The Sticking Point
Who Needs Teflon?
I expected to learn a lot from my three months in cooking school and I did. Like better knife skills and how not to be terrified of sauces. But I also got some surprises, a few being huge eureka moments. The kind that had me smacking myself on the side of the head and saying, "no kidding?!"
Here's one you may already know. I didn't. Now that I do, I've been saved frustration, aggravation, time spent scraping scorched fry pans, and more than one costly recipe.
Have you ever been pan sautéing something -- maybe you're browning a chicken breast or stew beef -- and you go to turn it over and it sticks? You pull at it. It won't budge. But it's been cooking a while and you think, "it's ready to turn because I can see it's browned." But still, it won't let go. So maybe you switch your tongs for a spatula and you start to jab at the sticking point, all the while muttering, "if I could just release it a little, I know I could get this turned over in one piece." But you don't.
It begins to rip.
"I should have used a non-stick pan," and you add more oil or butter. But it still sticks, only now it's both stuck and oily. Back to the spatula. You finally get it out, leaving behind in the pan what had been its nicely browned surface. It's a mess.
This is what you need to know: the thing didn't turn because it wasn't ready to. Forgive my philosophizing here, but cooking is like a lot of things in life, and you can't make things happen before they should. That chicken breast will release itself only when it is ready. It is that simple. So the lesson here is to be patient, don't fuss, and LET THE FOOD COOK. When you think the food is ready to turn, just give it a nudge. Use your tongs to lift the edge a bit. If it sticks, leave it alone and try again in another 45-90 seconds. When it lifts freely, this is its time. Go ahead and turn it over.
The reason isn't Zen. It's science. When you put a piece of protein (fish, chicken, meat) into a hot pan with or without fat, the enzymes on the protein's surface begin to change. The molecules adjust and a new surface is created. When that occurs, the chicken breast/tuna steak/lamb chop that's made contact with the hot pan will let go and voilà -- the food will release like an amateur skater on the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. (And isn't this another reason why we don't need non-stick pans?)
Here's a final point: if you turn sautéing food too often, it prevents it from getting a good flavor and color because the meat's temperature will drop every time you turn it. It's another reason to let it be. Let the food cook.