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How to Pan Sear with OXO Chef in Residence JJ Johnson

Steak, scallops, chicken, and veggies are made even more delicious with a pan sear. Grab a skillet and learn these tips for an easy, one-pan dinner hack from our OXO Chef in Residence.

10 min read

If you think pan searing is better left to the pros, think again. This common cooking technique isn’t just for enjoying in a restaurant. Learning to pan sear at home is a snap to pick up and it works well for a range of dishes, from seafood to steaks and even vegetables, sealing in juices with a crispy golden crust.

To help you master how to sear, we’ve got smart advice from our OXO Chef in Residence JJ Johnson, a James Beard award winner, owner of NYC restaurant Fieldtrip(Opens in a new window), and author of The Simple Art of Rice(Opens in a new window): Recipes from Around the World for the Heart of Your Table. Read on to learn what pan seared means, which skillet is the best to use for this cooking method, plus searing tips that’ll put this kitchen skill into your regular rotation.

What Does Pan Seared Mean?

Pan searing is a quick technique of cooking food (steak, poultry, fish, vegetables) at a high temperature to achieve a crisp brown color on the outside as well as seal the juices within.

Searing may be the first step in a recipe that then continues when more heat is applied on the stovetop or in the oven, such as when you’re making a braised dish or a stew. But this high-heat process can also be the entire cooking method for a meal like seared scallops or tuna.

Best Pan for Searing

Johnson recommends a high-quality carbon steel pan when searing since its construction makes a big difference. “A carbon steel pan gives you beautiful, even heat,” he says. This skillet is thinner than a cast iron one and it’s lighter too, which makes it easier to handle.

Since carbon steel heats quickly, it’s ideal for putting a good pan sear on protein or vegetables. “And when you sear in a carbon steel pan, it keeps the flavor neutral, which allows the steak flavor, for instance, and the seasonings you used to come through,” he adds.

squeezing oil onto pan

Best Meats to Pan Sear

When it comes to pan searing meat, just about any protein can work. For chicken, opt for skin-on, bone-in or boneless pieces for the best color (skinless is fine, but without this layer there’s less fat and flavor in the pan to crisp). For pork, choose from chops, tenderloins, and roasts. As for steak, a New York strip, top or bottom sirloin, or rib eye cuts are all worthy.

Best Fish to Pan Sear

Johnson likes to sear “branzino, tuna, or swordfish—then you can use a pan-roasting method to finish these in the oven using the same carbon steel pan.” (Another benefit of carbon steel: It can handle the high heat and go right in the oven.) Other good seafoods to sear include scallops as well as thick and sturdy choices like skin-on salmon and halibut. But skip more delicate fish like filets of flounder and sole as these are too thin and may tear when searing.

Best Vegetables to Pan Sear

Yes, you can sear veggies too! “Just pick something meatier like carrots or portabella mushrooms or even zucchini or summer squash,” advises Johnson. “Zucchini and summer squash are thinner but have a high water content, so searing lets you lock that moisture in.”

steaks in carbon steel pan

How to Pan Sear

Step 1: Bring to Room Temperature “Don’t sear meat or fish right from the fridge as any fat attached may start to smoke up the kitchen,” says Johnson. When you allow proteins to reach room temperature before popping them in the pan, they’ll cook more evenly, with a tender, juicier finish. Let your meat or fish sit on the counter for about 30 to 60 minutes prior to cooking.

Step 2: Pat Dry and Pick a Pan Too much moisture when searing makes it difficult to get a tasty, brown crust. “Pat the meat or seafood dry with paper towels before putting it in the skillet,” says Johnson. As mentioned, carbon steel is ideal for searing, but cast-iron pans can also be used for meat and poultry and a non-stick, oven-safe frying pan works well for fish and seafood.

Step 3: Season Generously Stick with the tried and true: A generous shower of salt and pepper is often the best way to prep your meat or fish for pan searing. Start with a half-teaspoon of each seasoning as a general guideline for cuts that are a pound or less (you can also use other spices and herbs, adds Johnson). Sprinkle both sides evenly.

tongs turning scallops in pan

Step 4: Preheat Your Pan Successful searing starts with a very hot skillet. “Heat up the pan until it’s screaming hot,” says Johnson. You’ll want to use an oil with a high smoke point, which means the oil can stand up to a high temperature before burning. Johnson likes avocado oil, though canola, grapeseed, and peanut oils are also good choices. Coat the pan with the oil, making sure the bottom is evenly covered, then carefully add the food and lower the temperature to medium-high heat, he says. Generally, meat and fish should start out skin-side down.

Step 5: Be Patient Resist the urge to check the bottom of your steak or chicken. The beauty of searing is that it’s nearly hands-off and moving the meat can prevent a solid sear. “For scallops, you’ll see golden brown at the edges,” says Johnson. If you spy a blackish color, the flame is too high, he adds.

Sear until deeply browned on one side (usually a few minutes). Next, flip it with a fish turner, spatula, or tongs. “You might have to turn the meat one or two times to get the perfect sear,” he says.

Here are some handy internal temperatures to bookmark so you’ll know when your seared meal is ready:

  • Chicken reaches 165 °F.
  • Pork reaches 145 °F.
  • Fish reaches 145 °F or separates easily with a fork.
  • Shellfish is white and opaque.
  • Steak is 120 to 125 °F for rare; 130 to 135 °F for medium rare; 140 to 145 °F for medium; 160 to 165 °F for well done.

Step 6: Finish in Oven, Then Rest Once you’ve developed a golden-brown exterior, most meats and some fish need to finish cooking. Use an oven mitt to slide the pan into a preheated 400 °F oven and then continue to cook the food to the correct temperature, depending on your preference. Let meat or fish rest on a cutting board so the juices redistribute and the piece stays moist. You can also tent the food with foil to keep it warm.

Step 7: Whip Up a Sauce “Those brown bits that are left after searing have a lot of flavor—turn them into a pan sauce,” says Johnson. While the meat rests, use an acid to deglaze the pan, such as “wine or lemon juice, and then add in some fat, which most of the time is butter, though you can also use a flavorful oil.” Once the butter melts, finish the sauce with fresh, chopped herbs, like parsley or sage. Then, drizzle it over your dish and enjoy.

Want to try other carbon steel pans in your kitchen? Check out this crepe pan that’s ideal for holiday breakfasts with the family and a roaster with a rack for turkey or a glazed ham.

scallops and steaks on a cutting board with chef looking at camera

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