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Cooking: Searing 101

We've all drooled over succulent meat with caramelized crusts as it is cooked in our favorite restaurants.Chefs create these dishes by searing—a cooking technique anyone can master. In fact, searing is probably the oldest and simplest method of cooking.

What is Searing?

Searing is the term for browning the outside of a piece of meat or fish.) quickly over high heat. Searing can be done with a stove-top skillet, a broiler or grill.

Why Sear?

Exposing raw meat to intense heat transforms natural sugars and proteins into flavor compounds, which creates a unique combination of tastes and aromas. Flavor essences (called Maillard reactions after the French doctor who identified them) like caramel, nuts, fruit, dark chocolate, and hundreds of others can emerge with searing.

The widely-held belief that searing "seals in juices" is not accurate. Some juices do escape from the meat, but these are reduced by the high heat, which causes them to stick to the skillet.

You can use these browned juices (called fond) to create a flavorful sauce, which is known as a jus or gravy. After removing the seared meat, add a few tablespoons of stock, wine, water, vinegar or fruit juice to dissolve the browned bits (this is called deglazing) and violá, an instant sauce.

Selecting the Right Cut of Meat or Seafood

Although any sized piece of meat can be seared, steaks, chops, or cutlets that are between 1 to 2 1/2-inches thick are best for searing whole. Sometimes, as with a rare beef steak, searing completes the cooking. With pork, chicken, or seafood, a few minutes more cooking—over lower heat, in an oven, or indirect grill heat—will finish these thicker cuts of meat without burning the outside.

Good choices for quick searing:

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  • beef rib eye, sirloin, or tenderloin
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  • pork chops, loin, or loin cutlets
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  • chicken breasts or boneless thighs
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  • tuna, halibut, shark, swordfish or mahi-mahi steaks
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  • scallops or shrimp

How to Sear

All it takes to sear is a little prep, the right pan and some heat.

Prep the Meat

Remove the meat from the fridge and pat the beef, poultry, or seafood dry with paper towels. Season, if desired, with a dry spice rub, herbs, or simply salt and pepper.

Choose the Skillet

Stovetop searing requires a skillet that conducts heat evenly and is large enough to hold the food without crowding, which creates steam, the enemy of browning.

Good skillet choices come in all price ranges and each have a few pros and cons.

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  • Cast iron is durable and inexpensive. It is also heavy and adversely interacts with acidic foods such as lemon or wine. The more expensive porcelain-coated cast iron solves this drawback.
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  • Aluminum, or the stronger Anodized Aluminum, regular or nonstick, conducts heat well and retains its temperature.
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  • Stainless Steel, with a bottom and side layer of copper, steel or aluminum for heat conduction, combines good looks with performance.

Other Useful Tools

Not essential but these tools make searing easier.
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  • Exhaust Fan. Smoke will form at high cooking temps. If you don't have an effective fan, sear on an outdoor grill.
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  • Instant read thermometer ensures that meat is cooked to the right degree. Use tongs to lift the meat or poultry cutlet on its side and insert the thermometer horizontally into the center. Here are general doneness temperatures.
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  • beef steaks 145 °F (medium rare), 160 °F (medium), 170 °F(well done)
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  • pork chops and loin 160°F
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  • chicken 165°F
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  • Silicone pot handles, pot grabbers, tongs and spatulas make it easy to handle the skillet and the food, and withstand heat up to 500°F.

Create the Heat & Brown

The skillet, grill rack, or broiler must be hot before the meat goes in or on it. Preheat the skillet for a minute or two. Add a bit of oil to the pan to prevent the meat or fish from sticking. Spices and herbs become more aromatic with a bit of oil in the skillet. Heat the oil until it ripples, then place the meat in the pan.

Watch until the meat changes color, it shouldn't take too long. When it is seared correctly, it will release easily from the pan. Turn the meat and reduce the heat to medium to finish cooking. As a general rule, meat such as a steak, should only be turned once and if necessary, finished in the oven at a medium temperature, such as 350 degrees, to finish cooking to desired doneness.