The perfect sear on a steak is easier to achieve than most of us think. All you need is a good cut, the right technique, and a little practice. We’re going to cover the first two in this post, so have fun with the third.
Searing, a cooking method that produces the most tender and flavorsome steak, can be done on a hot outdoor grill—gas or charcoal—or in a preheated skillet in the confines of your kitchen.
To sear a steak to perfection, get your grill or skillet hot. Salt the steak on both sides and cook over medium-high heat, with the lid off, until a brown, flavorful crust has formed on one side. Flip over and repeat, cooking the meat to your desired doneness.
Of course, that’s easier said than done and there’s more to it than meets the eye. So here’s everything else you need to know on the topic.
Use the Right Kind of Skillet
You can sear steak in a round, flat-bottomed skillet or a square, ridged grill pan. Other than the grill marks that the grill pan will impart on your meat, it won’t make that much of a difference since it won’t mimic the effects of grilling to their entirety.
For great pan-seared steak, reach for a heavy-bottomed carbon steel, cast iron, or stainless steel frying pan. You’re looking for a cooking vessel that feels heavy to the hand, which tells you it’s capable of heating evenly, without cold spots, and distributing heat well.
Non-stick pans and their modern, ceramic counterparts are light and thin, and can’t be preheated empty. In other words, they’re not necessarily a good choice of cookware for the job.
Sear the Steak to Your Desired Doneness
To sear a steak outside, fire up that charcoal or get your gas grill hot. Always sear with the lid off; you only need to cook one side at a time.
For pan-searing on the stovetop, lightly grease your skillet with a high-smoke point cooking oil, then preheat it for a minimum of 5 minutes over medium-high heat.
In terms of cooking oil, my go-to choices are avocado oil and rice bran oil; I tend to stock up on both, so I reach for whichever is lying around in my pantry.
Your use of the heat dial is key:
Too low of a heat, and you won’t get that delicious browning on your steak. Too high of a heat, and the meat will burn on the outside by the time it’s fully cooked on the inside.
You’re looking for that position of the heat dial that’s just right. On my induction cooktop, which has a maximum of 9 settings, that’s 6 1/2.
Season the steak with kosher salt on both sides, saving the pepper for later (if you crack it on top of the steak now, it will burn during cooking). Sear the steak, watching it sizzle and smoke as a crispy and flavorful crust forms on one side.
Flip only once so as not to agitate the meat and let cook on the other side till the steak reaches your desired level of doneness. The most accurate way to tell when a steak is done is by checking its internal temperature with an instant-read meat thermometer.
When searing steak, the internal temperature for each level of doneness is as follows: 130-135°F for medium-rare, 140-145°F for medium, 150-155°F for medium-well, and 160°F and over for well-done.
On a steak seared to perfection—it takes a few tries to learn the ropes—the crust is dark-brown and not charcoal-burnt. Browning is the result of the Maillard reaction, which takes place at 284 to 320°F. At 356°F, pyrolysis takes over and your steak starts to burn, turning acrid.
As soon as the steak is done, take it off the heat, season it with freshly-cracked pepper to taste, and let it rest for a minimum of 3 minutes. Doing so seals the juices inside the meat for that steakhouse-style, perfectly juicy steak.
What’s the Best Steak for Searing?
Boneless steaks with good marbling and a thickness of 1 to 1 1/2 inches are generally best for searing. The amount of marbling is more important than the breed, though premium breeds such as Angus, Hereford, and Limousin tend to have a beefier, more succulent taste.
Cooked correctly, bone-in steaks can be as delicious as their boneless counterparts. But keep in mind that they’re trickier to prepare. Go for one only if you’ve already tried searing a few times and, now, you’re in the process of perfecting your technique.
Grass-fed cattle work harder to get their food, so they yield a leaner steak that’s cleaner in taste. Grain-fed cows feed on a higher-calorie diet, so they produce better-marbled, more-tender steaks.
Different eaters have different tastes, so which one to buy comes down to personal preference.
Me, you ask? I’m a fan of grain-fed.
In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture grades beef as “USDA Prime” for meat with superior marbling from young, well-fed cattle, “USDA Choice” for meat that’s still tender and juicy, albeit less marbled, and “USDA Select” for leaner meat.
When selecting steaks for searing at the butcher’s or grocery store, you can hardly go wrong with USDA Prime, the best but most expensive kind, or USDA Choice, good-enough and cheaper to buy. Avoid USDA Select for grilling or pan-searing; this type of beef needs to be tenderized through a slow-cooking method like braising or stewing.
Why Does Seared Steak Taste So Good?
Seared steak tastes so good because of the Maillard reaction.
The Maillard reaction is a chemical process that occurs at a temperature of 284°F to roughly 320°F, when the sugars and proteins in your food fuse with one another, creating hundreds of aromatic and flavorful compounds as byproducts.
This reaction is the main reason why seared steak, crispy salmon skin, toasted slices of bread, and roast coffee beans have such an appealing smell and a rich, complex taste.
The higher the heat, the more enticing and flavorful the crust. Yet, as with all things in life, you can have too much of a good thing: at 356°F, the Maillard reaction gets replaced by pyrolysis (burning).
Pyrolisis destroys the volatile, newly-creating aroma and flavor compounds from the Maillard reaction and makes your food taste unpleasantly burnt and acrid.
So, when a well-browned steak starts to blacken and char, that’s a tell-tale sign that it’s time for it to be taken off the heat (or moved to an area of your grill that’s not as hot).