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Science: Shimmer and Smoke

By Cook's Illustrated Published January 2016

When sautéing or pan-frying, we often call for heating oil until just smoking. What happens if you add your food to the pan too soon, before it’s actually smoking? We ran an experiment to demonstrate.

When sautéing or pan-frying, we often call for heating oil until just smoking. What happens if you add your food to the pan too soon, before it’s actually smoking? We ran an experiment to demonstrate.

EXPERIMENT

We cooked two sirloin strip steaks in identical 12-inch skillets. For one steak, we heated 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil until shimmering, which took about 2 minutes. In the other pan, we heated 1 tablespoon of oil until it reached the smoke point, which took 6 minutes. We cooked both steaks until well browned on both sides.

RESULTS

The steaks cooked in the oil heated to the smoke point browned quickly and evenly, in about 6 minutes, with a minimal overcooked gray band beneath the surface. Those cooked in the shimmering oil took 10 minutes to brown, and the meat just beneath the surface overcooked, leaving a larger gray band.

EXPLANATION

Shimmering oil only reaches about 275 degrees, rather than the 400 degrees of vegetable oil at its smoke point. Making sure the oil is sufficiently hot helps keep the pan from cooling down too much once the food has been added and guarantees quick, even, and thorough browning. If the oil is below the smoke point when the food is added, browning will take too long and the food will overcook.

TAKEAWAY

For food that is properly browned with minimal overcooking beneath the surface, make sure to heat the oil until just smoking. It’s easy to think you’ve seen a wisp of smoke and rush to add the food to the pan. But oil that has actually hit the smoke point is unmistakable—you’ll see multiple wisps rising from the pan. And don’t worry too much about overheating the oil; as long as you have your food at the ready, there is little risk since the oil will cool quickly once you add the food. (If you have overheated it, you will know because the oil will turn dark. In these cases, throw out the oil and start over.)

SEARED IN SHIMMERING OIL: Browning takes 10 minutes, so the meat overcooks beneath the surface.

SEARED IN SMOKING OIL: Browning happens in just 6 minutes, so the meat remains rosy from edge to center.