Yesterday was all about sautéing and today we’re moving on to a cooking technique that is closely related: searing. Many people confuse the two but there are distinct differences. Among other things, yesterday’s post talked about the two main goals of sautéing: to brown and to create fond. The difference with searing is that it has one main goal: to brown. (That’s not to say that you won’t end up with some fond but it’s not the purpose of the technique.)
sear: to brown the surface of a food in fat over high heat, usually before finishing by another method to add flavor and color
The benefit to searing meat is that it creates an incredible crust, one that can’t be achieved through sautéing. Searing is the technique of choice for cooking a steak (whether beef, pork, bison, or other) and preparing meat for braising or stewing. We’ll get into combination cooking methods at the end of this series so for today’s lesson on searing, we’ll focus on steak. Searing isn’t ideal for fish or chicken; fish because it doesn’t hold up well and chicken because it requires longer cooking to kill pathogens.
So let’s focus on steak. Plenty of people have plenty of opinions on how a steak should be cooked. I decided to browse through a
multitude of such opinions, just to see what’s out there. My head hurt after perusing the sites on the first page of my search, “how to cook the perfect steak”. From when to salt, to oven or no oven, to clarified butter or oil, to how often to flip, and even to “reverse searing”,… there was a lot to consider. There were three things every article agreed on, however; cast iron is the pan of choice, it needs to be as hot as you can get it, and you should remove the batteries from your smoke detector before you get started. (Okay, I added the third but it’s true. There will be lots of smoke.)
After reading through a multitude of steak-searing hypotheses, I thought about buying a dozen steaks and testing them all out myself. That idea didn’t last long, though. Plenty of people have done it and it seems they all have differing opinions anyway. Ultimately, I decided to stick with what I’ve been doing for years. Turns out it encompasses several popular methods that my friends, family, and I have enjoyed for years. In fact, I recently trained a friend in my method for searing steaks when she wanted to cook one for her mom. Her response –>
How To Sear The Perfect Steak
Temperature is key for the perfect steak: temperature of the meat, temperature of the pan, and temperature of the oven. First, your steak must be at room temperature before you even think about lighting a flame. That means it should be removed from the refrigerator at least an hour before you cook it. (If you’re in a hurry, you can wrap it well in a plastic baggie, squeeze out all the air, seal it, and place it in room temperature water for 30 minutes. Don’t let ANY water get on the steak.)
Second, pat your steaks dry with paper towels. To obtain the desired brown crust on meat, the surface must exceed 300°F, so searing requires the meat surface be free of water, which boils around 212°F. Water will just get in the way of your perfect crust.
Next, your oven should be preheated to 450°F (if you want your steak cooked above medium rare). Your pan, preferably cast iron, should be screaming hot. As in, you know it’s ready when you see smoke rising even before it even comes in contact with food. Just like with sautéing, don’t even think about grabbing your non-stick skillet. If you don’t have cast iron, go with stainless steel. If you don’t have cast iron or stainless steel, it’s time to go shopping.
Now let’s talk about salt. I salt two different ways, depending on my commitment level to the steak. (**Update: I now salt differently… I highly recommend you check out my new method here.**) If I think about it the night before I cook it, I’ll liberally salt my steak with kosher salt and leave it in the refrigerator, uncovered, overnight. It acts as kind of a brine. The salt causes the steak to release a little of its liquid but then it reabsorbs most of it, along with the salt. I still remove my steak from the refrigerator two hours before I cook it and pat it dry before it hits the pan. If I’m not quite that committed, I salt it right before the meat touches the pan. In my experience, there’s no middle ground.
When you see smoke rising from your pan, it’s time to add some fat. If you have a fatty strip on the side of your steak (like in the photo, the outer edge of the bottom steak), it’ll make the perfect cooking medium. Place your steak on its skinny side, fat down, in your hot pan and let it cook until that fat melts. It only takes a a couple minutes but you’ll probably have to hold it with a pair of tongs to keep it from flopping over (get out your longest pair of tongs to keep your hands as far back as possible). When the fat’s melted, remove the steak then pepper both sides (and salt them liberally with sea salt if you didn’t “brine”). Return them to the pan, this time flat, and begin searing. If you don’t have a fatty strip on your steaks you can add canola oil, clarified butter, or a 50/50 mix of the two to the pan and skip the “skinny side searing”.
Sear the steaks on each side for 3-4 minutes, depending on how thick your steaks are. 3-4 minutes on each side will give you a nice medium rare (which is my preferred steak temperature). If you want your steak cooked longer, stick it in your preheated oven until it reaches your desired temperature (get your digital thermometer and refer to this post for temperature charts). People have tricks for poking steaks with their finger to determine doneness but, personally, I think that comes with experience. Use your thermometer at first (careful not to probe your steak too many times during cooking because you don’t want the juices to seep out). Meat gets tougher the longer it cooks so poke your steak with your finger when it’s reached the right temperature and you’ll know what it should feel like next time. After a few steaks, you should be perfectly familiar with the texture and your steak will no longer look like Swiss cheese.
Finally, let your steak rest for 5-10 minutes. When you cook a steak, the juices inside are bouncing all over the place. If you cut in right away, the juices escape. Allowing your steak to rest will allow those juices to mellow back out into the meat and keep your steak tender and delicious. While it’s resting, you can also put a pat of compound butter on top for some extra flavor. Yum.
I put together this diagram of well-cooked steaks. Notice the color of each. Whether it’s red, pink, or (sadly) brown, the inside is consistent from top to bottom. This is ideal. This is what you’re looking for both when you cook steaks at home and you eat steak at a restaurant.
I also put together this diagram of poorly cooked steaks. Sadly, I got these images from a diagram I saw on Pinterest, put out by a popular cooking site (I ripped it apart in Photoshop so as not to totally call out the people who made it). It drives me bananas every time I see it pinned because it’s such a bad illustration. Steaks should NEVER be striped on the inside. And it’s one thing to do it by accident but quite another to post it as the way your steak should look. The medium rare steak is the worst of all. That steak has five distinct stripes. That’s horrible!!
It looks like they didn’t allow their steaks to come to room temp before searing, which causes uneven cooking. Actually, it looks like they didn’t even sear them; it’s possible they didn’t get their pan hot enough. Either way, the internal temperature of their steaks is way off. If your steaks look like this on the inside, it’s time to re-evaluate your method. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll still taste good because it’s still steak, after all. It just won’t be as enjoyable as those on my other diagram. And if your expensive steak at a restaurant looks like this, don’t go back.
Steaks don’t need marinades or complicated spices and rubs. In fact, they usually just ruin a good piece of meat. Salt and pepper and hot cast iron skillet is all you really need. It doesn’t get much easier to achieve this level of deliciousness. With just a little practice, you’ll rival the best steakhouses for a fraction of the price.
Wanna try grilling a steak now? Learn how here.