Does Searing Lock in Juices? That is the Question.
Searings Impact on Juiciness
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Suggested by the Ancient Greeks, like Aristotle as early as 350 B.C., and confirmed by no-less-a-great than Escoffier, the idea that Searing meat helps seal in juices is a cherished and often-quoted precept of culinary doctrine. It makes gut-sense and seems consistent with people's observations.

But the conventional wisdom has been under attack by modern culinary “scientists” who in attempting to record the degree of juiciness retained through searing, claimed to have found that no differences (in weight) exists between seared and non-seared cooked meats. Their deduction then was that searing does not seal in any juices.

In this debate, when we are discussing Searing, we specifically mean heating the exterior of cooked foods (primarily meat) to 300° F to 310° F (148.8° C to 154.4° C ) with a Dry and High Heat (sometimes a bit of fat) so that a “crust” forms and flavors are compounded by Browning, the Maillard Reaction and Caramelization.

Before we proceed to put forth our opinion on the debate, a word about the multitude of arguments made in the debate about Searing supporting or attacking the work of a German nutritionist and scientist named Justus Von Leibig, who, working in the 1800’s, claimed that higher cooking heat formed a “Seal” around foods.

Disproving Von Leibig does not have any bearing on the Searing/Juiciness debate because Von Leibig, who ultimately founded the OXO Company (different than OXO International the “Good Grips” people) which today still makes meat extracts and dehydrated bouillon, was not experimenting with or even discussing Searing. His results about Simmering at lower heats versus Boiling at higher heat all dealt with Moist Heat Methods, which as we have already mentioned, don’t include Searing, which is a Dry Heat Method. Disproving the 300 (or so) years old work, doesn’t answer our question about searing.  

So who is right? Does searing seal in juices or not?  Without our own lab and knowing that we enjoy a good, seared steak, we have chosen to lay out the detractors’ case and see if it refutes our experience.

Much of the argument against Escoffier’s assertion, that searing seals in juices, rests on the definition of “Seal” and on Biggest-Loser-Style-Weigh-Offs where seared foods are weighed and compared to the weights of non-seared foods.

We don’t have the time to play word games around the definition of “Seal” in cooking and want to sideline this train of reasoning as soon as possible. Cooking meat will lead to moisture loss, about 1/6 of its weight, whether “Seal” means permeable, semi-permeable or impermeable.  The actual level of the seal is immaterial to us because we are not designing a submarine door. As chefs our interest is not in the physics of moisture exchange per-se, but in obtaining the juiciest, most flavorful dishes. 

So in this debate, we choose to side-step the argument about how many molecules must dance on the end tube of a baster to make a seal, and instead choose to focus on the quality of the product on the plate as being the relevant result and a proxy for a better “Seal,” if seal is the proper term of art. We are only concerned with whether searing helps accomplish our cooking goals or if another method does a better job.

Next the weigh-off has to be addressed. Most of the familiar experiments have cooked a seared and an un-seared steak and then weighed them.

They have proven that both seared and un-seared meats lose weight from cooking but that doesn’t answer the question, because we don’t know if they lose exactly the same elements. Weight alone is insufficient to say if water, jus, fat, etc. are retained in one method versus the other.  We have not seen an experiment, or heard of one, where the scientists avoid assuming that all component materials of the steak are equivalent and control for the internal elements of the food. Weight alone is just not good enough, in light of our everyday experience. Perhaps a sear helps the steak retain fat? Perhaps a sear makes a steak shed fat but retain water. We just don’t know and none of the studies that we have seen combined the weigh-in with any of the following: a taste test, a Shear Force Test (approximates tenderness) or a chemical analysis to see which component portions of the food were cooked-off and which were retained with each method.

So we are left with only our experiences to draw upon and postulate from. What we do know, is that we prefer Searing foods.Our best guess about the reason why is that Searing shortens the ultimate cook time from room temperature to Medium Rare ultimately allowing less moisture to escape from the product.

Without setting up our own experimental parameters, which we plan to do in the near future to complete this post, what we do know is this:

A. Seared Steaks, Finish Cooked in the oven to an appropriate level of doneness are tender and juicy.

B. Un-seared steaks roasted in the oven, to the same internal temperature, as the seared steaks above are tough and gray.

Stay Tuned.