YOU GUYS. You guys. Food. We all like it, and furthermore we like it to taste nice.
There are a lot of processes and ingredients that make food more delicious (grilling, braising, adding salt, adding bacon...) but if I could choose one way to season my food forevermore, it would be through the miracle of caramelization.
Yes, friends, it's our old buddy the Maillard Reaction: the process that browns your food, turning some very lucky bits into tasty, toasty crust. Whether it's meat, roasted vegetables, tofu, or, well, actual toast, caramelization is the sign that your food has hit peak delicious.
However, I offer that there's an even better way to lend a crisp, caramelized crust to most of those things. (Not toast. Toast is perfect.) It's called reverse-searing, and it's the jam.
How did I come to this delicious epiphany? For starters, I have an electric stove. (I KNOW, I KNOW. It came with our house and I spend entire afternoons dreaming of its demise.) For those of you with an electric cooktop, you know that things can get a little too real when it comes to high heat. It's not safe to use cast iron (though I still do on occasion, sshhhh), and you basically have to mentally convert any recipe to use a slightly lower heat when using the stove. When I make scrambled eggs, I'm at a point where I heat up the pan then turn the burner completely off before adding my eggs - the residual heat is that strong.
So: it's easy to burn food on my stove. After just dealing with it for a couple of years, I discovered Meathead Goldwyn's suggestion of reverse-searing. It involves cooking in two stages, which, come to think of it, regular searing does too. But the beauty of reverse-searing is that you preserve the moisture of the food AND THEN hit the big finish by Maillard-ing it up (searing it) at the end.
The first time we tried this at home it was with plain old chicken breasts on the grill - arguably one of the easiest things to dry out and make very, very sad. I cut into one and did a double-take: WHAT SORCERY WAS THIS? It wasn't simply a pretty tasty grilled chicken breast - in itself sometimes hard to achieve - it was easily the most delicious chicken breast I had had in my life, ever. Period. (If you know me, you know that if it was truly the second, or third, or twelfth best, I'd tell you, and then I'd tell you the things that were better.) This chicken had a bit of char and grill markings on the outside, while the inside was almost alarmingly moist and tender.
Given our tumultuous past with the stove, I wondered if reverse-searing would work if I cooked steaks in a pan. Answer: it did, and beautifully. The interior was cooked perfectly while the outside was just as crusty and caramelized as if I had used the traditional method. I'll admit it felt counter-intuitive at first: I started the steaks - which were thick New York strips - at about a medium heat and as they began to cook they turned a decidedly unattractive gray color. But as the cooking process continued, they slowly developed a nicely browned exterior, which I think actually provided a better environment for a slower, sweeter Maillard reaction. When the steaks were about 10 degrees from their goal temp, I cranked the heat to almost-high (I'm telling you, this stove is made by aliens who do not cook; I don't turn it all the way up unless I'm boiling water), and pulled the steaks when they hit temp, which was, coincidentally - or not? - also the point at which they had reached a beautiful deep browned crust.
Fast forward a few weeks. I recently took a solemn vow to eat more vegetables. Like, a LOT more vegetables. (Read: my husband and I had become too physically tired and mentally cloudy after a year-plus of less-than-virtuous eating since our son was born, and decided to clean up our act.) After roasting a few rounds of carrots, sweet potatoes, and zucchini, it occurred to me that even though I wasn't searing anything, it was possible to apply at least the science - if not the actual technique - of reverse-searing to roasting vegetables.
Now, now, I know what you're saying: "Jeanelle, roasted vegetables are about as perfect a recipe as they come - low maintenance, super versatile, hard to screw up, and usually passable-to-excellent results. Why mess with a good thing?"
To which I'll answer: I'm not so much messing with it as adjusting an already practically-foolproof process. The only problem with roasting vegetables is that sometimes, while you're focusing so hard on that elusive, delicious roasty char on just the very edges of your veg, you leave yourself vulnerable to under- or overcooking them too. Hard vegetables - fennel, potatoes, even carrots - can get nicely browned on the outside, but depending on your oven they might still be just a tad crunchy inside when you take them out. Softer vegetables - asparagus, green beans, zucchini - can get limp and overcooked by the time you see even a faint crisp on the outside.
Low(er) and slow(er) to the rescue! We're not talking about a 2-hour engagement here, folks. We're talking about roasting at a top temp of about 400F (instead of 425 or even 450, if you're really living on the edge), then flipping on the broiler for the last 3-5 minutes. This broil time will depend mainly on your pan's proximity to the broiler - I tend to roast my vegetables in the middle of the oven, so there's a bit of headroom between the broiler and whatever I'm cooking. Using this method means your vegetables are cooked through, but not overcooked, then get a final kiss of that roasted marshmallowy goodness before getting into your belly.
Not only has the idea of reverse-searing upped my inspiration to roast more quantities and varieties of vegetables, it's given me a lot more confidence when cooking meat. Animal protein - especially the stuff that's carefully raised - is not cheap, so the stakes (no pun intended) are higher than when you're just roasting off the last few sad carrots from the crisper drawer. Coming into the kitchen with a reverse-sear mentality is not only kinder to your food, it's a lot easier on your mental state, since you're no longer flirting with the smoke alarm or risking a burned dinner. You have a lot more control, and the results are even better than if you'd used traditional methods. Try it out, and enjoy!
Home cook sensei. I write about recipes that are way more than the sum of their parts, usually with only 5 ingredients or less. I'm also the person you call if you're hungry and in Chicago.