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cast iron skillet chicken breasts and pork chops - what am I doing wrong?

I've tried using a cast iron skillet to cook boneless, skinless chicken breasts and pork chops using the following method:

1. coat chicken/pork with light olive oil and seasonings (I use the Weber Grill seasoning mixes)

2. preheat cast iron skillet on medium-high heat

3. add meat to skillet

4. cook, turning once halfway through the cooking process

Every time I try this, I have the same problem: the majority of the spices burn, turn to charred carbon, and stick to the bottom of the skillet underneath the meat they came off of while the meat cooks. As the meat continues to cook, the carbonized spices start to smoke. Once the meat has finished cooking, it has a "carbony" flavor to it from cooking on top of the charred spices. The charred spices may also set off my smoke alarm. Both of these effects are highly undesirable.

I originally wanted to use my cast iron pan as an indoor approximation to grilling. I figured it was the only way to cook the chicken/pork with a high enough heat indoors to promote browning, as grilling does.

Whenever I grill outdoors, the meat browns nicely without having a carbony taste. I'm guessing the spices still char and carbonize, but the bits probably fall between the grill grates and therefore avoid imparting a charred flavor to the meat.

Here are my questions:

- In general, are spices supposed to burn and char when they are on meat that is cooked over a grill or cast iron skillet? Should I be using different spices and/or lower heat? The meat itself isn't charring, only the spices.

- When cooking in a cast iron skillet, are the spices supposed to char and stick to the bottom of the skillet, giving my food a "burnt" flavor and producing a lot of smoke?

- Should I be using thinner cuts of meat? The chicken breasts and pork chops I cook with are pretty thick (3/4"-1" thick)

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  1. I don't think the CIS is the tool you are looking to use here. Perhaps a CI grill pan would be better? I find that the spices don't work all that well indoors at high heat on top of the stove. Perhaps you should be broiling?

    3 Replies
    1. re: melpy

      Isn't a grill pan just a cast iron skillet with raised ridges to give the food grill marks?

      1. re: Citizen_Snips

        The raised ridges also allow air circulation under the meat, and less iron surface in contact with it. A grill pan would be my implement of choice for this sort of thing.

        I do take strong exception, though, to cooking chicken breasts and pork chops together, at least in a pan. Breast meat cooks much more quickly - more to the point, it OVERcooks much more quickly - and should be removed as soon as it begins to stiffen noticeably. I also agree that the heat is too high and the spice mix needs some more attention.

        1. re: Will Owen

          Just to clarify, the chicken and pork chops were not cooked together in the same pan. They were cooked on different occasions but I observed the same results each time.

    2. Are you using any oil in the pan? Even though you oiled the meat you still need to put some in the pan or the dry spices are going to char.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Eric in NJ

        Will oil in the pan prevent the spices from charring even though the surface of the meat (and therefore the spices) will still be exposed to a lot of direct, high heat while the interior of the meat cooks (as RealMenJulienne pointed out)?

        1. re: Citizen_Snips

          The Oil will prevent the Spices from burning as long as your heat is not too high.
          Almost all Sautéing and Pan Roasting is done with Meats that have the Seasoning on the exterior.
          Even Chef Prudhomme's Blackening method, which is done at very high heat, does not stick to the pan. It is the Fat that achieves this.

          1. re: chefj

            OK, but to achieve browning the heat on a typical stove probably needs to be at least medium-high, right? I know meats never browned on my George Foreman grill because it couldn't get hot enough.

            1. re: Citizen_Snips

              It is very hard to speak to stove settings.
              Here is a lesson from this very site
              http://www.chow.com/food-news/55474/t...

              1. re: chefj

                Wow, I didn't even realize that section of the website existed. I'll have to try that.

      2. When you cook a thick piece of meat all the way through on a hot pan, you're exposing the surface of the meat to a lot of high, direct heat. By the time the middle of the meat is done, the spices are charred. You can avoid this by gently cooking the meat, uncovered, in a low oven, until the inside almost reaches target temperature, about 135F for white meat chicken and lean pork. Then you can sear the chop for 1-2 minutes per side to finish. Searing and resting should take the interior to a final temperature of 140 – 145F.

        4 Replies
        1. re: RealMenJulienne

          Thanks for the recommendation. Does this mean that when grilling the same chicken and pork, I should first cook the meat over indirect heat to cook the interior, and then cook over direct high heat to get the sear, as opposed to cooking the meat over direct heat the entire time?

          As I said in the first post, for some reason I never have this problem when grilling. The spices still char somewhat, but they don't impart a charred flavor to the meat.

          1. re: Citizen_Snips

            You can do the indirect/direct heat thing when grilling but if you like the results you are getting now I see no reason to change.

            1. re: Citizen_Snips

              I do the opposite when grilling chicken. Direct heat first, then indirect to cook it through.

            2. re: RealMenJulienne

              I agree, it's inevitable with anything that you try to cook with a lot of high, direct heat. For steak I usually either wipe off most of a rub, season after it's cooked or finish in the oven.

            3. I heat the pan, add the oil, heat the oil then add the seasoned food.

              Since you're having a problem with the spices charring I'd add the spices further along in the cooking process instead of at the beginning.

              1. Medium high heat is too high, that's one possible reason why the spices are burning. Spices or no, medium high heat is too high to cook or even sear boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Medium should be adequate especially in a cast iron skillet.

                But more importantly, look at the ingredients of these spice mixes. They often include some sugar component, which burns even at lower heats with extended cooking. It seems the sugar components are included to enhance browning.

                For example, I just looked on the Weber Grill Seasonings website and the third ingredient for Beer Can Chicken seasoning is sugar (after salt [#1] and dehydrated onion).

                http://www.weberseasonings.com/wp-con...

                1 Reply
                1. re: janniecooks

                  Great point about the Sugar in those premade seasonings!