Sometimes you want a good steak, but the weather isn’t cooperating enough for you to be able to use the grill. Or maybe you need some chunks of meat properly caramelized and browned for a stew.
What do you do?
You use a pan searing technique, of course! And you turn to a trusty skillet to get the job done.
Given the option, I sometimes prefer a pan-seared steak over a grilled version. The meat’s natural flavors are allowed to shine through, with a little help from the caramelized sugars and the nutty goodness of a brown crust produced via the Maillard reaction.
Because this taste-boosting technique is all about building up the flavors of the meat, it is critical to apply the proper searing method to achieve the most flavorful outcome.
In addition to understanding how to perform the technique, it is also vital to make use of the best possible tools for the job. One of the questions I am often asked is what kind of pan to use for this technique.
Stainless Steel Clad or Tri-Ply Cookware
If you already have a set of stainless clad or tri-ply cookware, or at least a skillet made from one of these materials, then you probably already have what you need to get a good sear. These types of pans allow the heat to spread evenly throughout the pan, and the cookware will not be harmed when it is used at a high enough temperature for this process. Plus, you can deglaze stainless steel cookware (see below for more information about deglazing, and why it isn’t a good idea with cast iron).
What do we recommend for a starter pan?
This is a pretty easy choice. The All-Clad Weeknight Pan is an all-in-one item that lets you go from searing to braising (i.e. pot roasting) all in one step. It’s basically a frying pan that has deep sides, patterned after the French “country pans.”
Brown your meat like in any conventional skillet, deglaze, and cover. For a pot roast, you can either leave on the stove on low heat or place it in the oven. It also serves double duty as a southern style chicken cooker.
Since it’s All-Clad, the Weeknight Pan is a bit pricey. But it’s pretty much a lifetime investment, and it is one of the most versatile piece of cookware that you could purchase. Oh, and it’s induction compatible, if that matters to you.
Cast Iron Frying Pans and Grills
I am a sucker for the classic iron skillet that was given to me by my grandma—already seasoned! I also have some other iron skillets, which I have worked very hard to season myself. Cast iron cookware retains a great deal of heat, and because of that is a natural partner to browning and searing meat.
A basic Lodge 12 In pre-seasoned skillet will do the job and is very versatile
Also, cast iron is compatible with every kind of cooktop available today: gas, electric, glass top, and even induction stoves all offer splendid results. The best part – they are very inexpensive, even ones that are made in the USA.
One of the few drawbacks with iron is that the high heat can sometimes draw the seasoning out of a pan, which you’ve worked so hard to put in! Some people who prefer to sear in cast iron will keep a separate pan just for that, and maintain a lovely seasoning on another iron skillet for other uses.
The Lodge L8SGP3 Pre-Seasoned Cast-Iron Square Grill would be an excellent choice for dedicated searing pan – especially if you like grill marks
Moreover, you shouldn’t deglaze a bare cast iron skillet – the acidic nature of most deglazing solutions will strip a seasoned cast iron pan down to bare metal.
The Le Creuset Signature Enameled 3-1/2-Quart Round Braiser is an excellent choice for a “deglazing safe” cast iron pan
This was one of the reasons that French companies such as Staub and Le Creuset first introduced enamel porcelain coated Dutch ovens, and other enameled pieces of cast iron cookware. Besides providing a more natural nonstick surface, the porcelain also allows for the use of acidic sauces (such as those including tomatoes) without fear of stripping the finish off of the vessel when deglazing.
Carbon Steel Skillets
Carbon steel skillets and frying pans are the lesser known (at least in North America) siblings of cast iron. They are seasoned the same, look similar, and have many of the same properties, plus they are great for searing.
Carbon steel skillets are lighter in weight, and this makes them ideal for the older person. They work great for those folks that are “less robust,” or for anyone that doesn’t want to pack around the heft of a cast iron pan. You can read more about the differences between cast iron and carbon steel in our comparison article.
Foodal recommends the DeBuyer 12″ Mineral B Element Iron Frypan
Carbon steel is available in several thicknesses, but you should choose one of the thicker grades to ensure that you are able to take advantage of the heat retention properties that make this form of cookware an asset in your searing endeavors.
The Lodge CRS12 Pre-Seasoned Carbon Steel Skillet is pre-seasoned and made in the USA!
These pans are fairly low cost, so there is really no financial reason or need to go with a Chinese copy.
Results with copper cookware will be similar to the stainless steel clad as mentioned above, if they are stainless steel lined. I really enjoy copper cookware, and some people love it for searing meat. It’s also effective if you want to use it for deglazing and creating sauces.
The Mauviel M’Heritage Copper M250C 11.8-Inch Round Frying Pan has a layer of stainless steel applied to 2.5 mm of copper, wonderful for searing and deglazing.
Important note: Don’t try to sear with tin-lined copper
The tin has a much lower melting point than steel (450°F) – this is in the higher range of temperatures that you will need to use to achieve a proper Malliard reaction. Besides ruining your steak, you could ruin your pan. Most modern copper cookware pieces sold today are lined with stainless steel rather than tin.
While none of the products listed above are necessarily the best because this determination is largely based on personal preference, it is definitely true that a nonstick (think Teflon) pan will never give you the results you want when you are trying to brown meat.
Avoid Teflon and other manufactured nonstick coatings when searing
These types of pans (for the most part) were not designed to cook at such high temperatures. The high heat will not only ruin your skillet, but it will not be able to provide proper searing for your meat either. Plus, Teflon actually has been shown to let off poisonous fumes at this temperature level.
Part of the beauty of the browning technique is that the meat actually sticks to the pan a bit, and this is what provides that beautiful dark caramel color – so, a nonstick pan is the opposite of what you need to achieve this. High heat can cause the nonstick chemical coating to potentially come off on your food as well, and that’s certainly not healthy or tasty.
If you’re dead-set on nonstick, read our guide before making your selection, as these pans are not all created equally.
About Lynne Jaques
Lynne is a stay-at-home mother of two boys. As a former US military officer and the spouse of an active duty US military member, Lynne enjoys traveling the world (although not the moving part!) and finding new cuisine and methods of preparing food. She also has the habit of using parenthesis way too much!