I think perhaps the non-stickness maybe my chief problem.....

      1. re: flashria

        Personally I alos prefer browning in butter, or even better a sort of blend of butter and vegetable oil I can get at the supermarket in Europe. I highly recommend cast iron for browning but I know that not everyone is keen on it. Still, if you haven't tried it and you get the chance to pick up something cheap at a charity shop, give it a go!

      2. re: Xantha

        No offense to Xantha, but this advice is problematic.

        Xantha is technically right that nonstick is theoretically less efficient at browning than, say, stainless clad aluminum. But the difference is very small. Also, for jobs like searing steak where you want extremely high heat to create a good crust (if your stove is even capable of this), the nonstick coating can become unstable and thus inadvisable to use.

        But more generally, if you can't brown most foods in nonstick, you'll have trouble browning em in other pans as well. The problem lies elsewhere. And for certain delicate foods, nonstick is actually ideal. It is the choice of many or even most professionals for browning skin-on fish, for example.

        As for oil depth: I'll agree that you don't want your food swimming in 3/4 inches of oil unless you're deliberately pan-frying it (as opposed to a saute). But I see a lot more homecooks using too little oil than too much of it. A lot of people add maybe a teaspoon of oil to a pan and then swirl it around so that the oil coats the bottom of the pan (often it doesn't). This is not enough, and will often lead to uneven browning and burning . You want enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan to efficiently brown most foods. Saying there should be no depth is misleading. Maybe an 1/8th inch of oil covering the entire bottom of your pan is much better for most foods. Food will brown far more evenly if you use enough oil.

        A note on healthy - for most foods, you're not doing yourself any favors by limiting the oil used. Aside from very absorbent foods (bread cubes for croutons, eggplant, mushrooms, etc), you're only going to wind up ingesting what oil adheres to the surface of the food, which is not significantly more if you use enough oil than if you skimp. And since burnt compounds from improper searing may well be worse for you than the oil itself, I say you're better off using enough oil to get the job done properly and then draining or shaking off any excess. From your comment right above mine, i think it's likely that not enough oil is a big part of your problem.

        A few other suggestions (some I'm just echoing from elsewhere in the thread):

        - You want to make sure the surface of whatever you're browning is as dry as you can reasonably get it before you put it in the pan.

        - Make sure the oil/pan is hot before adding food. If it doesn't sizzle immediately when food is added, the pan isn't hot enough. Note - one exception I can think of is raw potatoes, which you can add to cool oil and slowly raise the temp to both cook em through and develop a crispy crust.

        - A light dusting of flour isn't necessary to get a good result for most foods, but it's still a nice trick. Especially useful to get a browned crust on foods that cook quickly without resorting to very high heat.

        - The quicker a food cooks, the more heat you need to get it to brown well. So if you don't want to cook in a blazing hot pan, don't cut foods to stir-fry like bite-size pieces.

        - The flipside of that last statement - if you are browning something small that cooks fast, you'll need very high heat and an oil with a high smoke point. Refined peanut oil is popular for this. Extra light olive oil works well. I use rice bran oil for the high end. Its smoke point is up near 500 deg F - there's nothing you can't brown well by getting that stuff up near its smoke point. This is one application where you definitely do NOT want to use a nonstick pan.


        Good luck

      3. I struggled with this for a while and here is what eventually worked for me:

        1. Don't use non-stick.

        2. I find a medium to medium-high heat is best but not too hot or too low. On my electric stove, the sweet spot tends to be between 5 and 7, or I end up with burnt on the outside and raw inside or something that is pasty and colorless.

        3. Test your oil, I will drop in a drop of something like batter or a tiny piece of meat to make sure it bubbles right away but isn't so hot it starts smoking. I don't tend to use a ton of oil, just enough to coat the bottom of the pan and make things crispy and brown.

        4. Don't overcrowd your pan, it will cool down your oil and lead to food that's more steamed than browned.

        Hope this helps!

        5 Replies
        1. re: alitria

          All of these are essential, just one more thing.

          Pat meat/fish/poultry dry with paper towels before placing in pan. You should hear a sizzle of sorts, if not your pan is not hot enough. Wait another 60 seconds to add any other pieces of food to place in pan if the first doesn't sizzle.

          1. re: mcel215

            Yes this is key I think - can anyone else hear Julia Child "If you don't dry meat it won't brown properly"?

            Overcrowding can also be a problem for many I think - just because it can fit that doesn't mean it should.

            1. re: Xantha

              I've even seen recipes (specifically for skin-on pork belly) that go as far as advocating use of a blow dryer before cooking in order to get a perfect crust.

              Now, I'm not going as far as advocating people keep their blow dryer in their kitchen. Just driving home the point that a dry surface is really important.

              1. re: cowboyardee

                CI just addressed the drying issue in the most recent issue and said that the juices on wet meat exude and burn before the meat can get browning (and thereby spoil the fond) whereas if it's dry the dry surface will brown easily without burning. I tried it (drying off, which I have seldom done before) on some venison chops on Friday night and was very pleased with the result. Had always thought how the heck am I supposed to make a pan sauce with the blackened stuff left after I slapped the wet meat in the pan and let 'er rip.

                1. re: cowboyardee

                  I've seen that recco for preparing brined turkey for the deep fryer, too. Gets it crispier and also prevents excessive splattering when lowering into hot oil. I just leave it in the fridge uncovered overnight first, after drying with paper towels.

          2. In addition to all the other good tips from others, after drying, sometimes a dusting of Wondra or a dip into flour will aid pan searing/browning, with scallops, for instance.

            1. Something else.:

              Use the oil of your choice,

              but at a certain point add a good nut of butter,

              what ever is in the pan will quickly take on the golden hue you seek.

              1. Another thing that might help if you're not already doing it is to bring your protein to room temp before cooking. Sometimes when it's too cold, the temp differential between your pan and the meat can create steam, which also prevents proper browning.

                1. well, i only have non-sticks (for shame) and never have the problems described in browning...

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: mariacarmen

                    My browning powers don't seem to be diminished by non-stick either.
                    The secret for me is making sure the oil is hot enough, and not bothering the food while it's browning.

                    1. re: Samalicious

                      I agree with using the nonstick if the goal is pan-frying rather than roasting, and second the point about letting the meat come to room temp, then patting it dry. I use very little oil. To check its temperature, dip the end of a wooden spoon or skewer into the oil - if there is bubbling, it's hot enough. You will notice in any pan, no matter how flat the bottom, that the oil migrates toward the sides of the pan, leaving the center covered by little or no oil. If you don't want to use enough oil to keep the center covered, be sure to put your first pieces of meat in at the edges, which will force some oil back to the middle. Another way to limit the oil while maintaining the browning is to oil the food rather than the pan.

                      You need a decent amount of thermal mass regardless of the type of metal, and slow preheating (10 minutes or more) over low to medium heat. You'll get much steadier, even cooking. This may seem trivial but was the key to ending my problems with scorching or under-browning/steaming.

                  2. All good advice, but here's one more thing. Cast iron is nice but not necessary, but make sure you've got a decent, fairly heavy-bottomed pan--something that holds heat well and evenly. Thin, cheap pans make it very hard to control the heat which can lead to burning.

                    1. Browning or searing something like steak is quite different from browning something like a fishcake or breaded fish.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: paulj

                        True, though a lot of the same advice applies (make sure the surface is dry; make sure the pan is hot enough).

                        Incidentally, after years of browning steaks in a dry pan (usually cast iron) heated as high as I could get it (broiler, then stovetop - and one of the very few advantages of my electric stovetop is that it gets HOT), I improved my method by putting oil on the surface of the steak before adding it to the pan. But after a while of messing around with that, I found that I got an even better crust by using oil liberally in the pan, but making sure the oil has a very high smoke point and is near-smoking before I added the steak. Goes against the more common advice, I know. But try it out if you (or anyone else) haven't yet.

                      2. I have not read through all the other responds, but here are mine.

                        Nonstick pans are usually not ideal for browning foods, but given the fact that you said "start to catch and burn", then it probably is not the problem.

                        My guess is that you may overheat the pan way too hot. As such, the foods go too quickly from raw to burn. You certainly don't want the oil too cold either, but if you have it cold, then I cannot imagine you have a "burn" problem, so I am guessing that you are on the other side.

                        If you have way too little oil, then that can also cause some challenges, but if you have enough oil to coat the pan, then you should still be sufficient for browning the foods. Fishcakes and crumbled chicken pieces do absorb more oil and therefore require slightly more oil to fry. If you cannot see any oil while you are frying the foods, then just add a little bit more.

                        1. Browning is no longer done; things are now "caramelized". In the old days, we used to put some oil in a pan, get it hot, and put the food in until it turned brown.

                          1 Reply
                          1. In addition to the other variables discussed here, I think of two different issues regarding your examples--fish cakes and chicken pieces.

                            An enemy of browning is moisture. For fishcakes, it's generally not so problematic, because unless you're trying to brown a crowded pan of fishcakes, there will be space for moisture to evaporate away and begin the browning. If your fishcakes are burning, therefore, your heat is probably too high and/or your pan is poor quality. You might also be lacking in oil. Also, for fishcakes, I find that finishing them in the oven after browning is a good way to cook the inside without overdoing the outside. The oven dramatically slows the browning effect relative to interior temp.

                            With crumbled chicken pieces, however, there is a high probability that you're crowding the pan and that the chicken itself is fighting you, Especially if you use supermarket chicken injected with salty solution, it will spend the first phase of cooking throwing off almost as much moisture as liquid-packed scallops. The meat will steam to over-doneness way before the outside will begin browning. I don't think it makes sense to speak of literally browning crumbled chicken pieces at all.

                            1. You can brown or sear in either stainless steel or non stick pans. In general, if you want to make a sauce from the frond and drippings, use stainless steel. If you don't, you can use a non stick pan. Non stick pans tend to be thinner and don't spread the heat as well.

                              I suspect you are having trouble finding the right temperature. It will be somewhere between medium and medium high. Use your ears. If it is really loud, it is probably too hot. If you can't hear it frying, it is too low.

                              Pat the meat with paper towels to dry it. I have even seen people put meat in the fridge with no cover for a few minutes to dry out the meat a little.

                              Butter is nice with seafood like your crab cakes. However, I would use clarified butter for this or mix it with an oil that has a higher smoke point. The milk solids in butter burn at sauteing temperatures but clarified butter has a much higher smoke point.

                              Oh, two more very important things about searing. Preheat the pan before adding the meat then leave it alone for at least 2 - 3 minutes then flip it. If you keep playing with the meat and moving it around, it won't sear.

                              1. I had the same problem for thirty-some years, until I scored my first tinned copper skillet. Browning has now become simply a matter of doing it or not, whichever I prefer. An omelet in butter will stay pale if I want it, or light gold, or gold, or tan - that's as dark as we want our eggs. Corned beef hash, always impossible for me to get right, now becomes crusty with ridiculous ease. Latkes, mashed potato cakes, sand dabs, schnitzels - piece of cake. Like with Teflon, one ought to use nylon or wooden tools, though a carefully wielded spatula is okay. Unlike iron, my other favorite, when I'm done I can run water right in there, scrub with some detergent, rinse, and hang it up. Then go eat.

                                I've found these in estate and yard sales, and some have needed to be re-tinned. That's not cheap, and good tinners can be hard to find, but I still have less invested in the two re-tinned pans (skillet and sauté pan) than in the one All-Clad pan I don't use any more …

                                1. thank you all so much for taking the time to give me such brilliant detailed advice - loads to think about but I think a new better-quality pan has to be high on the list