A frying pan is about as simple and versatile as any tool you have in your kitchen. You can use it for a quick sear or a slow braise, an entree or a sauce, depending on your needs. You might favor the most modern of lightweight, non-stick versions or treasure your great-grandma's cast iron, but they're equally useful. The only thing they can't do for you is change the laws of physics, which means it's hard to cook a thick piece of meat perfectly in the middle without overcooking the outer edges. If you have big, thick, double pork chops, for example, you might find it easier to finish them in the oven.
Dip Into the Science
The whole point of the exercise when you're cooking a thick steak or chop is to get the outside beautifully seared and dark, while the inside cooks just to the degree of doneness you prefer. It's not your imagination: searing the meat really does make it taste better. It actually causes a series of chemical reactions, called Maillard reactions, in the meat. Its simple protein molecules break up and recombine into much larger and complex ones, and give you hundreds of new flavor compounds in the process. You need high heat to do that quickly, and you want to do it quickly so you don't overcook the area just underneath the surface. Direct contact with a hot skillet does that, while the gentler heat of your oven finishes the cooking at a slower pace. That's why oven-finishing is such a useful technique.
Try It Out
Your best bet for this technique is a heavy skillet. You want something in stainless steel or cast iron, ideally, or thick restaurant-style aluminum. Heat it over a medium-high burner until you can see heat shimmers coming from the pan, and you feel the intense heat when you hold your hand over the pan. Blot the surface of the chops completely dry with paper towels, because they won't sear properly if they aren't dry. If you're using cast iron, you can drop your chops right into the pan, one or two at a time, and they'll release from the pan once they're seared enough. With other pans, pour in a spoonful of high-heat oil – peanut, avocado, grapeseed, safflower and canola are all good choices – and then add your chops. When they're well browned on one side, flip them and then pop them into your oven in the skillet or a preheated sheet pan.
Choose a Temperature
The USDA's recommended temperature for perfectly cooked pork is 145 degrees Fahrenheit, which leaves it pink and juicy in the middle, though you can cook it further if you wish. How you get there is up to you: You can finish your chops at any temperature from as low as 250 F to as high as 400 F or more. The lower the temperature, the harder it is to overcook the chops and the more time you'll have to get the rest of the meal ready. At 400 F, for example, it might take only 8 to 10 minutes for your chops to finish, or they could go for a half-hour or longer at the lower temperature.
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The exact time varies with the thickness of your chop and how long you seared it, so your best bet is to use a thermometer. Slide a meat thermometer or the probe of a barbecue thermometer horizontally into the middle of the chop, and pull the chops from the oven when they're 5 to 10 degrees below your target temperature. Cover them loosely with foil to keep warm, and let them rest for 8 or 10 minutes before serving. They'll finish cooking during that time.
Turn It Around
The technique works even if you turn it on its head, first slow-cooking the chops at 250 F in a low oven for a half-hour or so until they're mostly cooked. Let them rest while you finish up the rest of the meal, then put your skillet on the stove and heat it as you normally would. Give the chops a serious sear for a minute or two on each side, then serve them immediately. This way timing is never an issue, because searing at the last minute brings your chops to the table while they're still sizzling.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.