Flash in the Pan
Dinner in less than 20 minutes is the holy grail of weeknight cooking. Many recipes make good on this promise, but most ultimately reflect the minimal effort exerted on the part of the cook. They are fine in a pinch but rarely worth making again. But it doesn't have to be this way.
We started with two quick-cooking classics—sautéed chicken cutlets and pan-seared shrimp—and worked to elevate them from the everyday. We refused to employ lengthy ingredient lists or difficult techniques, and the total preparation and cooking time had to remain under the 20-minute mark. We've figured out the secrets to these dishes and what separates the merely serviceable from the truly memorable. So heat up your skillets and get ready to cook.
Sautéed Chicken Cutlets
What we wanted: Sautéed super-thin cutlets are satisfying midweek fare, except when they are tough and dry. We set out to improve chicken paillards.
The ultra-thin sautéed chicken cutlets known as paillards owe their invention to Monsieur Paillard, a Parisian restaurateur of the late nineteenth century. Although his namesake juicy cutlets are now legendary, the test kitchen quickly came to the conclusion that he took the secret of chicken paillards to his grave, given the bland, dry, shoe-leather-tough chicken cutlets we prepared from a wide variety of recipes. Classically defined, a paillard is a cutlet trimmed or pounded to a wafer-thin thickness of ¼ inch. Technically speaking, a paillard can be any variety of meat, although it is most often associated with poultry. Any thicker than ¼ inch and it's a workaday cutlet; any thinner and it overcooks at the mere sight of a skillet.
What we learned: The cutlets must be halved horizontally before they are pounded. Coating the cutlets with oil as they are pounded keeps their edges from during put when cooked. To keep the cutlets juicy, they should be browned only on one side.
What we wanted: Nicely browned shrimp that were still juicy, moist, and tender.
Having prepared literally tons of shrimp in the test kitchen and in our own home kitchens, we have found that pan-searing produces the ultimate combination of a well-caramelized exterior and a moist, tender interior. If executed properly, this cooking method also preserves the shrimp's plumpness and trademark briny sweetness. That being said, a good recipe for pan-seared shrimp is hard to find. Of the handful of recipes we uncovered, the majority resulted in shrimp that were variously dry, flavorless, pale, tough, or gummy—hardly appetizing. It was time to start some serious testing.
What we learned: Season peeled shrimp with salt, pepper, and sugar (to promote browning) before cooking them in a very hot pan. Cook just 1-pound of shrimp at a time, searing on just one side, and then use residual heat to cook the second side. Finish the shrimp with a potent flavored butter or glaze.