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I've recently gotten my pre-seasoned cast iron skillet and just tried to sear some meat. 1st attempt was on a rack of lambs and 2nd was on a salmon fillet. I cooked try to fully cook them both on a preheated skillet. The outsides of the lamb/salmon looked nice and brown but when I cut open the meat isn't even cooked. My salmon skin has even turned burnt but yet the insides were not even cooked.

My steps were:

  • Heat the cast iron skillet on a stove top
  • Add olive oil. Wait for the oil to give off some smoke/ oil is hot.
  • Add in the lamb/salmon.
  • Wait/flip.

Skin looks burnt. Cut open, and nothing is cooked - literally still raw and the cuts aren't even thick. Throw them back in. They look burnt even more. Take them out, insides are still not fully cooked. Gave up, use a normal non stick pan.

I was just trying to get my lamb/salmon to medium. But it looks 100% raw.

Anyone has any idea what I did wrong?

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    I can't think of any delicious cooking application where smoking oil is involved. Olive oil in particular haws a low-temperature smoke point. I cook on cast iron for everything except eggs. On my cooktop, I put the olive oil in, wait about, ooh maybe a minute, then add the ingredients. If the oil smokes (because I've been distracted), I discard it, rinse the pan, start-over.
    – Kingsley
    Aug 30 at 19:12
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    @Kingsley you shouldn't literally smoking the oil, but it's perfectly fine to start cooking as soon as you see the first bit of smoke coming off, you won't get any off flavors as the food will drop the pan temp. But also you should always be using peanut or grapeseed when pan searing at any rate.
    – eps
    Aug 30 at 23:21
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    You say “undercooked”, but especially with salmon and lamb having a sear on the outside while leaving the inside untouched is often the point, and what you’ve described, rather than “undercooked”, sounds cooked to perfection. Aug 31 at 9:15
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    One thing not in the answers but not enough for a separate answer: usually the process called “searing” isn’t even intended to cook a piece of meat. In the recipes I know, searing is either only one part of the process or it’s all that is done to a piece of meat that is otherwise left raw (as Konrad commented). So you are searing correctly, and searing isn’t cooking. You probably want to find a different recipe that actually cooks your meat. Sep 1 at 15:46
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Your pan was too hot. Cast iron pans can get ripping hot (which is good) and retain heat very well (which is also good). But, on the other hand, if you have a thicker piece of meat and want medium doneness, you should not start with maximum heat, depending on your stove.

If your pan is really that hot that the outside looks burned while the inside is still raw, the heat from the pan simply did not have enough time to penetrate into the inner layers of your food.

A few approaches to your problem could be:

  • take your food out of the fridge at least half an hour before throwing it into the pan, to allow it to get up in temperature - this does not make a big difference as per SirHawrks comment quoting Kenji Lopez-Alt
  • start with lower heat and sear your food for longer
  • start with high heat to get a good searing, then transfer the whole pan to a pre-heated oven and finish cooking in there
  • use a meat thermometer to gauge the doneness of the interior
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    Taking your food out of the fridge and leaving it on the counter won't actually make any significant difference according to J. Kenji Lopez Alt over at SeriousEats
    – SirHawrk
    Aug 31 at 6:34
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    @SirHawrk good point, I did not know it made such little difference.
    – John W.
    Aug 31 at 7:44
  • Thanks a lot. I didnt really think that it will get too hot and just cook it normally as with a non stick.
    – John
    Aug 31 at 17:06
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    I think this misses the biggest mistake OP made. Searing is not cooking. What OP is trying to replicate is restaurant style seared meat. This means you should get the pan very hot, sear for 30 seconds - 1 minute on each side, then put it into a pre-heated oven to cook the interior of the meat. Searing, by definition, will not cook the inside of the meat. Keeping it on the high-heat pan searing for long enough to cook the interior will burn the exterior.
    – SnakeDoc
    Aug 31 at 19:17
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    Solid second for a digital, instant read meat thermometer. I started using my cast iron a lot more at the start of the pandemic and a thermometer has been key to understanding the timing between searing vs. interior cooking. The next gadget I'm thinking of investing in is an infrared thermometer so I can get an even deeper understanding of pan temperatures and cooking times.
    – Dacio
    Aug 31 at 20:52
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The very short answer: You had bad temperature control.

You have to leave meat on the skillet until the proper internal temperature is reached. If the outside burns before that, then you used too high heat. Also, if you have a very thick steak, you may need to use more involved methods.

A longer answer: It is absolutely normal that cast iron behaves very differently from a typical thin nonstick pan. This is why people are making such a big deal out of the kind of pan they are using - cooking with both is simply different.

When transitioning to using the cast iron, you have to take into account that it has a much better heat transfer into the food, but also reacts a lot slower to changes in the burner setting. It also manages to make much better crusts, I suspect that this is because it stays very hot in the places where it makes contact with the food, as opposed to an aluminum pan where the heat gradient might extend a bit into the pan itself.

So you will need to learn to recognize when the pan is at the proper "temperature" (actually, the proper rate of heat transfer) and use a burner setting that provides that temperature and not a higher or lower one. The smoking oil is not a good indicator, because the smoking oil is only an indicator of the current temperature at the current moment, not of the rate of heat transfer at equilibrium. You will simply have to experiment until you have found the right setting for your burner, pan and usual meat thickness. You also have to curb your impatience and give it enough time to reach that temperature at the needed setting (which will be lower than the one you are using now). And if you notice that you made a mistake and the setting is too high or too low, you can of course regulate during cooking, but remember that the pan will react very sluggishly. So after each change, wait for several minutes until it takes effect, before intervening again.

All that time, you have to be aware that the appearance of the crust has nothing to do with the actual doneness. Either learn to recognize the doneness by touch/pressing, or, much simpler, use a meat thermometer.

Last but not least, consider also using methods beside simple "throw it on the pan and wait", for example Alton Brown's oven+pan steak. They are certainly more work, but they have a much higher chance of success for somebody who is starting out.

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    Cast iron does not have good heat transfer into food. It's big and heavy and holds a lot of heat, but the thermal conductivity of iron is awful so the food tends to suck the heat out of the area it's in contact with, leaving your food sitting on a cold spot while the rest of the pan's surface is still ripping hot. I don't know where this "cast iron has great thermal conductivity" myth comes from, but it's absolutely wrong. I love cast iron, but it has quirks that you need to understand and manage. Good heat transfer is not one of its advantages.
    – J...
    Aug 30 at 23:01
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    I suspect that this is because it stays very hot in the places where it makes contact with the food, as opposed to an aluminum pan where the heat gradient might extend a bit into the pan itself. This is completely backwards - think of a blacksmith where you can have an iron rod red hot at one end but cool enough to hold on the other. Heat moves slowly in iron. Now go try to do that with an aluminum or copper rod and watch how fast you have to let go. Copper bottomed pans actually help scour heat from the whole pan surface and bring it to the food - iron gives you no help here.
    – J...
    Aug 30 at 23:06
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    Iron has "great" thermal conductivity because it is metal. It blows away wood, plastic, glass, etc. In comparison, Aluminum: 230, Copper: 390, Iron: 60, Glass: 0.8 I'd really like to see a FLIR video showing that iron can develop a "cold spot" where the food cooled it significantly.
    – JDługosz
    Aug 31 at 15:35
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    "Iron gives you no help here" A copper bottom will spread the heat more evenly along the bottom but it still has to transfer through the thickness of the pan. Cast Iron pans do "help here" by being thick. The heat can equalize side-to-side as it moves through the greater thickness.
    – JDługosz
    Aug 31 at 15:39
  • @JDługosz Just cook on an iron pan - you don't need a FLIR to notice what's going on. Iron cools where cold/wet food touches it - that heat goes into the food. The cold spot re-warms slowly because heat has a hard time conducting from the still-hot parts of the pan. You either have to move the food to a still-hot part or turn up the heat - in the latter case, the still-hot parts get even hotter while your cold spot comes back up to temperature. Your own numbers show exactly the difference - iron is about 4-5 times worse at conducting heat than aluminum or copper. That's a huge difference.
    – J...
    Aug 31 at 16:10
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There is an extremely easy solution to this problem if you want to invest a little bit of money: sous vide. Cook to just under the desired temp (or just follow the guide for the cut on serious eats or other good cooking site) and sear the heck out of it on the cast iron like you did using a high smoke point oil (peanut or similar). It's cooking for dummies, basically impossible to mess up and should come out perfectly every time.

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Heat moves slowly, and takes a while to travel into the middle your food. If your pan is very hot, the surface of your food gets heated so quickly that it burns before enough heat has got into the middle of your food.

The skill in cooking on a pan is finding the right combination of temperature and time, where the middle has time to heat up to a desired doneness, while the outside does not cook too far.

It's a skill you have to learn, because the right heat and the right time depend on what you are cooking (e.g. fish and meat cook differently), what its original temperature is (room temp or fridge) and most importantly how thick the piece is.

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  • As someone else suggested; sous vide cooking is one solution to this problem: you start by first heating the entire piece to the desired doneness of the middle, and then you can very quickly cook the outside on a very hot pan. It's a bit of a hassle, but the results are reliable.
    – Dronir
    Aug 31 at 8:19
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Searing is not cooking. You will need to finish the meat in a pre-heated oven. This is how it's done at restaurants, and seems to be what you are trying to replicate.

Searing will develop a delicious "crust" on the exterior of the meat as part of the maillard reaction, without the heat penetrating deep into the meat (which is what "cooking" is). To penetrate the heat, it takes time. To preserve the nice crust developed during a sear, it's best to finish cooking in an oven.

Steps:

  1. Use a high-temp oil, such as Canola or Vegetable Oil. Olive oil will burn and leave a foul taste on the meat.

  2. Preheat your oven (temperature depends on what meat you are cooking. For steak, 500℉ or its highest setting. This will differ slightly depending on the meat).

  3. Place your cast iron pan on your stove on its highest temperature setting, with oil inside, and let is heat up for 5–10 minutes.

  4. Place meat in pan, and allow to sear for 30 seconds up to 1 minute. Flip and repeat. Exact time will again, depend on the meat, its thickness and type.

  5. After seared on both sides, remove the pan from the stove and place it into the pre-heated oven. Allow to cook for 2 minutes on each side (again, exact times depend on the meat, etc).

  6. Remove from oven, transfer meat to a plate and loosely cover with aluminum foil.

  7. Allow meat to rest for 5–10 minutes before cutting into it. This allows the juices inside the meat to settle and be "sucked" back into the meat while cooling, resulting in juicier meat. Cutting into the meat before allowing it to rest will result in the hot juices running out and leaving your meat dry.

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    Alton Brown also suggests reversing this: bake it first, then sear to give the crust. In a Realoaded episode he says he does this now for steaks too (the classic episode was for a roast).
    – JDługosz
    Sep 1 at 13:56
  • @JDługosz Alton Brown's Good Eats is my favorite of all cooking shows. Not just showing how to cook or follow some instructions, but explaining the why behind what you do really unlocks next level cooking. I keep meaning to watch his Reloaded episodes - bumping them to the top of my list now. Thanks for that reference!
    – SnakeDoc
    Sep 1 at 19:12
  • I've only watched a few of the Reloaded episodes because I can't stand stretched video. The old content is widened to fit the new aspect ratio. If you like that stuff, check out Adam Ragusea on YouTube as well.
    – JDługosz
    Sep 2 at 14:04
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"Anyone has any idea what I did wrong?

Actually, in one way you were highly successful. This is exactly what you want when cooking with cast iron. Ever have seared tuna at a nice restaurant? It's cooked on the outside and raw in the middle. If you attempt to cook the food through at searing temperature you will get something with the consistency of a hockey puck or it will become charcoal.

You seared perfectly. You just need to finish the food. What I do with my iron pan is sear, flip and then after a short time, cut the heat way down and cover to allow it to cook through. I have a universal lid that's reflective and has a vent to prevent steaming the food.

Use a thermometer and check the middle after some time has passed. It will often take a lot longer to cook through than to sear. You'll start to get a feel for how long you need for different items with practice.

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