Searing is something that probably does not get enough attention, considering how radically the process can change the flavor of the meat that you are eating.
Searing is a rather simple step in cooking that really only adds just a few minutes on to your meal preparation, and can change your meals from “okay” to “Oh, Wow!” by using nothing more than the flavors that are already present in the meat.
It’s simply about unlocking the trapped flavor molecules, and unleashing them onto your taste buds.
Although your grandmother might have told you that searing the meat would “seal in” the juices, this is not actually the case.
While Grandma was right about the fact that the meat tasted better when prepared this way, she was just a little confused as to the science of why.
What is truly happening during browning is that you are taking a piece of meat that is average tasting, and placing it under the right conditions for it to create a myriad of flavor combinations.
The browning of meat prior to braising or boiling may take a bit more time, but there is no question that a proper browning will help to turn a humdrum meal into an exquisite one.
Once you have learned the basics of searing, it’s a technique that you will never forget. There are a few things you will need to know, which can help you better understand the science behind what you are doing.
Although this may seem a bit on the boring side, you’ll be thankful for it later. Plus, perhaps you can impress your friends with your knowledge of meat and what’s going on during the cooking process?
Okay, maybe not…
But they will be impressed with the delicious food that you cook for them!
The Science Behind Searing – The Maillard Reaction
The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives flavor, aroma, and pigment to foods—particularly meats—that are browned over high heat. This reaction was named after the French chemist who originally described the phenomenon in 1912.
Each type of food that is seared will have its own distinct set of flavors that are compounded during the process of the Maillard reaction.
This browning process in meat is the same chemical change which causes the crust of bread to brown when it reaches certain temperatures, as well as the effect of browning toast.
This is a chemical reaction that occurs when the amino acids in the gluten strands start to change, break down, and combine with oxygen.
The browning in meat is a breakdown in the amino acids found in muscle protein, which causes a chemical reaction that adds to the flavors and aromas being released into the air, and the food. Hundreds or even thousands of new flavor compounds are formed through this process.
The time that it takes for the Maillard reaction to happen is controlled by the speed of the increased temperature, as well as the dryness of the food being cooked.
This means that meats that are in water or juice will not experience the Maillard reaction, and will not brown or sear until the water has completely evaporated.
This is why browning meat before finishing in a slow cooker (such as a roast) or Dutch oven is necessary prior to cooking in juice, broth or water.
A similar process occurs within carbohydrate-based foods, known as caramelization. It involves the breakdown of carbohydrates into more simple sugars, and eventually (if burned) into free carbon.
The Maillard reaction in steaks and other proteins may appear to be similar to caramelization but it is a different and distinct process. However, these two reactions are often both found together in various foods. The main difference is that the Maillard reaction involves amino acids, whereas the chemical change taking place in caramelization involves sugars instead.
Dry Meat and High Heat for Searing
When searing meat, it is important to bring the temperature of the dry meat high enough to bring out the flavors and brown color, without overcooking the inside of the meat.
One help with this is to make sure that the meat’s surface is as dry as possible prior to placing it in the pan, to allow the heat to properly affect the meat.
If there is water present when attempting to brown meat, steam will be created, and browning will not occur. Preventing this can be accomplished simply by patting the steak or other meat with a paper towel prior to searing it.
You’ll want to make sure that you do not raise the temperature too high. Any temperature above 355°F brings on the chemical reaction that we know as burning. And no one wants that.
Even if the idea of slightly charred meat is appealing for the look, too much charring can bring out bitter flavors, and may even be responsible for the release of carcinogens.
That being said, the surface temperature of the pan or grill is different than the surface temperature of the object being seared. You’ll generally want an initial 400-450°F cooking surface (about the smoke point of most cooking oils) to reach the best range for the better flavor molecules to be formed via the Maillard reaction, and for some of the sugars in the meat to begin to caramelize.
If you sprinkle a little baking soda on each side of the meat, it’ll act as a catalyst and speed the browning process along. This is particularly helpful if you’re looking to make a nice crunchy “crust” on the outside while leaving the inside rare.
Obtaining the Perfect Seared Meat In 6 Easy Steps
- Place your chosen skillet on the stovetop and turn the heat on high.
- While waiting for the skillet to heat, begin patting your meat surfaces with a paper towel to remove as much moisture as possible.
- When the pan is heated to the point where it is just barely beginning to show signs of smoke, add just enough oil (vegetable oil is preferred, as it has a higher limit before it begins to smoke) to cover the surface of the skillet. Remember, you aren’t deep frying. The oil simply allows the meat to have even contact with the pan surface.
- Place the meat on the frying pan with space between the pieces. It is best if the meat is not in contact with the sides of the pan.
- Watch, but don’t touch! The meat needs to be left alone in order to get through the entire searing process. If you poke at it or try to flip it, you’ll interrupt the flow. The meat is expected to stick to the pan and then release, when the process is finished and it’s ready to be turned. It should be dark brown—but not black.
- Remove the seared meat from the pan and continue how ever you have planned for the rest of the cooking process. Don’t forget to deglaze your pan for a lovely sauce (unless you’re using seasoned cast iron)!
Rather than using salt to add sodium to your steak, consider sprinkling some loose powdered beef bouillon on top. One of the main ingredients in bouillon is monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Before you panic and shout something to the extent of “MSG! THAT’S BAD! Foodal! I can’t believe you are recommending adding MSG,” consider this:
MSG is a naturally occurring substance that forms as red meat ages, and it adds flavor.
All beef is aged, and the better (read: high priced) steakhouses age their meat until it is just at the point prior to rotting. Besides letting a natural amount of MSG develop, this aging process further breaks down ligaments and connective tissue, so the steak is more tender and flavorful.
You can partially recreate this process and taste at home with loose bouillon powder.
Besides the added MSG, the boullion powder will add a little more “beefy” flavor. But more importantly, it will help to soak up any remaining moisture, which ensures that you will get a nice finishing crust on that thick-cut T-bone or rib-eye.
Gas or Charcoal Grill for Searing
One other option for enhancing flavors of the meat, instead of using cookware, is to perform the process over open flames on your own personal gas or charcoal grill. Some gas grill companies brag that they can get up to 700°F for just this purpose, but this goes above and beyond the capacity that just about anyone actually needs.
However, many high end, newer gas grills do offer a sear burner on the side, which provides a perfect option for grill usage. If you have one of these, definitely take advantage of it.
If you don’t have a special burner just for this purpose on your gas grill, try lowering the grate so that you can get your steak as close to the flames as possible.
This way you should be able to heat up to about 500°F, which is more than sufficient for a good sear.
For a charcoal grill, it is best to build the fire up high and use bricks on the bottom to provide support. Coals need to be evenly spaced and at least two layers deep in order to get the best results, or you can use some advanced tricks such as setting up various heat zones for your coals.
On the other hand, some people just prefer to stick to pan searing, and then use the grill for step two of the cooking process.
After experiencing the beauty of seared meat, you will also likely find yourself wanting to use those pan drippings and tasty little morsels left from the meat to create something extremely yummy.
Plus, you’ll need to clean your pan somehow, right? So why not deglaze? Some simple deglazing liquids include water (not as effective), sherry or cooking wine, various vinegars, soy sauce, beef consommé or bouillon, and other alcoholic beverages – basically anything that is acidic or that acts as a natural solvent.
Deglazing is actually a fancy word for something your grandmother has probably been doing for years: making gravy by pouring water into the roasting pan, or sautéing onions and then adding broth to make soup.
Really, what you are doing is using the stupendous flavors that are stuck on the bottom of the pan (the sticky coating and bits are called fond) in order to create either a delicious starter to the meal, or an incredible sauce.
The process of deglazing is fairly simple, but there are a few things you’ll want to remember:
- Avoid any burnt pieces or they will have a tendency to make your dish taste charred instead of seared.
- Pour the bulk of the fat (oil) from the pan so that it doesn’t burn while you deglaze.
- Adding cold water (or broth or wine) to the very hot pan will make it boil quickly.
- If using alcohol, remove the pan from the heat before adding it, to avoid starting a fire!
- Scrape the fond from the pan to make sure you get the most flavorful pieces that might stick to the bottom otherwise.
- Add flour or corn starch (combined with cold water first, to make a slurry) if you prefer a gravy-like sauce, but be sure to stir thoroughly and constantly to avoid lumps.
- Deglazing pulls all of those crumbles and pieces from the bottom of the pan so that you can use them for flavor—and it makes it so much easier to clean the pan afterwards.
- Get creative with your deglazing by using various liquids to see which pulls out the flavors you prefer.
The entire process of searing meat is a fairly quick and easy way to take your meat from gray and bland to browned and fabulous!
It is also a skill that you can develop on your own, to satisfy your own preferences as well of those for whom you are cooking.
Do some experimenting with beef and pork, make roasts or steaks (try some non-traditional steak cuts for a bit of adventure) or chops, and try broiling, slow cooking or grilling. After all, although there is a great deal of science involved in cooking, there is also a whole lot of art.
We recommend starting with our easy recipe for honey mustard pork chops to work on getting a perfect sear in a pan.
So step up the flavor of your meals, and enjoy!
About Julie Workman
As a freelance writer for over 15 years, Julie Workman has been published in various magazines, books, and online media. She holds a college degree in Home Economics which she uses every day in overseeing her household and making her home a happy place for her family.