Should you sear steak before or after cooking it sous vide? Join us as we explore why there isn’t a hard and fast rule for this.
Sous vide, which literally means “under vacuum,” is a cooking technique invented by French chefs Bruno Goussault and George Pralus in the 1970s.
Goussault was looking for a way to improve the tenderness of roast beef, and Pralus wanted to prevent foie gras from shrinking during cooking. Both of them found the answer in sealing the protein in a vacuum and cooking it in a water bath. Eventually, they teamed up and brought in a plastics manufacturer to refine the method.
As it turned out, the low-temperature water bath cooked foods to sheer perfection and with great precision. It produced fork-tender meat, was easy to master, and undercooking or overcooking was no longer an issue. What it didn’t produce was richness of aroma and depth of flavor.
Why Sous Vide and Searing Go So Well Together
The distinct aroma and flavor of grilled, broiled, seared, and roasted meats comes from the Maillard reaction, a complex chain of events that takes place when the proteins and carbohydrates in your food collide and fuse under the heat of cooking.
As a result of the Maillard, which requires a temperature of at least 284°F (140°C), a crispy, golden-brown crust forms on the surface of the meat—and hundreds of new aroma and flavor compounds get created that impart it with a meaty, appetizing smell and savory, full-bodied taste like no other.
Because the sous vide method is performed at temperatures from 120°F (48.9°C) to 185°F (85°C), depending on the type and the cut of the meat, it cannot induce the Maillard reaction and doesn’t, on its own, provide as delicious meat dishes as grilling, stovetop and oven methods do.
Unless, that is, you combine sous vide with searing, a cooking method that does just that.
Searing is the process of briefly browning a piece of meat in a hot skillet and over relatively high heat before or after it has finished cooking. Although most home cooks and a surprising number of culinary authors believe that searing “locks in” the flavors, it actually creates them.
Searing Meat: Before or After Sous-Vide?
To sear a cut of meat, reach for a cast iron, carbon steel, or stainless steel skillet. You want a thick-walled, heavy-bottomed cooking vessel, and you want it hot—ideally, preheated over medium-high heat for 5 minutes—so that it accumulates plenty of heat to transfer to the meat during the searing.
Add 1 tablespoon of cooking oil with a high smoke point, such as avocado oil, rice bran oil, or canola oil, lift the pan and swirl it to distribute the oil evenly on the cooking surface, and then slap the piece of meat on top. Let it sizzle uninterrupted for 1-2 minutes per side.
There are two schools of thought as to when you should do this:
Some swear by searing meat before cooking it sous vide because it creates aromas and flavors that meld with the protein during cooking. Others say that searing meat after sous vide is better because it yields a crispy crust.
Indeed, a steak that is seared before sous vide cooking has a more sumptuous center because it has absorbed the aromas and flavors from the seared surface while it was vacuumed and submerged underwater. But the crust will soften—and that’s a compromise not every carnivore is willing to make.
And this is exactly the point where the second doctrine on the order of searing and submerged cooking claims superiority. If you sear the meat after you pull it out of the water, you’ll get that perfectly crispy crust that every meat eater craves in his or her dreams.
In the Home Cook World test kitchen, we prefer to sear the meat after we’ve cooked it sous vide for a number of reasons.
First of all, it’s easier to plan our your time, as the most capricious and time-consuming of cook method comes first. This is an important consideration if you can’t set aside the entire day to prepare dinner. (And, nowadays, who can?)
It also allows you to sous-vide now, and sear later. That’s highly convenient when you want to cook ahead of time, whether for yourself, for the family, or for a gathering of friends. Sealed in a vacuum and cooked sous vide, steak will keep in your fridge for a whole three to four weeks.
It Comes Down to Preference
We thank you for reading this far, and we hope you found this post not only entertaining but insightful. As we have noted, you can sear meat before or after sous vide cooking, and each method has its advantages and disadvantages to keep in mind.
As with many other things in home cooking, there is no right or wrong—and we encourage you to try both methods so you can arrive at your favorite. While we have shared our preferred method, remember that in your kitchen, your rules apply.