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unbreaded chicken parmesan - purpose of pan sear?

My standard chicken Parmesan recipe which is a family favorite is unbreaded and seasoned a quick dip in olive oil seasoned with fresh herbs (a la Giada's Chicken Parmesan recipe floating around the Internet). For years, I have dipped the breasts in the oil/herb mixture, pan seared a few minutes on each side and then baked. A few nights ago I had a big craving for chicken Parmesan but was feeling more than slightly lazy and was no very gung ho to get involved in the whole process of searing and then baking. Though I mustered enough "energy" to do a quick sear, it occurred to me that I wasn't exactly sure the purpose of the sear. If the breasts are breaded, searing before baking makes sense as it is crisps up the breading and helps it stick to the meat, however is there any purpose to searing before baking with unbreaded breasts other than to brown them a bit. Could I probably just bake them under the layer of sauce and cheese as usual and skip the sear? Thanks in advance.

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  1. I think the searing of the herbs gives it a more cruch value than just baking them would. Also I'm sure that it helps with it attaching to the meat and bringing out more flavor in the olive oil than simple baking would. Just my impression based on what you wrote...I would add a lil grated cheese to the herb mixture as well and sear/brown that onto the chicken as well!! Just a thought.

    1. Searing produces the Maillard effect: a somewhat caramelized crust. This is a great flavor enhancer. If you deglaze the searing pan with some of the sauce, that will be enhanced.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Karl S

        I feel like without the maillard effect, you'd almost end up with tomato-sauce poached chicken. It will be very tender, but different. Picture the casseroles that are raw chicken breasts topped with soup and baked. It would be like that.

        1. re: katecm

          Yea, I guess that makes sense. My only dilemma now is that it seems that to achieve the desired Maillard effect the breasts are on the stove for at least 5 minutes total (2-3 minutes each side) and the additional time in the stove to melt the cheese sometimes (not always, but 30% of the time) results in slightly overcooked chicken. Any tips to help the cheese melt faster? I don't like the breasts too thin and so just cut the gargantuan usual grocery store sized breasts in half lengthwise (about 10-12 oz per breast) and so they do need some time in the oven. I usually bake at 350 for 15 minutes (covered with foil) and then broil on low (uncovered) to help the cheese melt, bubble and brown as I love the brown, cheesy, crispiness. The pan is usually up to 8-10 inches from the flame. I always wondered if I should broil perhaps on high to melt the cheese faster but worried it would make the overcooked chicken issue worse or should I broil on low with the pan closer to the flame? Any tips would be appreciated. It's definitely on the weekly menu at least once and I've managed to perfect the sauce and seasoning so would like to finally figure out the best approach for the yummiest product.

          1. re: fldhkybnva

            A sear is *always* quick when done properly. You aren't cooking the meat, you're just browning its surface. Searing chicken or other meat doesn't take long if the pan or grill is as hot as it should be. Could be a minute or two, if you have to turn the meat often, or less than a minute if it needs turning only once.

      2. Searing first definitely has value because you won’t be able to develop those rich browned flavors in the oven. By the time a bare chicken breast gets any kind of browning in the oven, it’s already way past overcooked. Not to mention you are covering it with moisture in the form of cheese and sauce which will inhibit browning even more. So yes, it’s worth your time.

        1. Anything that results in brown stuuf in a pan means more flavor.

          1. Great, thanks. I will stick with my current method and fiddle with the baking/broiling time. Another quick question if anyone has any thoughts? I've always used the processed mozzarella, however this past week I decided to try fresh. I used the Belgioso brand vaccuum-sealed (not packed in water) but still noticed that the dish was much more watery. Is it possible to use fresh mozzarella without this result or should I stick with the processed varieties (i.e. Polly O, etc)? Also while mozzarella does not usually have much flavor of its own and is overshadowed by the stronger ingredients in the dish like the marinara sauce, I thought that the dish was much less flavorful with the fresh mozzarella.

            1 Reply
            1. re: fldhkybnva

              There's a lot more water in fresh, and a lot less salt. It also doesn't shred well. I usually use fresh mozzarella if I want it to stay solid or if I am just going to last-minute toss in into hot pasta, but for this, I recommend sticking with the usual. Nothing wrong with sticking with what works!

            2. I only use provalone to top my chicken parm.

              Packaged mozzarella tends to be quite flavorless and fresh mozzarella is far too watery and will not get brown and bubbly due to its water content.

              You can do a 50/50 aged mozz and provalone if encessary.

              As for teh chicken, i;d pan fry til brown and then toss in teh oven till cooked thru. Warm marinara on teh stove. Pull chicken , cover with hot sauce and throw on cheese and throw under broiler. It's pretty much how many restaurants do it.

              For faster cooking chicken you might want to pound each breast thin and then they can be cooked fully on teh cooktop with no oven. Faster and more control over evenness and doneness. I've done it many times.

              6 Replies
              1. re: jjjrfoodie

                Oh wow, I never thought about provolone. Does anyone else routinely use that as well?

                1. re: fldhkybnva

                  I've seen it done. If you get it in deli slices it's pretty much the perfect thickness and size to top the chicken. I grew up with mozzarella, but some restaurants do it with provolone.

                  1. re: fldhkybnva

                    Provolone absolutely ROCKS on chicken or veal parmesan. Much better both in flavor and texture than your average storebought mozz.
                    I even use it when I make pizza, mixed with some shredded low moisture mozz and a touch of shredded muenster (don't knock that till you've tried it...the richness it adds is truly spectacular!!!)

                    1. re: The Professor

                      It looks like I know what I am having for dinner on Friday. I will definitely try the provolone and mozzarella combo!

                    2. re: jjjrfoodie

                      Here in lays the beauty of cooking is the adventure of trying new things, combinations etc. to produce a product you like and that might be unique to other versions out there. Never be afraid to try new things!!

                      When using fresh mozzarella sprinkle a little paprika across the cheese before placing in the over or under the broiler to melt. The paprika will melt across the cheese giving it a wonderful charred or browned look to the cheese as if it was charring a bit. Another trick many restaurants use to make the cheese look browned!!

                    3. Everyone says it develops flavor. But how much flavor? And how brown does it have to get before the flavor is significant? Is the 'quick sear' enough? Would browning the chicken breast long enough to develop real color and flavor also risk cooking it through and drying it out?

                      I have the suspicion that chicken meat that is seared till the surface is opaque, but the interior is still raw, does not have a lot of color or Maillard reaction. Most of the flavor in the dish is coming from the sauce. But I'll admit that I'm not a fan of the spatter that usually accompanies searing. Plus with large quantities, proper searing without crowding requires multiple batches, increasing the prep time.

                      We can make grand pronouncements, but at some point you just need to test things for yourself.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: paulj

                        I will say this: standard issue American chicken breasts have less flavor than some tofus, and need all the help they can get. Essentially, if they are not browned for this dish, they will be stewed in a red (tomato) version of the classic white ragout stew method. I prefer the flavor and texture chicken that is braised (browned first). If I want poached chicken, I do it at much lower temperatures; superior results.

                      2. When I make chicken parm I do egg, flour, egg, bread crumbs for each breast, then lay it in the pan that's go a thin layer of olive oil. Then top with the cheese, and a little bit of sauce on top of that. It's not like a casserole; it's more crispy. Never thought of searing it, though.

                        1. Any tips to get that perfect brown and bubbly cheese? I imagine a few minutes under the broiler after a semi-shortened bake time would do the trick. Low or high broil? How close to the broiler?

                          1. Semi-urgent...I appreciate all of your suggestions and am planning to mix and match tonight. The plan is: herb/oil coat chicken breasts (I prefer thicker breasts so ~3/4 inch thick), pan sear 2 minutes per side, assemble, cover with foil, bake at 350 for 20 minutes, remove foil and broil on high 4 inches from flame to achieve the yummy crust browned cheese bits. Any last minute suggestions? Thanks.

                            1. I owe you all a huge thanks. A+, best yet!