How–To: Sear Meat

February 16, 2020
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When meat hits a scorching hot pan, the surface instantly begins caramelizing – YUM! Searing meat is 100% about building flavor. Whether you’re making a roast, stew, or braising something this translates into the kind of deep, savory flavor that many of us can’t resist. Let’s take a look at how to sear meat!

Don’t Skip the Sear!

It might be tempting to skip over the step in the recipe that directs you to sear the meat. Many people think the purpose of searing is to “seal in the juices.” That’s actually a myth! And you’re not actually cooking the meat here either— that will happen in the oven or elsewhere. What you’re really doing is BUILDING FLAVOR. More specifically, you’re building the foundation for flavor.

It’s that caramelization that has a major affect on the finished dish. Thanks to that scorching high heat, you’re able to develop complex and savory flavor thanks to that deeply caramelized exterior! Something cooked at a lower temperature has no way of developing those deep flavors. You may achieve other results, like tenderness, but nothing compares to the flavor you’re able to build by searing.

In my opinion, taking the time to sear a piece of meat is ALWAYS worth the extra step. With minimal effort, you’re able to achieve substantially better results.  Don’t skip the sear!

Below you’ll find some of my best Tips + Tricks for making this happen.

Tips + Tricks

  • Use a HOT Skillet! High temperatures are necessary to get that legitimate sear on the surface of the meat. Use a stainless steel skillet or a cast iron skillet for this kind of cooking; this is one time when you want to avoid using a nonstick skillet. 
  • Only Use a little Oil– Before you begin, add a drizzle of vegetable oil (which has a higher smoke point than olive oil) and set the pan set over high heat. I like to pat the meat dry with paper towels as the pan heats — this helps keep the exterior from from steaming instead of searing. When the oil starts to shimmer and the oil begins to smoke, you’re ready to add the meat. Watch it closely. 
  • When searing, the purpose of the oil is to get uniform surface contact between the meat and the pan. This will make it so you have even caramelization and prevent some spots from burning while other spots aren’t cooked. As it’s heating, use the handle of the skillet to swirl the oil around to get a thin coating over the bottom of the pan.
  • No over crowding in the pan, please– If you’re searing one big piece of meat, make sure to use a pan large enough to hold it. If you’re searing smaller pieces of meat, like for a stew, leave a few inches of space around the pieces of meat. This guarantees even cooking and prevents the meat from steaming instead of searing.
  • No touching! Once you’ve put the meat in the pan, don’t touch it! I know how tempting it is to sneak a peak under the meat or move things around, but try to resist! In order for it to properly sear, it needs a few minutes of uninterrupted contact. Believe it or not, it will initially stick to the bottom of the pan and then release naturally when it’s seared. After a few minutes, give the pan a shake. If the meat releases from the pan, it’s ready to be turned.

Once all of the sides have been seared, you’re ready to transfer the meat to the oven to roast, or in a big pot to braise, or continue with whatever cooking method you like. If you are working with a steak like mine in the video, check out my recipe for Pan-Seared Steak with Shallots!