Let’s talk about meat.
There are oh-so many ways to cook meat. You can bake it, broil it, pan-fry it and, of course, grill and smoke it! The flavor and texture of your meat can vary greatly depending on your preparation methods.
But the truth remains that searing your meat is the key step to creating a deep, rich crust of flavor on the exterior of your cut. Searing is a technique that gets little love in many recipes and is often relegated to a simple instruction like “brown meat on each side.”
I’m going to break down the science and art of meat searing for you and help you understand how this technique adds layers of flavor to your home cooking. If you’ve been skipping this step to save time, you’ll see what you’ve been missing out on!
- 1 What Does Searing Mean?
- 2 Should I Sear My Meat?
- 3 The Science Of Searing
- 4 How to Sear Meat Properly
- 5 How to Pan Sear Meat
- 6 How to Sear on a Grill
- 7 Conclusion
What Does Searing Mean?
Let’s start with the definition of searing. Is searing the same thing as browning, blackening or caramelizing your meat?
Recipe writers often use these terms interchangeably, which can lead to confusion.
After all, if you want to caramelize a batch of onions you’ll need to cook them slowly over medium heat. Use the same technique on your steak and you’ll end up with an overcooked piece of leather with little flavor.
So what do recipe writers really mean when they talk about searing, browning, blackening or caramelizing meat?
Searing vs Browning and Blackening
Searing simply means to cook something quickly over high heat until the surface forms a nice brown crust. Browning a batch of meat for a stew would achieve the same effect.
Blackening fish or other cuts is a little different. A blackened piece of meat is coated with butter and a heavy layer of herbs and spices and then seared in a hot pan. The black crust isn’t charred or burnt, but rather is a mixture of the browned milk solids from the butter and the cooked, crusted spices.
So searing and browning are essentially the same thing, and blackening is a method of searing meat along with spices and butter. What about caramelization?
Searing vs Caramelizing
A lot of recipes use the term “caramelize your meat”, but does it mean what they think it means? In a nutshell, no. With a few exceptions.
Caramelization is the technique of cooking sugar until it browns, which deepens the color and adds a nutty flavor. Picture the crispy crust atop a Crème Brûlée- that’s a classic example of caramelization in action.
You can caramelize onions and other veggies like carrots because they naturally contain sugar. You cook them slowly to release the water and gently sauté the veggies until the sugars start to turn brown. Caramelized veggies have a deep flavor that emphasizes their savory sweetness, as in French Onion soup.
Unless you’ve coated your meat in a sugar-based rub, you won’t be able to caramelize it (or not very much- see the Science of Searing below).
So most of the time, if a recipe calls for caramelizing your meat the writer really means to sear or brown it. If you’re like me, you’ll get a kick out of how many recipes use this term incorrectly for cooking meat.
Should I Sear My Meat?
There are three reasons you should make a point to sear or brown your meat:
- Searing creates unique flavors and aromas through the Maillard reaction (see the Science of Searing), which enhances your meat and any sauces made from the left-over bits.
- The brown crust makes your meat look more appealing, especially when sliced.
- The difference between the texture and flavor of the tender, juicy interior and crispy exterior makes your meat tastier.
Imagine the difference in flavor between poached chicken and roasted or grilled chicken. Poached chicken is subtle, but a piece of roasted chicken knocks your taste buds out of the park!
You won’t always have to sear your meat as a separate step to get this flavor boost. Many cooking techniques have got the browning stage covered, so no extra searing step is needed. Most of us don’t sear our Thanksgiving turkeys; the oven’s heat browns the skin just fine.
But for meats that are braised in a liquid, such as a pot roast or beef stew, searing really cranks up the flavor. If you sear your pork chops in a pan, you can use the browned bits left behind as the base for a sauce or demi-glaze too!
The Science Of Searing
How does searing a steak or chicken thigh add flavor to your meat? That’s where the science of searing comes in.
When you cook meat over high heat (240°F to 340°F), the cells on the surface begin to break down. They release fluids that contain water, amino acids (the building blocks that make up protein) and carbohydrates (sugars used to power the cell).
If you’ve ever tasted the drippings from a grilled steak or pork roast you know how much flavor these fluids contain!
When the fluids or “meat juices” are exposed to the high heat of your grill, pan or oven the amino acids and sugars in the juice undergo a process called the Maillard reaction.
Maillard Reaction Makes Meat Tasty
The Maillard reaction is a complex set of chemical reactions. It governs everything from the color of your cooked food to its aroma and flavor profile. This fun video gives you an idea of all the things the Maillard reaction does to make your food yummy.
I won’t bore you with all the steps in the Maillard reaction, as you’d practically need to have a Chemistry degree to make sense of it. The simple answer is the amino acids and sugars react under heat to form new compounds. These compounds will vary depending on what you’re cooking and at what temperature you cook it at.
Both your steak and roasted potatoes rely on the Maillard reaction for their delicious flavor and crispy exterior. This reaction turns your cookies brown in the oven and gives your slice of toast that nutty aroma.
For browning meat, the important thing to know is that this process creates a bunch of unique flavors and aromas that make seared meat so darn tasty. That’s why boiled meat tastes so flat in comparison: since water boils at 212°F, the meat never gets hot enough (or dry enough) to undergo the Maillard reaction.
How to Sear Meat Properly
It’s not difficult to sear a piece of meat, but there are a few ways you can mess it up if you’re not paying attention or trying to save time. This is no time for short-cuts!
Dry Surface = Better Searing
The moisture on the surface of your meat will affect its ability to sear. Your meat can’t begin to brown until the surface dries out. As long as there is moisture on the exterior of your meat, it will produce steam instead of undergoing the tasty Maillard reaction.
You should always dry the surface of your raw meat before seasoning and searing it. You can leave it uncovered overnight in the refrigerator, or pat it down with paper towels.
Even if you’ve soaked your meat in a marinade, you should still dry it as best you can before trying to brown it.
If you toss a wet, marinated piece of meat directly onto a hot grill or pan, what will happen? The wet marinade will boil and turn into steam. This steam will actually lift your meat from the grates or surface of the pan.
Instead of turning brown or developing grill marks, your meat’s surface will get steam-cooked. By the time the excess moisture evaporates from the pan, your meat’s surface will already be cooked even though it isn’t brown or crispy.
Some folks try to compensate for this lack of browning by cooking their meat longer. This may get your meat brown, but it will also be very overcooked. Don’t do this.
Use a Hot Pan
For the best flavor and texture, you’ll want your meat’s surface to immediately begin to sear when you toss it in the pan.
Always preheat your pan or grill grates when searing meat. While water boils at 212°F, your meat won’t begin to sear until the temperature hits at least 240°F. If you toss a steak into a cool pan, the moisture released from your meat will steam-cook it until the pan reaches 240°F.
A hot pan or grill grates are a must for the best seared piece of meat. Use your infrared thermometer to determine when your pan is hot enough for your meat.
To Oil or Not to Oil?
Should you oil your pan or grill grates, or coat your meat with oil before you sear it?
That depends. Oil can help develop the tasty browned crust on meats that are lower in fat or higher in moisture. If you’re trying to get a sear on a skinless chicken breast or thigh, you’ll definitely have better results if you use some oil.
I might coat a pork tenderloin with a bit of oil as well, to help it brown evenly. For cuts like a ribeye steak or pork shoulder, on the other hand, you don’t need additional oil because these cuts are fatty enough on their own.
If you’re opting to use oil, be sure the oil you choose has a high smoking point.
Canola, safflower and corn-based oils are all neutral in flavor and can handle searing meat at high temperatures. Olive oil, on the other hand, has a lower smoking point and often burns in a hot pan or on the grill. Burned oil is not tasty!
Give Your Meat Some Room
The biggest mistake folks make when searing meat is trying to cook too much at one time. This is usually done when pan searing, like for chops or stew meat, but you can make this mistake on your grill as well.
You’ll notice that most recipes for beef stew say to cook the pieces of meat in batches. Have you ever skipped that step and just tossed it all in a pan together?
If you’ve ever done this, then you know what happens. Instead of turning nice and brown, your meat steams in the pan. The meat juices boil and the steam cooks the meat above it. Don’t do this!
Instead, give each piece of meat plenty of room to sear evenly. I’d say a minimum of 1 to 2 inches between each piece is ideal. That way the juices can evaporate away without steaming your meat and the flavors can concentrate as they undergo the Maillard reaction.
Hey Teacher- Leave That Meat Alone!
I’ve got one last tip for getting the best sear possible no matter what cut of meat you’re cooking.
Have patience with your sear, Grasshopper.
That’s right. Once you place your meat in the hot pan, leave it alone until it’s ready to flip. Don’t keep moving it around. You’re not trying to sauté things here.
You want your meat’s surface to be in direct contact with the pan or your grill grates so it forms that tasty brown crust. Every time you peek at the underside or move your meat in the pan you disrupt the Maillard reaction and stop the searing process.
You’ll know your meat is ready to flip when it releases naturally from the pan or your grill grates.
How to Pan Sear Meat
Now that you’re ready to give pan-searing a try, let’s talk about your equipment.
We’ve already covered the how-to’s of searing meat above, but there are a few details specific to searing meat in a pan that are worth going over.
What Pans are Best for Searing?
Can you use any type of pan to sear your meat?
Yes, technically, but you won’t necessarily get the same result in a cast iron pan vs a non-stick or Teflon pan. While non-stick pans are incredibly popular, they are not my favorite pan for searing meat for a few reasons.
First, it’s hard to preheat a non-stick pan to the proper temperature because the coating starts to break down when the pan is heated empty. You can quickly ruin a non-stick pan by preheating it this way. The only way to avoid this is to use an inch or so of oil, in which case you’re really frying your meat instead of searing it.
The second problem with non-stick pans is they are non-stick. Your meat won’t stick to the pan while it cooks and then release once it has a nice sear. Instead, you’ll have to watch the clock and peek at your meat to determine when it’s ready to flip.
Rather than deal with these problems, I save my non-stick pans for my fried eggs and sautéed veggies. When I want to sear meat I break out my cast iron, stainless steel or carbon steel pans.
These types of pans are ideal for searing meat and you won’t have to worry about overheating or scratching them either! You can read more about the benefits of each type below.
Cast iron pans are a classic for a reason!
- Inexpensive and easy to find.
- Very durable and scratch-resistant.
- Once preheated they stay hot.
- Naturally non-stick if seasoned, and even an unseasoned pan will release your meat once it is seared.
- Heavy and hard for some to lift.
- They don’t heat evenly and need a good 10 minutes of preheating to get a good sear on a piece of meat.
- Requires proper cleaning and maintenance or they may begin to rust.
- Reacts with acidic ingredients like tomatoes or lemon juice, so not ideal for some pan sauces.
Stainless steel pans are a popular choice in many high-end stores.
They are usually a bit pricier than other options but can be a great choice for searing meat. Especially if you plan to make a sauce from the left-over bits!
- Ideal for searing, sautéing, braising and making sauces.
- Durable and scratch-resistant.
- Doesn’t react to acidic foods (nonreactive).
- Dishwasher safe (but should you wash in a dishwasher?).
- Unless your pan has a copper or aluminum core, they don’t conduct heat evenly.
- Usually on the expensive side, especially if they have an aluminum or copper core.
- Can be challenging to maintain the shiny finish.
If you haven’t jumped on the carbon steel bandwagon, what have you been waiting for? Carbon steel pans are like the perfect mixture of a cast iron and a stainless steel pan all rolled into one.
If I had a choice, this would be my go-to pan for searing meat, and they are about half the cost of stainless steel pans!
- Ideal for searing, sautéing, roasting, baking and sauce-making.
- Naturally non-stick and become more so with seasoning. Seared meat will release when it is ready to flip!
- Lighter than cast iron but stays hot once preheated (good heat conductor).
- Unlike cast iron, carbon steel pan can change temperature quickly. It’s easy to adjust their temperature by changing your heat levels. Just turn up the stovetop or take it off the flame, you’ve got a lot of control!
- Requires the same type of care as a cast iron pan or they will begin to rust.
- If not regularly seasoned, the pan may react to acidic ingredients.
- Retains less heat than cast iron pans.
How to Sear on a Grill
Searing meat on your grill is even easier than searing it in a hot pan. Just preheat your grill to 350°F and place your meat directly over the fire for a minute or two. Once the sear marks have developed and the meat is browned, flip and finish for another minute until the other side is beautifully marked as well.
If your meat is a thick cut or bone-in, it may not be fully cooked after searing it. In that case, you can move it off the fire to an area with indirect heat and finish to your desired level of doneness. I’m a big fan of the rare, 140°F steak or beef roast myself.
You can even use a sous-vide or warm water bath to precook your meat and then reverse sear it with a torch (or on your hot grill)!
I cover this in detail in another article but wanted to mention the technique here as well. A reverse sear is done at the end of your meat cooking instead of as your introductory step but is otherwise the same technique.
Does the Grate Material Matter?
When you’re planning to sear your meat on your grill, how much thought should you give to the construction of your grill grates?
I wouldn’t worry about the type of grates you have when it comes to searing meat.
You can get a great sear even if you have cheap cooking grates on your grill. As long as you preheat your grill and give the grates plenty of time to get hot, they should leave some beautiful sear marks and a tasty crust on your food.
Your grill’s temperature and the temperature of your grates will affect your results more than the type of grates you use to cook the meat on.
It may not be the most searing topic of conversation, but to build flavor you should cook your meat quickly in a hot pan or grill. Browning allows the rich meaty flavor to concentrate and form a crust on the surface of your cuts. With some help from our old chemist buddy Maillard, your meat will look and taste amazing when you sear it.
Searing is an easy technique to master if you pay attention to your temperatures, dry your meat off and don’t overcook it. You can do it in a hot pan or on your grill, or crank up the broiler and finish things in the oven. It’s also the key technique for layering flavor in many meat-based recipes.