Cooking Class: Pan-Frying

Learn to cook covetously crispy, crunchy entrées and sides.
Ann Taylor Pittman, Recipes by Lorrie Hulston Corvin

Pan-fried foods embody appealing qualities―crisp coatings, browned surfaces, and tender interiors. Think of the satisfying texture and taste of breaded chicken cutlets or browned potato latkes. This technique involves less oil than deep-frying, so it’s less messy and more spatter-proof. It’s easy to master once you learn a few tips.

Pan-frying, defined

This method entails cooking food in an uncovered pan in a moderate amount of fat. It’s similar to sautéing but requires more fat and often lower temperatures.

Equipment

Use a skillet or sauté pan―wide, with sloped or straight sides. Choose a heavy-bottomed pan for evenly distributed heat with no hot spots. We prefer nonstick skillets to help ensure the coatings stay on the food, not stuck in the pan. These pans also allow you to use less oil than traditional pan-fried recipes.

Coatings

Many pan-fried dishes benefit from a coating of flour, breadcrumbs, cracker meal, or cornmeal. These coatings help both to create the desired crisp crust and insulate the food to prevent it from overcooking. Place each of the coating ingredients in a separate shallow dish, such as a pie plate, so there’s enough room for the food to lie flat.

Most of our breaded recipes use a three-step approach: The food is first dusted in flour to help all the other coatings cling, then dipped into an egg wash to help the main coating adhere, and finally dredged in the main/heavier coating of panko or breadcrumbs, for example. You’ll find it helpful to designate one hand as the dry hand (for handling the food as it goes into the dry ingredients) and the other as the wet hand (for dipping food into the egg wash). If you use the same hand or both hands for every step, you’ll end up with a mess of flour-egg-breadcrumbs stuck to your skin. Don’t let the food sit too long after it’s breaded or it may become gummy.

Best bets for pan-frying

Fish fillets; thin, tender cuts such as pork chops or boneless, skinless chicken breast halves; and sturdy vegetables such as potatoes, green tomato slices, and onions are good choices. Juicy foods such as ripe tomatoes will be rendered mushy, and tougher cuts like brisket or pork shoulder won’t cook long enough to become tender.

 

Breading amounts

As you prepare these recipes, you’ll notice we call for more breading ingredients than will actually stick to the food. (You’ll discard whatever is left over.) Having more than you need makes it easier to coat the food. Plus, it’s hard―and messy―to add additional breadcrumbs or flour once you’ve started the process.

Although it has become our standard recipe style to call for flour as exact weight measurements, these recipes are an exception. For a cake recipe, using a little more or less flour than specified can mean a dry, tough result or a cake that doesn’t rise. For breading, though, the exact amount matters less.

Fats for frying

Choose oil with a neutral flavor―such as canola oil, regular olive oil, or peanut oil―that can withstand moderately high heat. Flavorful oils such as extra-virgin olive oil or dark sesame oil may burn or create harsh flavors in the food. Butter may also burn at high temperatures but can work over medium-high heat for shorter cook times, or over medium heat for longer periods. To prevent food from sticking, heat the pan first and then add the oil or butter.

Temperature

For the crunchiest texture, it helps to start many foods on medium-high heat to initiate browning, then reduce the heat to allow it to finish cooking more slowly. Other recipes will be successful using medium-high or medium heat for the entire cook time; follow the recipe’s specific instructions.

Allow some breathing room

Take care not to overcrowd the pan, as doing so lowers the temperature and may cause food to stick. It may also hinder evaporation as the food cooks, creating steam in the bottom of the pan and ultimately a soggy crust.

Do not disturb

Be aware that the side you put down in the pan first will look the best, so place the food in the pan presentation side down. For chicken breasts, this means the rounded side; for fish fillets, it’s the rounded rib side (not the skin side). To make sure the coatings stay on the food, turn it only once as it cooks. Disturbing it too soon may cause the breading to fall off or stick to the pan.

Serve immediately

Pan-fried offerings are best just after they’re cooked, when they are hot and crunchy.

The bottom line

The three most important elements to remember about pan-frying:

1. Do not overcrowd the pan.

2 Cook the food shortly after applying the coatings.

3 Turn the food only once as it cooks.