Often, the success of a great dish comes down to heat. Gorgeously seared steak, perfect stir-fry, or properly al dente pasta all rely on a big flame and high heat. But here’s a secret: Sometimes, your cooking secret weapon is a cold pot or pan.
While you’d never lay an expensive porterhouse in a chilly pan and then turn on the flame (the steak would eventually cook through, but it’d turn out gray and pallid, not golden-brown and caramelized), there are a few times when starting the cooking process with a cold pan is a must. Beginning with a cold pan allows you to better control the temperature, and lets you slowly build layers of flavor, rather than shocking your ingredients. These are the cooking techniques that call for cold pans.
Perfect BLTs start with crispy bacon. Crispy bacon starts with a cold pan. Photo: Dawn Perry
Rendering Bacon Fat
Add a raw piece of bacon to a hot pan, and it’ll cook up in no time flat—without rendering any of the fat, unfortunately. That’s fine if you’re the type who likes gumming on bacon fat, but, ’round here, we like our cured pork belly crispy. The way to shatteringly crisp bacon is fat in the pan, not on the strip. Plus, if you take things low and slow when cooking bacon, you’ll be rewarded with a panful of rendered bacon fat for later use—not a bad flavor tool to have in your arsenal.
Making Garlic Confit
Garlic confit is made by slowly heating oil with whole cloves of garlic, then letting the mixture cool down together. The result is two-fold: a garlicky flavored oil and tender cloves of garlic perfect for spreading on toast or adding to stir-fries and sauces. The key to developing this flavor is to let the garlic heat up with the oil—so start cold and let it all come together at once. You also don’t want to get the oil to its smoking point; a cold pan is extra insurance against that.
Seared Duck Breast with Mustard Greens, Turnips, and Radishes. Photo: Christopher Testani.
Cooking Skin-On Duck or Chicken
If you add a skin-on duck breast or chicken thigh to a screaming hot pan, the skin will contract quickly, tightening up and shrinking. This is not good. “You don’t want the skin to seize up before the fat has rendered,” explains Claire Saffitz, BA‘s associate food editor. Seized-up skin means chewy, not crispy—and you know we’re all about the crispy skin. This is especially important for duck breast, which has a very thick layer of fat. Start cold, and take it easy: This is no place to crank the heat.
Toasting Seeds and Spices
Tiny toppers like sesame seeds and spices like cumin or fennel taste better toasted—this recipe for Chile-Cumin Lamb Meatballs is proof. Unfortunately, they also cook quickly. If you add them to a pan that’s already hot, they’ll burn and blacken before toasting from the inside out. Another tip: Remove the seeds or spices from the pan as soon as they’re done; if you leave them in the now-hot pan, they will overcook.
The BA test kitchen staff suggests starting boiled eggs in cold water. If you drop a cold, straight-from-the-fridge egg into a pot of boiling water, the extreme temperature change will likely cause the shell to crack, causing the egg white to bubble out of the fissure. This is not the biggest deal in the world, sure, but when presentation matters, you’ll want to take a little extra care.
It’s called brown butter, not blackened butter. Photo: Gentl & Hyers
If you’ve ever made brown butter, you know that it takes just seconds to go from that golden, nutty color to black and burned. (If you haven’t made brown butter, may we suggest cooking these Scallops with Herbed Brown Butter immediately?) Don’t make the process any harder on yourself by shocking the butter in a ripping hot pan. The proper technique is to melt the butter slowly and patiently wait, swirling the pan periodically, as the milk solids toast and become the color of hazelnuts (psst—that’s where the French term for brown butter, beurre noisette, comes from).