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Can You Sear Meat Ahead of Time?

Hosting a party and want to do the heavy haul ahead of time? Here’s how to do it in a way that keeps your food delicious—and safe to eat.

Ah, the many pleasures of seared meat!

Slap a piece of meat on a preheated grill or hot skillet and stand in awe as the protein smokes and sizzles. After a couple of minutes, turn the meat to the other side and repeat. Take it off the heat once both sides have slight charring and a deep golden brown color.

The result is meat ameliorated in numerous ways, with a richer aroma and a more sophisticated flavor than before. You can braise it, stew it, roast it, throw it in the slow cooker, vacuum-seal it and cook it sous-vide, or finish it over gentler heat on the grill or stove—it’ll be just as good.

But, if you’re preparing for the following day when you’re at work or have guests over, can you sear the meat ahead of time?

The Case Against

The long and the short of it is “no.” At least not if you ask the food safety experts.

“Never brown or partially cook meat or poultry to refrigerate and finish later,” says a knowledge article at the USDA. “Any bacteria present would not have been destroyed.”

Any cook, whether in a restaurant or home kitchen, who’s interested in the subject of food safety knows that bacteria live mostly on the surface of food and they can seldom be completely eliminated. Food safety comes down to the things we do to keep their population at a “safe” level.

Bacteria die at high heat, which is why we cook our food for prolonged periods of time. They thrive at room temperature, hence why raw or cooked food items should never be left out on the counter for longer than 1-2 hours. Their activity is hindered, but not halted, in the fridge and effectively put on pause in the freezer.

When conditions are favorable, the bacteria on our food multiply in harrowing rates. And, since the breeds of bacteria that cause food poisoning are not the same as those that make food spoil, it’s virtually impossible to tell when mishandled meat is safe to eat—and when it isn’t.

I guess this is why the folks at the USDA err on the side of caution and advise strictly against browning meat ahead of time. Although the searing improves the meat, but it doesn’t cook it to the minimum internal temperature for safe consumption (145° for beef, pork, and lamb; 165°F for chicken).

The Lore For

All the above said, some home cooks claim on forms and in blogs that they’ve done this (and continue to do it) without worry.

Their thought process is that, as long as they’ve chilled the part-cooked meat and transferred it to the refrigerator shortly after searing, it should be good to finish cooking and send to the table the following day.

The technique that’s mentioned is sealing the meat in a zipper bag and submerging it in an ice water bath to interrupt the cooking, then promptly storing it on the lowest shelf of the fridge (where it is coldest).

If you abide by the USDA’s ground rules for food safety as we all ought to, this should sound alarms. Especially if yourself or a member of the family has a weakened immune system for one reason or another.

The Safe Alternative

If you cook the meat to the minimum internal temperature for safe consumption, the cool it down to interrupt the cooking process and store it in the fridge, it’s basically leftover cooked meat that keeps for 3 to 4 days.

As a matter of fact, if you cook your meat sous vide, it’ll last for up to 4 weeks in the fridge. You can then sear the meat to reheat it, giving it a crispy crust, deepening its color, and enhancing its aroma and flavor right before serving.

Know your author

Written by

Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.