Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over 20 years. She has cooked on multiple television stations, including the Food Network.
The Perfect Pan-Searing Technique
In a nutshell, pan-searing a chicken breast comes down to just a few steps. You don't need a recipe, just a little technique. A little oil, salt, pepper, and any other seasonings you like, the right pan, enough heat, and you're ready to go!
Even better, once you learn how to sear a chicken breast, you 'll be ready to use the same method on a number of other proteins, including pork, beef, lamb, and fish. So ditch your recipes, relax, and get ready to learn one of the best kitchen tricks around.
7 Steps to the Perfect Pan-Seared Chicken Breast
- Pick the right skillet (see suggestions below).
- Season the chicken on both sides.
- Preheat your skillet and oil over medium heat until the oil shimmers.
- Place the chicken into the hot skillet without crowding the pan.
- Let the chicken sit—without flipping—for about 8-12 minutes, until golden, then turn.
- Cook on the second side for about 10 minutes, or until golden and 165°F internally.
- Remove chicken from the skillet and allow it to rest for 7-10 minutes, then enjoy!
- boneless, skinless chicken breast
- olive or vegetable oil
- kosher salt
- fresh black pepper
- garlic powder, Cajun seasoning, lemon pepper, or other spices of your choice (optional)
Step 1: Start With the Right Skillet
You have a couple of options for getting the right skillet, and it's really just a matter of personal preference. I like either cast iron or stainless steel. Cast iron has been my go-to choice for years, and I still love it. However, I have a large family, and cast iron skillets larger than 12 inches get ridiculously heavy. They also take a bit more maintenance than regular cookware. Not much more, especially once you're used to it, but it's something to consider. So if you cook for up to 4 people, cast iron is an excellent choice, and the first one I would recommend.
Another excellent choice is stainless steel. I have several large (over 12 inch) stainless skillets and use them regularly. They are inexpensive, durable and easy to clean, so it's a win. The one thing to watch for when picking out a stainless skillet is to make sure the bottom is nice and heavy. This helps the pan hold heat better and distribute it more evenly, making it behave more like a cast iron skillet. Heavy bottomed cookware is always an excellent investment, and simple stainless steel is one of the more economical options out there.
One thing you don't want in this instance is non-stick cookware. Non-stick surfaces make it much harder to get a nice golden crust (if not impossible). Matter of fact, I have exactly one piece of non-stick cookware in my kitchen - an omelet pan. For everything else, cast iron becomes nearly non-stick with care, and stainless is lighter in weight for cooking in larger batches.
Step 2: Prepare and Season the Chicken
- Once you've chosen the skillet, it's time to take a look at the chicken itself. Check out the picture showing three pieces of chicken that all came from the same package. See how the one on the left is much thicker? When that happens, I cut the large one in half horizontally to make sure they all cook at the same rate. You'll want all the pieces of chicken to be roughly the same size so that it takes the same amount of time to cook.
- Another quick trick is to pat the chicken dry, since this helps a crust form during cooking.
- Salt the chicken thoroughly. I use kosher salt, which isn't much more expensive than table salt but has a much cleaner taste. It's also much easier to see the larger grains on the food, so you have a visual on how much you've used. I talk about letting the salt 'snow' on the food, and that's about how much you want to use. You know how TV cooks hold their hand way up above the food to sprinkle salt? There's a reason for that other than that it looks kind of cool. It makes it much more easy to apply an even layer of salt to the food, which is exactly what you're after. On a side note, it also almost always means you get salt all over your counter, but your food will taste great!
- Add seasonings. When it comes down to it, salt is the only seasoning you really need, but I use quite a few others as well. Salt helps form the crust on the chicken as it cooks and frankly, unsalted food tastes like a lot of blah. A couple of other seasonings I use on a very regular basis are freshly cracked black pepper (I use a lot—love the stuff) and garlic powder. You can add other spices, based on your preferences. It's your food—make it how YOU like it! Try onion powder, paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper or, if you're not sure, take a spin with some pre-made seasoning blends. Lemon pepper, Cajun seasoning, taco seasoning, or poultry seasoning are all worth a spin, especially if you're just learning how to cook.
Step 3: Preheat Your Skillet and Oil
Now that the chicken is seasoned it's time to cook! It's very important to preheat the pan. You want medium heat - medium heat ensures that the temp is high enough to sear the chicken breast on the outside but low enough to make sure that the chicken cooks through correctly without burning or becoming tough. Every stove is a little bit different, you may need to experiment a couple of times with this technique until you figure out the perfect setting for your own cooktop.
Place the skillet you've chosen over medium heat, and add a tablespoon or two of oil. Pick your favorite oil. I like olive oil and that's my preference, but vegetable oil works well too. Let the skillet and oil heat together until the oil shimmers. You need just enough oil to fully coat the bottom of the skillet, and to move freely if you tilt the skillet. You'll see the start of the shimmer. The surface of the oil will 'shimmy' across the surface as it moves. This lets you know it's hot enough.
Heating the oil correctly helps ensure the chicken won't stick when you add it. A correctly seasoned cast iron skillet also helps a great deal with the sticking, but even without one as long as the skillet and oil are hot enough when you add the chicken, you should be fine.
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Step 4: Add the Chicken to the Hot Skillet
Now that the skillet and oil are hot enough, add the chicken to the pan without crowding it. If your oil is properly heated, you'll hear the gentle sizzle. That sizzle gives you feedback. A gentle sound and it's perfect. No sound and it's too soon. If it makes a loud popping sizzle the oil is too hot.
At this point, you're going to leave it alone. Don't flip it or move it for the first 8-10 minutes. There are several things happening at this point.
- The Maillard reaction - the chemical term for getting a piece of food crusty and golden on the outside is starting. Moving the chicken interrupts this process.
- Not crowding the pan allows steam to escape, further helping the Maillard reaction. When food is placed too close together, not enough steam escapes. The food still cooks, but there's no chance of getting the taste and texture of a proper crust. Crowding leads to steaming, not searing.
- The longer the food stays still, the more time the Maillard reaction has to work, meaning a better crust. This crusting process also means less chance of sticking. As the crust forms, the proteins will release from the cooking surface on their own.
Step 5: Turn the Chicken After 8-10 Minutes
Wait about 8-10 minutes after adding the chicken to the skillet. Just be patient - I promise good things are happening even if you can't see them. At 8 minutes in you can lift one of the chicken breasts to check. Look at the photos in this article to see an example of one that is almost ready, then the ones with nice golden exteriors. That's what you're after. Once you have that on the first side, flip the chicken once. Leave it alone on the second side to let it get golden, until you've reached an internal temperature of 165F.
I use a meat thermometer with an internal probe to test, although I have to say that I don't use it for this simple dish anymore. After you've done this a few times, you'll get the hang of the look and feel of the food, so you won't need to test it to know when it's done. Give yourself a break the first few times though. A meat thermometer is a great investment, and I use mine all the times on other dishes.
The second side should take a couple of minutes less than the first side. This is because the meat has come up in temperature overall, so the inside of the meat is closer to the ideal temperature.
Step 6: Take It Out of the Pan Let It Rest!
Now that the chicken has reached the correct internal temperature, it's time to take it out of the pan. I talk a lot in my articles and videos about the importance of allowing cooked meat to rest before cutting, and I'll explain it again now since it's something that makes such a difference in the final dish.
When food cooks, all the internal juices rush to the surface, which means that the meat inside the food has lost a lot of juices - it's all at the surface. When you set a piece of meat aside to rest, it comes down in temperature a bit - just a little bit. But it also allows those juices to redistribute throughout the piece of meat. If you've ever cut into a piece of chicken, beef or pork and had juices run out all over the place, then you've seen this in action. So let the chicken rest. It doesn't take long and I promise it won't get cold in the 5-10 minutes you're waiting.
Take the time to make a quick pan sauce while it's resting. My next article will talk about how easy it is to do that. Mastering this technique is a powerful tool in your repertoire. I personally consider it one of the top-five most important things to know how to do, and one of the most powerful tools for a beginning cook. Trying it a couple of times will give you an important method to build on, and give you a perfect dinner as well!
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How to make a Pan Sauce
© 2017 Jan Charles