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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!