What Is Searing Meat? Why Master It? & How to Do It Properly

Searing two steaks on cast iron grill grate
© Elenathewise - stock.adobe.com

According to the dictionary, searing means extremely hot as in the searing heat of the sun. Its other meaning is severely critical.

This word does sound intense, doesn’t it?

If you like to cook or grill, you’ve probably heard of people using it in a cooking/grilling context before. But what does it REALLY mean in that context though?

Well, we’re going to learn more about it in this article.

What Does Searing Mean?

In cooking, searing means blasting high and intense heat to a food item for a short amount of time.

A good searing temperature is usually around 500F or more.

The idea is to cook the outside of the food quickly, giving it that beautiful golden brown color. Searing can sometimes cook the inside if the food is thin. But if not, simply transfer it to a low heat setting to finish cooking thereafter.

Besides the color, searing also imparts flavorful aromas to the food. Therefore, it’s a great technique to have in any chef or backyard cook’s culinary repertoire.

What Is the Purpose of Searing?

As I mentioned above, searing accomplishes two things — creating an inviting appearance and building flavor. Let’s dig a bit deeper into each one. We’re going to use meat as our example.

When meat hits a hot surface, say a pan or grill grates, there are many chemical reactions happening there. One of them is the Maillard reaction. Proteins inside the meat break down into amino acids in the presence of high heat. These amino acids then react with sugars, turning the color from red to golden brown.

Meanwhile, these reactions also release wonderful aromas, which then give the newly-formed golden brown layer a rich and savory flavor. Once you’re done searing, that flavor stays there. And after the cooking is finished, it blends in with the flavor from the inside of the meat, creating this amazing combination of smell and taste.

When you bite into a piece of seared meat, the effect really is sensational. You eat with both your eyes and your mouth — an appetizing color combined with a deeply nutty and savory flavor. What more can you ask for?

Now, you may have read that searing meat also seals in the juices. Well, that’s actually a myth altogether. Let’s debunk it in the next section, shall we?

Does Searing Really Lock in the Juices?

No, searing doesn’t lock in the juices. That crusty outer layer resulting from searing doesn’t really prevent any moisture loss.

You see, meat is two-thirds water. During cooking, most of it will either leak out or evaporate. There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s just a part of the process. In fact, seared meat experiences fairly higher moisture loss than un-seared meat.

This idea was first put forward by a German chemist named Justus Von Liebig in 1847. He believed that searing created an exterior crust or “barrier” for the meat, locking in all the juices and moisture. 

In 1902, Auguste Escoffier, a French food journalist, wrote about it and further populated the myth.

Not until 1930, a study run by the University of Missouri debunked the myth, proving that the opposite was true.

Nevertheless, many restaurants, cooks, and food writers still advocate it these days.

What Is the Difference Between Browning and Searing?

We’ve heard of the word “brown” quite often throughout this article. But what is “browning” actually? 

Browning is a chemical reaction while searing is a cooking process. Browning is indeed a part of searing. The Maillard reaction we’ve talked about is an example of browning.

Now, there is also another type of chemical reaction that also turns the food brown, but it’s not necessarily browning. It’s caramelizing.

Caramelizing occurs when sugars or carbohydrates in food are heated. It happens without proteins.

That’s why caramelizing is found more often in many vegetables while browning is found more often in meat.

Do You Sear Meat Before or After Cooking?

The answer is it depends.

If the meat is thin, you can just sear and it will cook the whole thing. If the meat is thick, you sear it first to develop the color and flavor on the outside. Then continue cooking the inside after that.

The opposite is also true. It’s actually a wonderful technique called the reverse sear. I do have an article about it. Click on the hyperlink if you’re interested.

How Do You Sear Meat?

You can sear meat on a grill or in a pan. Since this website is all about BBQ, let’s start with a grill.

Searing Meat on a Grill

  1. Preheat the grill for 20 minutes. After that, use a grill brush to clean up the grill grates.
  2. While the grill is preheating, bring the meat out and let it come to room temperature. Then pat it dry. Don’t forget to season it too.
  3. The grill should be around 500F by now. Put the meat on and let the sizzling sear begin. Leave the meat there for 2 to 3 minutes (lid off).
  4. Flip the meat. And move it to another area of the grill where the temperature is still high. Repeat the previous step.
  5. Once the meat has the desired golden brown color. Check its internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer.
  6. Thin meat should be done. Move thicker meat to an indirect heat zone on the grill to finish cooking (lid closed). Or to the oven.
  7. Check the internal temperature again to see if the center reaches the target temp. Once it’s there, remove the meat and let it rest for 10 minutes. Then dig in.

Here is a quick video from BBQGuys showcasing the whole process. Enjoy!

Searing Meat in a Pan

  1. Pat the meat dry. Sprinkle it with the seasoning of your choice. I always keep it simple with just salt.
  2. Get your cast iron skillet out. Preheat it. Then put a small amount of canola oil or any oil that has a high smoke point. Swirl the oil around the pan to coat it evenly.
  3. Now, it’s time to put the meat on. Be careful here. We’re dealing with hot oil. Try to place the meat on one side of the pan if that’s possible. That way, you have another hot area on the other side when it’s time to flip.
  4. Leave the meat there for 2 to 3 minutes. Don’t touch it. Don’t peak. Nothing. Just let the heat do its thang.
  5. After 2 to 3 minutes, check the progress. If it’s crusty and golden brown, it’s time to flip.
  6. Flip the meat and move it to the other hot area. Repeat the previous steps.
  7. Once the two sides are properly seared, use a tongs to stand the meat up then proceed to sear the lateral sides.
  8. Again, thin meat should be done by now. Thicker meat should be moved to an oven to finish cooking.
  9. After everything is done, let the meat rest for 10 minutes then serve.

I found this video from Foodland Hawaii. Chef Keoni will go into more details on how to pan-sear a steak there.

Top Tips for Searing

  1. Only add pepper after you’re finished cooking. If you add it beforehand, the pepper will carbonize during the searing process and leave a bitter taste on the meat.
  2. If the meat is already marinated or brined, don’t add any salt. You can also pat dry the meat to remove any excess marinade.
  3. The reason why we pat dry the meat is to reduce steam during searing. The water on the meat surface will turn to steam, which lifts the meat off the hot surface. That will create uneven searing as well as cool off the pan’s surface.
  4. Besides high smoke point oils, you can also use animal fat.

Summary

Searing is certainly something that you want to master. It takes some trial and error. But once you get it, it will enhance the quality of your cooking, both in terms of flavor and presentation. 

You friends and family will be wowed when they look at a properly seared steak. Even better when they bite into it. All that meaty goodness!

Man, I’m getting hungry just by writing about this stuff. I think I’m going to sear me some steaks after this.

If you have any tips or advice on searing, please leave a comment below. I’m always looking to learn more from you guys.

Thank you! 

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Author

Thinh Phan

Thinh Phan

Thinh Phan is a barbecue enthusiast who fires up his grill regularly, at least 3 times a week. Combining the experience and his passion for outdoor cooking, he put together BBQInProgress.com where he shares recipe ideas along with his knowledge of grilling and barbecuing techniques.

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