Probably every steak aficionado has his or her own philosophy on how to get the perfect sear on a steak, and there are actually many ways to do this.
What is the most important detail when searing a steak – the cut of meat you are using, the heat source, the temperature, the oil, or the cookware?
Probably there are as many opinions on this as there are chefs in the world. However, this doesn’t mean getting a perfectly seared steak at home needs to be complicated! Today, we’ll cover all the details you need to know in order to develop your own style of making the perfect steak.
Why Sear Meat?
What is searing? Well, it’s the sexy sizzling noise you hear when you throw a piece of meat on the grill or into the pan, right? Technically, searing refers to any cooking method where high heat is used to cook the outside surface of the food you are cooking (usually meat or fish, and, of course, most notably, steak).
Most likely you already knew what searing is, as it is quite common, but why do it? For the flavor, of course! Searing gives the meat that amazing savory flavor we all desire, but there are some controversies surrounding the idea of how the magic actually happens.
The Searing Myth: Locking In The Juices
The idea that searing meat “locks in the juices” has become so widespread that it’s almost a common phrase. Everyone has probably heard this sentence at least once, and sometimes from well-known chefs too.
However, the claim that searing seals in the juices is a complete myth. The logic behind this idea is that by searing the surface of the steak (or other cuts of meat) we can somehow make it impenetrable and trap the juices inside. If you really think about it, this doesn’t really seem possible, does it?
Steak is made mostly of muscle fiber, which contains up to 70% of water. Exposing meat to heat will necessarily draw out the moisture – there is no way to avoid that.
The water either evaporates or drips down in the form of drippings. But why us the “searing locks in juice” myth so common then? Well, if a steak is seared properly, it can certainly feel like this is true.
A nicely seared steak will indeed feel more juicy and flavorful – but this doesn’t come from the juices being trapped in. So what does searing actually do? We’ll explain in the next section.
Searing For Maximum Flavor: The Maillard Reaction
In order to achieve the brown caramelized crust that is the desired outcome of searing, the temperature on the surface of the food you are cooking must reach 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Therefore, all of the water will disappear from the surface as water evaporates at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. However, this won’t seal in the juices. In fact, some of the “juices” will actually evaporate.
But what actually happens when we sear meat? The beautiful taste and texture of a seared steak actually appear thanks to something called the Maillard reaction. Some would say the surface of the meat gets caramelized – but this is not technically true.
Caramelization refers to the reaction of sugar to heat, but the Maillard reaction involves both sugars and amino acids that are present in meat.
The Three Reasons To Sear Meat
So, to answer the initial question – why do we sear steaks? Well, because it gives them the unique flavor, beautiful color, and amazing texture! But in all seriousness, searing meat also makes it cook much faster and makes it more tender.
A steak that is not seared is, well, not really a steak. In short, there are three main benefits you get by searing your steak:
1. The Flavor
This one is pretty much self-explanatory. You simply can’t get that amazing flavor without searing. For many of us, when we think of meat, we think of the taste of nicely seared meat.
Thanks to the Maillard reaction, the flavor of the meat gets much more complex and you get a nice contrast between the brown crust and the soft inside of the steak. What more could you ask for?
2. The Color
Let’s be honest here – a seared steak really does look amazing. The brown, caramelized crust just looks much more appetizing than simply cooked meat. Finally, when we think about steak, all of us probably imagine the steakhouse-style sear marks. Can we get those without searing – no way!
Fond is all the rage in the culinary world, and the only way to get fond is by searing meat. Fond basically refers to the tasty bits left at the bottom of the pan after searing meat. While to the uninitiated, these remains might seem light just dirt or burnt bits, they are actually the perfect foundation to any sauce.
How To Choose The Perfect Steak For Searing
Not every steak is the same, and the piece of meat you choose can make a tremendous difference in the flavor and tenderness of the meat. A perfect steak starts by choosing the right cut of meat.
The way you sear and cook your steak matters too, of course, but that’s only one part of the equation. So how do you choose the perfect steak for searing?
Different Cuts Of Steak
It only takes one trip to the butcher’s to realize how many options you have when it comes to different cuts of steak. Which one is the best? Actually, there is no clear answer, as every cut of steak probably deserves its moment of fame.
However, the way you prepare the steak will depend on the cut you choose, so it’s important to know what you are doing. While there are many options and local variations in terms of how a steak is cut, there are some common types that you’ll usually be able to find anywhere. Here they are:
Also known in some places as Delmonico Steak, Beauty Steak, and Scotch Fillet, the rib-eye steak is probably the most iconic cut of steak. It’s a fairly thick cut of steak, taken from the front rib area, and named after a specific muscle that tends to look like an eye.
The rib-eye steak has a generous amount of fat in the middle and good marbling overall which gives it a unique flavor and makes it perfect for searing.
Tenderloin Steak & Filet Mignon
The tenderloin steak essentially comes from the middle part of a cow. It’s leaner than the rib-eye steak, but still quite tender, and one of the easiest cuts of steak to cook.
The filet mignon actually comes from the end of the tenderloin muscle – which is why it’s generally much smaller than other cuts of steak. Filet Mignon is extremely tender, because it comes from a muscle that is rarely used.
Sirloin Steak & New York Strip
As the name says, the sirloin steak comes from the loin, which is the area close to the hip of the animal. The sirloin steak is not very tender, but it’s also usually less expensive than rib-eye and filet mignon.
However, if prepared properly it can still taste amazing! The New York strip is quite a popular name in the steak world, and it is basically a specific cut of the sirloin (cut from the top of the sirloin part).
T-Bone Steak & Porterhouse Steak
T-Bone and porterhouse steaks are true classics. They are both cut from the short loin area, but they also include a part of the tenderloin muscle.
Both cuts include the unique T-shaped bone in the middle. The two are not the same, though, as the porterhouse steak contains a larger part of the tenderloin muscle. This is why it’s sometimes thought of as the fancier cut of the two, but this is actually not true.
It’s all a matter of taste, and many people will choose T-bone steak over porterhouse steak any day of the week!
The Best Oil For Searing Steak
When choosing the oil for searing steak, the most important thing to consider is definitely the smoking point of the oil. The smoking point is the temperature at which the oil starts to break down and well – turn in to smoke.
When the smoking point is reached the oil starts to break down to glycerol and free fatty acids – and this is what you want to avoid at all costs. When oil is heated beyond smoking point starts getting bitter and the food cooked in it will basically taste burned.
To conclude, for searing steak we definitely want an oil with a high smoking point. Additionally, it’s a good idea to choose an oil with a neutral taste, unless you are going for a specific spice mixture. The cooking oil with the highest smoking point is avocado oil with a smoking point of 520 degrees Fahrenheit.
It also tastes quite natural, so it’s no wonder it’s one of the most popular oils for searing steak. However, avocado oil can be hard to find and you don’t really need to go that fancy with your oil choice. Safflower oil and sunflower oil also work quite well.
Finally, another oil often used for searing steak is olive oil, but you need to be careful with this. When referring to searing, what is meant by olive oil is light olive oil, not extra virgin! Although extra virgin olive oil is great for salads and other purposes, it’s smoking point is quite low so it will definitely not work for searing steak.
Light (refined) olive oil, on the other hand, is another story. Finally, clarified butter and ghee are also classic options that give the steak a distinct flavor and softness.
What Heat To Use When Searing Meat
As we have already mentioned, what we are looking for when searing steak is a temperature that is high enough for the Maillard reaction to occur which will allow us to get that beautiful brown crust.
To be precise, the Maillard reaction can happen at temperatures between 280 and 330 degrees Fahrenheit, so this is the absolute minimum you need for properly searing a steak.
In practice, it’s probably best to aim for a temperature somewhere between 400 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Going any hotter than 500 degrees can lead to burning and drying out the meat excessively.
Now that we covered the basics of searing, it’s time to get down to the details – how exactly do you sear a steak? Well, actually, a steak can be seared using a variety of methods.
Which one is the best? It depends on the cut, but also on your personal preference and the desired result. In any case, here are nine fool-proof ways to get a perfect sear on your steak:
1. Pan Searing
Searing a steak in a pan is definitely the most common way to cook a steak indoors. But can a steak seared at home be as good as the one you can get in fancy restaurants?
Actually, yes! Once you learn to sear a steak at home the right way, you’ll probably want to eat it all the time. The truth is, you can really achieve amazing results with a stove, a pan, and a nice cut of steak.
Searing a steak at home is fairly easy, but there are still some rules you need to follow if you want a juicy, tender steak.
First of all, it’s always a good idea to bring the steak you will be cooking to room temperature before starting any work on it. In general, taking the meat out of the refrigerator and laying it on the counter for anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes before cooking will do the trick.
Never, and we repeat – never, put a frozen steak into the pan. Frozen steaks are fine, but always let the meat thaw before cooking.
Once you have the meat at room temperature, you’ll need to dry your steak. Just lay the meat out on a board and use a paper towel to pick up any moisture from the surface.
Often the steaks might look like there is no moisture on the surface, but just keep gently blotting with a paper towel and you’ll quickly see it soaking up moisture.
At this point, you can already turn on your stove and start heating up your pan. Put some oil into the pan and spread it out with a brush (if you don’t have a brush for cooking, a folded paper towel will work in a pinch).
While the pan and the oil are heating up, you can season your steaks. It’s very important to season the steak immediately before cooking, because leaving the salt on the stake for longer periods of time will draw out the moisture to the surface again. All the seasonings you need for a classic steak is just salt and pepper – spread them generously on both sides of the steak.
Your stove should be on high heat and the pan and the oil in it should be quite hot before you put the stake in. To get a good sear, you should be able to hear a loud sizzling noise as soon as you drop the steak into the pan.
If there is no sizzling, this means the pan is not hot enough, and the meat won’t be seared, but gently cooked instead – this is not what we want with steak! Although various steak connoisseurs will have their own opinions on this, in general, you shouldn’t touch or move the steak while it’s cooking. Just wait approximately 3-4 minutes and turn the steak to the other side.
The meat should be golden-brown on both sides. However, the exact cooking time will always depend on the thickness of the steak in question and whether you want your steak rare, medium, or well-done.
The Best Pan For Searing Meat
If you want a perfect pan-seared steak, you’ll definitely need the right pan. So what is the best pan for searing meat? First of all, it needs to correspond to some basic conditions in terms of shape: you need a nice, large pan with a flat bottom, low sides, and preferably a long handle.
The long handle really helps since you are working with high temperatures when searing. In terms of size, the right size of the pan will depend on the size of the steaks you are making. You don’t want to use a huge pan for a smaller cut of steak like filet mignon, but you definitely want to have enough space in the pan. In general, a medium-sized pan will work well.
But what kind of pan should you use for searing steak? Most people will definitely tell you to go with cast iron, but a stainless steel pan can also work well.
Cast iron frying pans are a go-to medium for searing steaks for many chefs and this is because cast iron is perfect for reaching and maintaining a high temperature that’s necessary for searing. Once cast iron gets hot, it remains hot.
This is just what you need for searing a steak, but getting a cast iron pan to the right temperature does take some time. Additionally, a well-seasoned cast iron skillet is almost non-stick.
On the other hand, a stainless steel skillet with an aluminum or copper core can also work really well for searing steak. These pans are more responsive to temperature changes, which means they will heat up more quickly than cast iron but also cool down more quickly.
If you want to keep cooking the steak at a lower temperature after searing, for example, it might be more easy to do with a stainless steel pan. In the end, it’s all a matter of style. If you are not sure what to choose – we suggest trying a cast iron pan first.
2. Searing Meat On A Grill
There is really nothing like a great cut of steak perfectly seared on a grill. The signature steakhouse-style grill marks can’t really be achieved with anything else. The process of searing is actually quite similar to pan searing – you need to get the grill pre-heated properly, put the stake on for a couple of minutes without moving, repeat on the other side, and you are done!
You might have heard that searing requires extremely high temperatures. While this is generally true, you actually want the temperature of your grill somewhere between 300 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are many different kinds of grills, so you might be using a charcoal grill, a gas grill, or even an electric one. The type of grill you are using as well as your personal style will determine how exactly you will prepare to sear your steaks on the grill, but there is one thing that is important in every single case – pre-heating the grill.
Seriously, if the grill is not preheated properly, it will not be possible to sear a steak on it! So go ahead, fire up your burners (or whatever heat source you are using) to high, and give the grill at least 15 minutes to heat up. The grates of your grill need to be super hot before you put in the steak, and you want them to be completely clean of any food residue.
Luckily, preheating takes care of this also, as at around 500 degrees Fahrenheit any food that remained on the grates will be burnt off.
When you are ready, brush the grill grates off gently and throw the steak on them. Just like with pan searing, the steak should be salted just prior to throwing it on the grill. You can also rub it or baste it with oil, butter, and/or herbs – that’s completely your choice.
In any case, once the steak is on the grill, resist the temptation to poke it or move it around. You can move it only once if you want, and place it diagonally, so you get the beautiful steakhouse-style grill marks. Give the steak 3 to 4 minutes on one side, flip it, and do the same on the outside.
3. How To Sear Using A Char-Broil Sear Burner?
As we have just explained, it is technically possible to sear meat on any kind of grill. However, with a sear burner it gets much easier and you can have perfectly consistent results. Many large grills come equipped with a sear burner or a sear station.
Those can be either infrared burners or gas burners placed closer together. What a sear burner does it that it provides perfectly even heating and it reaches high temperatures very quickly.
All you need to do is fire up your sear burner and sear your steak just like you would on an ordinary grill. Depending on the desired result, you can then finish it off on a regular burner.
4. Reverse Searing A Steak
The traditional way to make a steak involves searing the steak over high heat and then finishing in the pan or transferring into the oven (unless you like your steak rare, in which case you don’t really need to do anything after searing).
Reverse searing is basically just flipping the process upside down. You first roast the steak in the oven until it reaches the desired level of doneness and then you sear the outside surface in a hot pan.
But what are the benefits of reverse searing? Well, by baking the steak in the oven first, you get more control over the end result and it’s more likely that you’ll end up with a perfectly cooked steak. The inside will be cooked perfectly throughout because the oven provides more even heating, and you can get the perfect brown crust by searing in the end.
Just put the steak in the oven preheated to a medium temperature and use a meat thermometer to check the temperature in the middle. While the steak is in the oven, you can preheat your favorite steak-searing skillet.
When the steak is cooked the way you like it, put in the pan for a minute on each side. While steaks usually need to rest after cooking, with reverse searing you can dig in right away since the meat has basically already rested in the oven.
5. Searing A Sous Vide Steak
As we already mentioned, classic searing requires searing the meat at high temperatures before fully cooking it. Therefore, what you are actually doing when you are searing a sous vide steak is reverse searing. The steak is first cooked sous vide and then seared at the end.
This does not reduce the benefits of searing, though. As we have shown, the idea about sealing in the juices is a myth. On the other hand, you can still get the beautiful caramelized taste by searing a steak that has already been cooked sous vide.
So, to sear a sous vide steak, first cook it using your preferred method. In general, a steak that is 1 inch thick will take about an hour to cook sous vide. When you are done, take the steak out, let it sit at room temperature for a couple of minutes.
This will allow some of the moisture to evaporate. When this happens, use a paper towel to pat the stake dry. Season the steak with salt and pepper (or your favorite spice mixture) and you are ready to sear. You can use any searing method you prefer – sear the steak in a pan, on the grill, or using a blow torch (we’ll talk about that in a minute).
Whichever method you use, you’ll need a hot cooking surface, and you’ll need to sear the steak for about a minute on each side.
6. The Sear Roast Method For Thick Steaks
When you are making an especially thick cut of steak (1 1/2 inches or more), searing on the stovetop and then moving the meat into the oven can give you amazing results. To use this method, prepare your steak just like you would for regular pan searing.
Let it sit at room temperature for a bit, pat dry, season, and then sear in a hot pan with a bit of oil of your choice. When using the sear roast method, you don’t need to sear the steak for too long – a minute on each side will work just fine.
The easiest way to do the sear roast method is by using a nice oven-safe pan that you can transfer from the stovetop into the oven. It could be a cast iron pan, but any oven-safe pan will do.
However, if your frying pan of choice is not oven-safe, you can also transfer the steak to another pan for finishing it in the oven. If you are doing this, we recommend pre-heated the oven pan in the oven before use.
While you are searing your steak, turn the oven on to reach the right cooking temperature as you don’t want your steak cooling down while you transfer it. The oven temperature should be between 400 and 450 degrees Fahrenheit, as a general rule of thumb.
You can also finish the steak in the oven at lower temperatures, but be careful not to go too low as that might dry out the steak.
How long to cook the steak in the oven? This will highly depend on a variety of factors, such as the thickness of the steak, the degree of marbling of the specific cut, and the starting temperature, 30 it can take anywhere from 3 to 15 minutes or more.
Use a meat thermometer to check when the steak is done, but take it out of the oven when the temperature is a couple of degrees lower than the desired result. Take the steak out, cover it lightly with tin foil, and wait for about 10 minutes. The temperature will still rise slightly under the foil and the moisture will be trapped in, resulting in a nice, tender steak.
7. The Chimney Method
When making steak on a charcoal grill (or any other type of grill for that matter), often the biggest problem can be reaching a temperature that’s high enough for the perfect sear. If this is an issue, the chimney method can be a great solution.
Technically, the chimney method is actually a reverse sear, as you need to cook the steak in the oven first. The chimney method for searing steak generally works better for thick cuts of meat (due to the extreme heat), although even thinner cuts can be made this way.
However, if it’s your first time trying the chimney method, we recommend you try with a steak that is at least 1 inch thick. If it’s any thinner, it will be extremely easy to burn the meat over the chimney.
To start, you’ll need to roast the steak in the oven first. Put the meat in a pan and slowly bake in the oven at a temperature around 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on the thickness of the steak and the temperature in the oven, this might take an hour or even two hours.
Once the inside of the steak is done the way you want it, it’s time to take the pan out of the oven, cover with tin foil, and let it rest for a bit. At the same time, you can start getting your chimney ready. Set up your grill, take your chimney, and fill it about half-way with coals.
Even though filling the chimney all the way up with coals might seem like a good idea, resist the temptation – this will burn the meat. Also, don’t use self-lighting coals since the chemicals used in this type of coals can end up on your steak which is not a nice thing. Light the coals from below and take a grill rack and place it on top of the chimney to warm up.
You’ll want to wait until the coals have ashed over (you’ll notice the top layer becoming gray instead of black). Once this has happened, you are ready to sear the steak! Just throw it onto the rack! The top of the chimney will be extremely hot, though, so you might want to consider using gloves. The trick is to not sear the steak for longer than a minute on each side – if you leave it on for too long, it will burn.
8. The Sear Broil Method
The sear broil method is quite similar to the sear roast method, the difference being that you sear the steak using the broiler in your oven, instead of searing on the stovetop. Broiling differs from baking and roasting because it uses direct heat – only on one side.
When you bake something in the oven, it is cooked by the warm air, but when a steak it’s broiled, it is actually cooked by the direct heat due to the constant flow of air in the oven when the broiler is turned on.
To sear a steak in the broiler, it is important to preheat the pan first. Put a cast iron skillet under the broiler for around 20 minutes, so it’s piping hot. Once this is done, pull the oven rack with the skillet out of the oven, and throw the steak in there.
Just like with all other searing methods, your steak should be at room temperature, patted dry and seasoned just before searing. Let it cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. When the searing is done, reduce the heat in the oven to somewhere around 300 – 350 degrees Fahrenheit and cooked the steak until medium rare, or whichever way you like it!
9. The Heat Gun Method
Even though they were originally made for industrial purposes, a heat gun can actually be a great helper in the kitchen, especially when it comes to steak. Heat guns blow out hot air at temperatures as high as 1300 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on the specific heat gun you have), and this works perfectly for searing meat!
The heat gun method works best for steaks that have been cooked sous vide beforehand, but you can also use a heat gun on a steak that has been gently roasted in the oven. You can probably guess how to sear a steak using a heat gun – just point the hot air to the steak and keep at it until you see the desired level of brownness, which shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes per side.
The heat gun method is different from other searing methods because it won’t give you a thick brown crust. Instead, the crust will be quite thin, but perfectly caramelized, while leaving the insides untouched.
If you have made it to the end of this guide, you must be craving a nice juicy steak right now! We know we certainly are. Even though all of this information might seem confusing right now, searing steaks is actually a lot of fun! We really do recommend trying all of the methods we mentioned when you have the opportunity.
You can go with the tried and true recipes that involve seasoning a steak with only salt and pepper, but there is also a lot of room to improvise with different spices, rubs, and seasonings. In any case, we hope this guide has helped you up your steak game, no matter if you are a newbie or a true steak aficionado.
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