A Sizzling Good Sear

Get out all your ingredients

Grab everything you need and put it out so they’re ready to go. Let’s cook!

Music: “Tennesee Hayride” by Jason Shaw licensed under CC BY 3.0

Chop the onion, bell pepper, and jalapeno

Wash the bell pepper, then cut off the top, stand the pepper upright, and carve away the outside of the pepper. (Remember to tuck your fingertips under so they stay safe!) You’ll end up with the core containing the seeds, which you can discard. If any seeds are then still sticking to the pepper sides, give the pepper piece a good smack and the seeds will pop right off.

Now let’s chop the jalapeño. Similarly to the bell pepper, cut off the top. Then cut it in half. Use gentle pressure and a back-and-forth sawing motion to gently carve out the seeds and white pith. Do not force the knife blade, ever—it could slip onto your fingers! Once the seeds and pith are removed, cut each half into long strips. Then line them up and cut into little tiny dice.

Now let’s do the onion. Cut off the top, and then in half. This exposes the edge of the skin so you can peel it right off.

Cut off the root ends of the onion. Then, align your knife lengthwise to the onion. Start at one edge and, angling your knife inwards, make thin wedge-shaped cuts until you’ve gone almost halfway. Do the same to the other side. You’ll end up with the center of the onion, which you can slice vertically in half.

Onion-Cutting Logic

We cut the onion this way for two reasons: 1) we want them to be in strips like the bell pepper for presentation reasons, and 2) we don’t want to end up with differently-sized onion pieces that cook at different rates. If you cut onions the other way into half-rings, you’ll end up with little inner pieces that cook quickly and big outer pieces that cook slowly. It’s all about consistency here!

Finally, if you want mushrooms in your fajitas, then let’s add mushrooms! First give them a quick rinse under running water.

To Rinse or not to Rinse:

Cooking shows say you should wipe down each individual mushroom with a damp paper towel. The thinking goes: mushrooms absorb water and immersing them can dilute their flavor. But you know what? Ain’t nobody got time for that, and it doesn’t actually make a huge difference. So go ahead and rinse!

Now cut off the tough lower stems of the mushrooms, and slice them thinly. Set them aside separately from the bell peppers, etc. because we’ll cook them separately later.

Make spice rub

Exact measurements are not important here. Neither are ingredients, as long as there’s chili powder and garlic powder in there somewhere. (Everything is better with garlic!) Here is a quick spice rub I made up from things I had on hand:

  • a tablespoon or so of chili powder
  • half a teaspoon of paprika
  • half teaspoon of cinnamon
  • half teaspoon of garlic powder
  • half teaspoon of onion powder
  • a teaspoon of dried thyme
  • a tablespoon or so of salt
  • a generous grind of pepper

Why make your own spice rub?

I’m sure you’ve seen pre-made spice rubs in your grocery store. But I say ignore them and make your own! Sure, it seems intimidating to buy like seven jars of individual spices, instead of that one nice jar of spice rub, but if you are going to learn how to cook, you’ll need to build up a basic palette of spices anyway. Think of it as buying colors for a painting: it’s better to get red, yellow, and blue so you can mix any colors you want, instead of a particular shade of green that you’ll only use when painting a certain type of grass.

Mix it all up with your hands and have a taste. Yum!

Rub the steak rub on the steak

Sprinkle half the steak rub on one side of the steak and really rub it in with your hands!

Don’t be shy about using a lot of rub, at least 1 tablespoon per side. The salt in it helps dry out the surface of the meat, allowing that nice browned crust to develop. Plus it’s only coating the very outside of the steak. You need the flavor to be a bit strong so it’s not too bland when you eat.

Repeat on the other side.

If you don’t like touching raw meat, think of this as an opportunity to conquer the heck out of your fears. Just remember, soap and water will always be there for you. Always.

After this, we’ll let the steak sit. This will give it some time to come to absorb the flavors and warm up to room temperature while we do other things. Remember, room temperature steak cooks more evenly than steak fresh out of the refrigerator.

Sauté the onions, bell pepper, and jalapeno

Now we’re going to sauté the veggies.

Heat up a tablespoon or so of high-heat oil (like canola) in your skillet over medium-high heat.

How to tell if your oil is hot enough to add veggies? You can drop in a piece of veg and see if it makes a sizzling sound. If so, add everything else in. If not, wait a bit.

When the oil’s ready, add in all the chopped up veggies. Also add a good pinch of salt and grind of pepper.

Stir and flip the pieces, then wait a bit, then stir some more. Your goal is to let all pieces take a turn being in contact with bottom of the pan. That’s where they’ll get nicely caramelized by the heat.

Don’t stir constantly, else you’re letting too much heat dissipate. But don’t let it sit still for too long either, or the pieces at the bottom will burn. It takes a bit of practice, to get the rhythm right, but you’ll get the hang of it!

When the veggies are looking a tiny bit softened, add the japaleños. (They need less time to cook, so we’re just adding them now.)

Then keep doing what you’ve been doing, until everything is nicely soft, and caramelized. Eat a piece to check—it should have no crunch, and taste sweet and nutty.

When they’re done, take them out of the pan and put them in a bowl.

Sear the steak

Okay! Now we’re finally getting sear-ious (Yeah… we couldn’t resist).

Understanding the Sear

Searing refers to cooking the outside of the meat to a deep brown crust. To get a proper sear, you need three things: oil, very high heat, and patience. It basically works like this: you heat some oil in a pan until it’s very hot. Then you add the meat. The minute the meat hits the pan, you want to hear a very loud, signature sizzle. After that, you want to leave it there for a good 3-4 minutes. Don’t be tempted to move it around or fuss with it (meat that’s not fully seared will stick to the pan anyway). Just be patient and let it cook and develop that crust. When it’s ready to flip, you’ll know because it will release easily from the pan.

Okay, now that you know what to expect, let’s start! Wipe down the skillet you just used with a wet paper towel. Make sure you get all the crispy blackened residue from the onions etc, leaving just a sheen of oil.

If you have a hood fan over your stove, now’s a good time to turn it on. Searing anything will produce quite a bit of smoke and you want the hood to suck it all up. Otherwise your fire alarm might make its presence very, very known.

Now turn the stove on high, as far as it will go. Pour about a tablespoon of oil into the pan and swirl it around to cover the whole pan. Wait for it to “shimmer”—you’ll know when you see it. That’s when you know the oil is nice and HOT.

Then put the meat in! Remember, no prodding or flipping. Wait a good 3 minutes (use your timer).

If your pan starts to give off a lot of smoke, that may be a sign of burning, so lower the heat to medium or medium-low. That gives a chance for your pan to cool down. Then wait for the smoke to subside and readjust the heat back up.

When the timer goes off, take a peek at the underside to see if it’s well-seared. Then flip.

Let the other side sear about 3 minutes, then take the steak out of the pan and put it on a plate.

Look at that beauty! Before you bite into it (We know, it’s tempting…), let’s see if it’s properly cooked.

Check steak for done-ness

For steak, we generally aim for medium to medium-rare. Some people like their steak almost raw in the center, a.k.a. “rare” , and some like it completely cooked through, a.k.a. “well-done” but at that point it’s chewy and tough. Let’s aim for the middle.

There are 3 ways to test for done-ness. Here they are, in order from easiest to most advanced:

  1. Cut a slit in the steak and look at the color inside. If it’s red, then it’s rare. If it’s light red or pink, it’s medium to medium-rare. If it’s light tan-gray, it’s well-done. But don’t worry, steak fajitas are a pretty forgiving dish! The meat might have some chew, but the whole thing will still be flavorful.
  2. Slide a meat thermometer in and read the temperature. With thinner cuts, you’ll want to slide the thermometer in at an angle, so the probe is about 1” inside the meat but not poking out the other side. The thermometer should read 125 degrees F, which is medium-rare. Technically, steak is medium-rare at 130, but the temperature will keep rising for a few minutes after you take it out of the pan, so always aim for a few degrees below the target temperature.
  3. Poke the steak and feel its firmness. This is ninja-level steak skillz! A seasoned cook can tell just how done the steak is by poking it and feeling its resistance. Firmer meat means more cooked, softer means more rare. If this is your first time cooking steak, use one of the methods above, but also poke it a bit to get a feel for it.

So what happens if your steak is undercooked? No worries! Put it on a baking tray and put it in your oven on 400ˆ F for 5 minutes (use your timer so you don’t forget). Then take it out and check again.

When your steak is perfectly medium rare, cover it in foil and set it on the counter to rest. Resting allows the protein fibers to relax and re-absorb some of the meat’s juices, so that when you go to cut it, the deliciousness won’t all leak out.


Sauté the mushrooms (if using)

Sauté the mushrooms in oil just like we did with the peppers and onion. They will start go give off a lot of water, but just keep cooking and the water will evaporate and the mushrooms will eventually brown.

When done, take the mushrooms out and put them with the onions and bell pepper.

Why are we sautéeing the mushrooms separately instead of with the onions and pepper? Because the mushrooms give off so much water, they will “steam” your onions and peppers into mushy, limp oblivion and you don’t want that. By cooking it separately, we let the mushroom do its thing, and the peppers and onions do theirs.

Warm up the tortillas

Heat a separate pan over medium heat and place a tortilla in the pan, one at a time, flipping after a few minutes. This warms them up and gives them back some of their nice pliable texture. Warm 3-4 per person you’re serving.

When you’ve warmed all the tortillas you need, wrap them in a kitchen towel to keep them toasty.

Prepare garnishes, slice steak, compose skillet, and serve!

If you like cilantro, now’s the time to chop it up. Give it a quick rinse, then just go at it with your knife until it’s turned into little pieces. Don’t worry about being exact. (Tip: press down on the top of your knife with your other hand to get more leverage, so you cut all the way through the soft, thin leaves.)

Now take the steak out from its foil-cave and put it on your cutting board. Figure out the “grain” of the steak by examining the surface—you’ll easily see what direction the muscle fibers run in. Once you’ve got that figured out, align your knife perpendicularly to the grain, and slice the steak into thin strips. This is called “cutting against the grain.” Why do we cut this way? Skirt steak is one of the tougher cuts of beef, so cutting the muscle fibers short makes it easier to chew!

When you’re done slicing your steak, put all the veggies back in the pan. If they got cold, turn on the heat and toss them around for awhile. Then turn off the heat, and put the steak slices on top.

Give it a good sprinkling of cilantro. Look at how pretty that is!

You’re now ready to serve. Place the skillet on the table with the tortillas, sour cream, cheese, salsa, and a couple wedges of lime. Let each person help themselves and assemble their own fajitas. Yum!

Nicely done!

You made some delicious food. Now go enjoy it!

P.S. - If you want to show off your work on the lesson gallery, send me a picture.

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