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The Food Lab: How to Pan Sear Foie Gras

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

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I once might have read in a non-existant survey that may well have been conducted by the top statisticians of our times, that many people think that foie gras is a dish limited to fine dining establishments alone. They're afraid to cook it at home. That stuff is $45 a pound... what if I mess it up?, they may well be thinking.

It's a large enough paranoia that I've taken to advising the nation's foie gras producers to emblazon their packaging with the words "Don't Panic." And you shouldn't, because foie gras is one of the easiest proteins to cook in the world. Far simpler than a steak or a chicken breast. Infinitely more forgiving than a pork chop or a piece of delicate fish. It's nearly foolproof by nature.

My relationship with foie gras did not start off particularly auspiciously. The first time I remember tasting hot seared foie gras was at a newfangled Brazilian fusion restaurant in Boston where a thin slab of it was served with a chocolate and chili-based sauce. I did not like it and immediately constructed a strong prejudice against ordering it in the future. In retrospect this was unfair, as I am not certain that it was the foie gras that tasted terrible, but the preparation.

My second experience with foie gras came a few years later during a hormone-fueled spending and cooking binge in which I decided to serve my potential-future-wife-for-the-moment a piece of foie gras that I'd seared myself. At that stage in my blossoming culinary career, I had no idea that there was a difference between a pâté of foie gras and a slab of fresh foie gras. If you are in the same boat I was in, you have nothing to be ashamed of, and I have hopefully just saved you the trouble of watching $18 worth of pâté de foie gras bubble away in a hot skillet like the Wicked Witch of the West. I am not married to that particular potential-future-wife.

It wasn't until a few years later when I actually started working in a fine dining establishment that I finally understood what the fuss is about. Foie gras is delicious, plain and simple. Decadently rich with a distinct sweetness, it's key feature is that its fat melts at just below body temperature. What goes into your mouth semi-solid ends up slowly melting away, coating your tongue in a wash of flavor.

There's a reason charcuterie is the most common way of preparing foie gras—the fattened livers of the Moulard duck (or goose, depending on your national persuasion; in the U.S. it's always duck)—and it's not because it's the tastiest method. It's in fact because it's the best way of preserving a luxury good with a limited shelf life. When cured and formed, a terrine or torchon can last weeks under refrigeration, allowing restaurants, home cooks, and gourmet shops to not worry much about turnover.

But for my money, there's no better way to enjoy foie gras than fresh, sliced into a thick slab, and cooked quickly in a hot skillet to a perfect medium rare. Luckily, it also happens to be one of the simplest foods to cook properly, provided you understand the basics.

Check out the slideshow for step-by-step instructions of the process...

or read on for a more detailed discussion!

Shopping and Storage

The most crucial step to a great dish of hot foie gras is to start with good quality foie gras. If you live in the United States, this is fortunately quite simple. There are only three operating foie farms in the country (I've heard recent reports of a mysterious fourth but haven't tried it myself), and all three of them produce excellent products.

My favorite, and the favorite of many chefs I've worked with, comes from La Belle Farms in Ferndale, New York. Of all the foie I've cooked in my life, theirs has the best ability to retain its shape during cooking, despite being fully flavored and richly fatty. Their foie gras can be ordered either as whole 1 1/2- to 2-pound livers or pre-portioned 2-ounce slices from Bella Bella Gourmet.* For pan-searing, you want to order their "A" grade foie gras, which has fewer veins and bruises.

*Check out this article for a behind-the-scenes look at their operation.

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Like bacon and other fatty meat products, foie gras stores remarkably well in the freezer, which means that even if you don't think you'll finish a whole lobe in a single setting, it may be worth your while to order it whole, as the unused portion can always be frozen for your next fancy-pants party. For best results, wrap it tightly in foil, followed by plastic wrap, then throw the whole thing in a zipper-lock bag with the air squeezed out. Alternatively, use a Foodsaver-style vacuum sealer.

Portioning

If you've ordered foie gras at restaurants, you've probably been shocked by the enormous ticket price and the meager portion you receive. I've always been of the mindset that if you're going to eat foie gras, just eat some f-ing foie gras. Eat a slab of it, at least a couple ounces. Eat something that takes more than one bite. Enjoy it. Enjoy the contrast between the browned crust and the barely softened center. A puny slab of foie gras is almost not worth the effort for me. On the select times of year I choose to eat it, I really want enough to taste what I'm eating. Anyone else with me?

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Using a reasonably large portion size is smart for another reason: it's very difficult to cook thin slices of foie gras properly. The fat is so fragile that with a thin piece of foie, you are very likely to overcook it. It comes out looking like a greasy deflated balloon. I use slices that are at least half an inch thick. If you'd like to serve smaller portions, rather than using thinner slices, just cut thick slices and divide them into halves cross-wise to form smaller portions of the same thickness.

The key to slicing and portioning foie is to treat it like a rich mousse-cake: Make sure to heat up your knife under running water in between every slice. A cold knife will catch and stick in the foie, causing it to tear or crumble. A hot knife will melt the fat as it goes through, leaving you with clean, smooth surfaces to sear.

Duck skin is often scored lightly in order to prevent it from shrinking and causing the duck breast to curl up. With foie gras, there is no technical reason to do this as it does not buckle like a duck breast, but the practice continues, mainly for appearances. I score one side—the side I'm going to serve facing up—in a light cross-hatch pattern, just so I get a few bonus extra-fancy points.

Cooking

Now comes the hard part. And by hard I mean dumb-simple. There are really only two ways to mess up cooking a piece of foie. 1) not get your pan hot enough, or 2) forget about it during the 1 minute it's in the pan. Neither of these scenarios are very likely to happen.

To cook foie, heat up a skillet capable of withstanding high heat—stainless steel, aluminum, cast iron, carbon steel, even a newfangled high-heat-safe non-stick skillet will do. Heat it up until it's smoking hot, season the foie liberally with salt and pepper, and carefully lay it in the skillet.

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If it doesn't immediately start smoking and rendering fat, your skillet is not hot enough. If this happens, quickly pull the foie out and let your pan preheat some more. Once the foie is in there, it's a rapid-fire process— it takes all of about 30 seconds to a minute per side to get the surface nice and deep brown, so unless you're a busy line cook with a half dozen other orders to fire, the chances of you making mistake #2 and forgetting about it are slim to none.

The final crucial step to cooking foie is to let it rest just long enough that the center softens. About 1 minute on a paper towel-lined plate will do.

What to Serve it With?

Because of its richness, sweetness, and mild funk, foie gras pairs well with a variety of fruity, jammy flavors. Dried fruit and sauces made from them like figs and prunes are a natural and classic pair. Stone fruit—peaches, plums, nectarines, sour cherries, and the like—also work beautifully, particularly when cooked down in a gently perfumed sweet wine like a Sauternes or a sweet Riesling.

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Speaking of booze, liquor-based sauces and syrups can also serve to bring out the natural sweetness of the foie gras. Try making a caramel and deglazing it with a bit of cognac or sherry. My basic rules of thumb for pairing flavors with foie gras are to stick with anything that will generally work well with cheese—dried fruits, nuts, honey—or with duck or pork—citrus, sweet-and-sour sauces, etc.

Click through the slideshow above for a step-by-step walkthrough of the process

Get The Recipes!

Pan-Seared Foie Gras With Fig Mostarda and Fresh Figs »

Pan-Seared Foie Gras With Spiced Citrus Purée »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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