- 1, 6 oz Filet Mignon
- 1 oz Clarified Butter
- Saute Pan
Though we end up teaching it that way, contrary to what you have heard on TV, at a friend’s and on the Internet, Searing itself is actually not a technique, but a result, that occurs when food is subjected to High Heat so that a crust forms and Browning & Caramelization occurs.
The fact that Searing is an outcome has not stopped us all from discussing and describing it as a cooking technique. And in this exercise, because we are interested in precision, we will strive mightily to distinguish between putting a “Sear” on food as the result of various cooking techniques and “Searing” or "Pan Searing," where the term is applied as a cooking technique.
Used as a cooking technique, “Searing” or “Pan Searing” describes a quick cooking at High Heat, which results in an exterior Sear and a Rare or Bleu interior. Think of a Seared Ahi Tuna dish and you will have the picture.
Teaching Chef demonstrates just that stand-alone Pan Searing Technique, but with high quality Beef, in the Instructional Video. Because this is an exercise, we want to make sure that the distinction between Pan Searing and creating a Sear are clear before we move on.
To obtain a Sear, which again, is a result, the surface of the food must reach 300° F to 320° F (148.8° C to 160° C) for a few seconds, according to food scientist Harold McGee, in On Food & Cooking. At these heats a brown or black crust forms and any surface sugars begin to Caramelize while the surface fats char and Render. The application of high heat to create caramelized sugars and rendered fats is a major contributor to the excellent taste imparted by a Sear. If Searing over an open flame, the exhaust gasses from burning briquettes, natural wood, or even the dripping Jus can also positively impact the flavor.
Searing results from the application of heat through Conduction, Radiant Heat or Convection; principally in that order. Conduction, like a steak in direct contact with the grill will Sear fastest. In fact grill marks prove it. The food in direct contact with the cooking surface cooks darker than the surrounding food in the same amount of time.
Radiant Heat, imagine the same steak on a spit held over the flames, will be the next most efficient Searing method and finally the steak in an oven at High Heat will be the third most efficient method to generate a Sear. Some cooking techniques employ one, two or all three types of heat to generate a Sear.
To induce a Sear, various Dry Heat Cooking Methods, and only dry heat cooking methods, such as Grilling, High Heat Baking, Broiling, Pan Broiling and Sautèeing (which is sometimes called Pan Searing) can be employed.*
The operative word is “Dry” since water boils away at 212° F (100° C) and can’t reach surface temperatures of 300° F to 320° F needed to Caramelize all the sugars. A Sear can also be used in conjunction with other cooking processes, but it takes the dry high heat to form the crust and caramelize.
Let’s explore the distinction and return a second to the Seared Ahi example, which we plan to call the technique of “Searing.” When served, the Seared Ahi, has as a final result, a quickly-cooked, crusty exterior and cool, rare (maybe raw) interior. The familiar end product we imagine was likely cooked by Grilling, Broiling or Pan Broiling, where only a Sear, not a Well Done result was achieved. If that same portion of Tuna was left on the high heat to cook the interior, the exterior would likely be burnt to a crisp by the time the interior is completely cooked.
If on the other hand the same portion of tuna was Finish Cooked with a lower heat, or another method it would cease to have a raw interior and become instead a cooked item with a Seared exterior. The distinction between Searing, or Pan Searing, and “A Sear” is important to keep straight as it will come into play in future exercises when we begin to think of preparing foods using multiple cooking methods. These combinations can include a Sear & Roasting, or a Sear & Braising. Searing should also not be confused with Blackening or Browning which are similar, High Heat, crust-forming techniques but which, technically are not just a Sear.
Your product and its quality are also critical for a stand-alone Pan Sear because the quick cooking at high heat showcases the products natural quality (or lack thereof ). How does your choice rank on the Beef Tenderness Chart? Are you planning to work with a better USDA Grade of Meat like USDA Prime or USDA Choice?
The inherent durability of your product choice also matters in a stand-alone Pan Sear. Products suited to a stand-alone Pan Sear include: tender, steak-like, cuts of Beef, steak-like cuts of oily, meaty fish (Tuna, Swordfish, etc.), Game Birds and more durable seafood items like Scallops. Pork and domestic Poultry are a bad and dangerous choice for food safety reasons. Non-Oily and/or Flaky fish are a bad choice too because they will either stick to the traditional pan (sometimes even to a non-stick) or are too fragile for the process. A Dusting with Flour and/or using a non-stick pan can help keep the ingredients moving freely. If you are Searing as part of a Stew or Braise it is recommended to coat the product with flour before Searing.
Also, remember that if a Searing is employed as the only cooking heat, the food item is, by definition, under-cooked and in some cases even partially raw. Eating Raw can be unsafe and some foods like Pork or Poultry should never be consumed raw. You have to be very sure of your ingredients, your source of supply and your food handling to serve raw or partially raw Pan Seared foods. Smart Kitchen doesn’t recommend doing it if food safety is your primary concern.
Now that we understand the difference between Searing as a partially raw cooking technique and creating a Sear as part of a cooking process, let’s take a moment to understand the benefits of putting a Sear on Foods.
1. The major reason for Searing is that a Sear improves the depth and complexity of flavors in a food through Browning, The Maillard Reaction & Caramelization without over cooking the interior. The wrinkle is that the longer you hit the outside of something with high heat the longer you are hitting the inside and too much heat can thoroughly overcook your dish. Putting a food item on high heat quickly, just long enough to generate a Sear, solves this problem; allowing both a caramelized exterior crust and a tender, juicy interior. The resulting contrast of textures and levels of doneness creates a very desirable and pleasant Mouth Feel.
2. A secondary reason for Searing is that the crust formed by the Sear improves the appearance and texture of the meat or vegetable for the diner.
3. The third reason for a Sear is because of Searing’s Impact on Juiciness. This third reason is the most debated and most misunderstood. The arguments covered in the link are interesting and instructive but not critical to delve into. In a nutshell, seared and un-seared meats both lose about 1/6 of their weight as they cook. The benefit to a Sear is that it cuts down on the overall cook time so that more moisture is retained at service. Ultimately, that fact and that the best chefs Sear to achieve the juiciest most flavorful results, is all you need to know.
Now that we understand the merits of a Sear, and that it is used in conjunction with other techniques, we can move on to discussing how to Sear, whether it is used as a stand-alone technique or as part of a larger, more complex cooking process.
In a complex cooking process, Searing is normally done quickly first, in conjunction with other techniques or before the heat is lowered to a final cooking temperature. The goal is to Sear to crust up and add complexity to the food item before it is Finished Cooked at a reduced heat for a longer time.
As a stand-alone, Searing is employed to crust up a rare item, like the Seared Ahi example and is used first because it is the only technique planned.
It’s typical order at the beginning of the cooking process, likely stems from the preferences established by Escoffier and the “Sealed-in-Juices” crowd but because, as we’ve seen, Searing does not actually seal the meat juices in impenetrable Carbonite, the order of the Searing can be flexible depending on the how the finish cooking is being handled.
Since Searing is a dry heat technique, it should always be performed first if the second or third techniques are going to use Moist Heat Methods, where keeping the meal moist and juicy is a goal. Reversing the order and trying to dry out the meat for the Sear is a waste of time and effort.
If the follow-on techniques are all Dry Heat Methods a Reverse Sear can be employed. Chefs argue about which gives position yields the best results. The major benefit of using a reverse sear is retaining more moisture in the meat longer so that it will hold up better in Low & Slow cooking situations. In the end, Smart Kitchen feels that the order in which you Sear is a matter of personal taste, timing, available equipment and your goals.
Similarly the specific Dry Heat Method to employ to accomplish a Sear depends on your cooking process and your desired outcome. In general, Searing requires only two things: High Heat & Time. Let’s join Teaching Chef in the Instructional Video and watch as he uses a Sauté, also called a Pan Sear, to Sear a Beef Filet.
Teaching Chef begins by heating his Sauté Pan and then when it is hot he adds in a small amount of his Fat. In this case, because he is using High Heat, he chooses to use Clarified Butter, which has a Smoke Point at 485° F (252° C). While the pan heats, he seasons his product.
When the pan is smoking hot, his Visual Clue, he adds in his seasoned Beef Filet. The Filet is a good size for a Pan Sear, about 2” (5 cm) thick. Thicker cuts (3" and more) don’t do as well because the exterior chars before heat penetrates to the interior. If your cut is too thick, consider Butterflying it to thin it out.
As Teaching Chef inserts his Filet we hear the sounds of aggressive sizzling, which confirm with an Audio Clue that his pan was hot enough. You should hear that same sizzle with your Sears. If you don’t pull the meat out and wait for the pan to build up more heat.
The meat cooks quickly, achieving a Sear in about 1 minute per side for a 2 inch ( 5 cm) cut. As it Sears it should remain in place, in direct contact with the Conductive heat, Searing for that short time. Resist the temptation to pick it up early to check on it because lifting it changes Searing direct heat to non-searing, indirect heat.
If you watch closely, you can see the crust forming in the video in real-time on the bottom of the Filet. With time the crust penetrates upwards from the pan. The same process should be happening in your pan when you sear when you watch the first side Sear. The other sides’ cook times should be similar.
As you turn the filet, with Tongs, the same Searing process will occur on each side touching the hot pan. Once a good crust, but not a char, (golden brown but not black) has formed on a side, that side of the item is done. It can be flipped, turned or rotated to Sear the next of the 2 to 6 sides of the product, depending on your objectives and the thickness of the meat.
If your goal is just a Pan Sear, then depending on your presentation, you may want to Sear only the two main sides of the product and let the ends fend for themselves. Under different circumstances, you may want to put each of the 6 sides (top, bottom, 2 sides and 2 ends) into brief contact with the heat to form a crust and then Slice the Pan Seared product to display the crust and the rare interior for the diners.
Unlike other Smart Kitchen exercises, a straight Pan Sear does not lend itself to using a Digital Thermometer. The product of a stand-alone Pan Sear can and should be crusted and Rare or Bleu. The Pan Seared product is finished when a good crust has formed on all the desired sides. If you are a stickler or sensitive, a stand-alone Pan Sear may not be the technique for you.
In your cooking, you should have the ability to employ a Dry Heat Method to Sear. The Sear will come in handy whenever you want to:
- Develop great, complex flavor with Browning/Caramelization/Blackening
- Create a crisp crust on meat
- Produce the desirable Mouth Feel of contrasting textures created by having the meat interior less cooked than the charred exterior.
*Before you remind us that, a Sear is part of some Combination Cooking Methods, let us clarify. Searing foods with a Dry Heat Cooking Method is sometimes used in combination with Moist Heat Cooking Methods in a category of cooking methods called Combination Cooking Methods. Combination Cooking Methods include methods like Stewing or Braising and as such Searing is not a Moist Heat Method but a component, or stage, of a combination method.