Not pretty food, but it is delicious – searing portabella mushroom caps is a simple and inexpensive way to learn to sear and see the Maillard reaction in full effect.

It’s simple, it’s smoky, it’s fragrant. Searing is a fantastic first cooking technique to learn, especially for those who enjoy a good steak or porkchop. This high heat technique creates a whole new array of flavors via the browning process, but this deliciousness is also a terrace on the slippery slope towards burned food. With a little practice, a vent hood fan and some basic equipment, we can sear foods to perfection and enjoy the end result of some overlooked science. But before we start, let’s wade through some simple science and misconceptions of the searing process.

The Maillard Reaction

To be succinct, the Maillard reaction describes the chemical reaction that causes the flavorful transformation of your food when heat is applied to it. While a small amount of heat will cook your food, some foods (examples include mushrooms, steak, breads and porkchops) are improved tenfold when browned at a high heat. Amino acids (proteins) and carbohydrates (sugars) react at high temperatures, resulting in the creation of more complex flavors, varying with the inputs of heat and time. If you don’t think you have ever noticed the Maillard reaction in effect, just think about the extreme effects of this reaction – burned food.

If you have ever eaten or cooked caramelized foods such as onions, this is an example of a seemingly similar but ultimately different reaction called pyrolysis, which is more of a decomposition of carbohydrates than the Maillard reaction, which involves an interaction between proteins and carbohydrates.

Searing Seals in Flavors and Moisture…

… is a myth. While it would seem like “cauterizing” the surface of a food would keep moisture from fleeing from it, this is simply not true. The searing process does not seal the “pores” or “capillaries” of your food and prevent moisture loss. It is still very possible to yield a dry cut of roasted meat if you browned it before popping it into the oven. And as far as the “sealing in flavors” argument, well, I am not entirely sure how one would naturally think that. Eat a raw piece of meat (don’t) and you’ll see that the flavor wasn’t there to be sealed in to begin with. The flavor when searing comes from the above mentioned Maillard reaction, and is created in the process, not preserved.

What Searing Needs

Searing involves three necessities:

  1. Ideal searing subject
  2. Initial high heat
  3. Sustained high heat

Ideal Searing Subject

As mentioned above, our food needs to possess both proteins and carbohydrates. Foods that contain both of these meet a fundamental prerequisite for making the wonderful Maillard reaction occur to make our food delicious. A great place to start for my fellow carnivores is a steak, preferably at around an inch thick. Much thicker cuts of meat will require an additional method of cooking such as a roasting to ensure your food is cooked as desired without burning it. Searing browns surfaces very well, but sear for too long to cook food through and you’ll have a something that resembles charcoal.

If you do have a thick cut of meat, or even one that’s oddly shaped, you have two options. You can butterfly it, which is cutting it almost entirely in half into a flatter shape (imagine an open book) or you can use an additional technique, as mentioned before, such as roasting.  The reverse sear is a popular method for steak, where you roast it at a lower temperature in the oven until you bring it about 15-20 degrees of your target temp, then finish it with a sear on the stove top.

Moisture is the enemy to browning. Water on the surface of your food turns into steam at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which helps keep your food from reaching the temperatures needed to create the crisp browning you so desire. The evaporation lowers the temperature of the area around the moisture, and we need much more heat than 212 degrees to properly brown food. Pat your foods dry with a paper towel before searing.

Take these steps to make your food a better subject for searing or you will regret it.

Initial High Heat

You need a heat source, of course. When selecting a vessel for cooking via this method, you need to consider that you will need something that heats well. Thicker pans will need to rest on a hot element/burner for longer than a thin non-stick or stainless steel skillet. Said burner will usually be around med-high heat, but this change change depending on what is being seared.

Sustained High Heat

So we know we need a skillet that’s going to be exposed to serious heat. Furthermore, we need a skillet that’s going to actually maintain that heat when a cooler food is going to meet the surface. A useful perspective to keep is that as a cook, you are managing the application of heat to food, and the medium between your food and your burner is going to help change the rate in that the heat penetrates your food. And in searing, we want to keep this heat high through the entire process as best as possible.

As I expressed in my equipment basics post, I do not like Teflon in high heat situations. The pans are ultra light and thin and non-stick sometimes makes me paranoid. They also typically can’t be transferred from the stove top and directly into the oven like other pans can. So we will rule that one out.

Stainless steel works. The nicer models have coils of sorts attached to the bottom of the pan to increase the conductivity of the pan, as with stainless steel being an alloy, it doesn’t conduct heat well on its own. Nice stainless steel pans can sear a steak, and leave delicious fond (if you don’t know what this is yet, I’ll be covering that soon, just know that you love it) behind, but they can’t be trusted to maintain that heat. So what works?

CAST IRON. One of its many attributes is that since iron is so damn dense, it holds heat like few others. It is a little slow to conduct heat as a result, but we can work around that by allowing the skillet to sit on the heat for 3 minutes before applying any oil or food. Use that time to prep and warn your neighbors, animals and nearby loved ones of the imminent smoke out. It also allows a little bit of sticking to create the aforementioned fond. So get out ol’ faithful and get to searing.

Searing: Equipment

Every time you sear, no matter the recipe, you need the following tools at the ready.

  • Cast iron skillet, 10.25″ (size may vary by needs)
  • Tongs
  • your finest, most insulated oven mitt
  • A vent hood (if you don’t have a vent in your home/apartment, open the front and back doors and turn a fan on to create ventilation)
  • Instant read thermometer (when there is heat involved, there should be a thermometer involved)
  • Splatter screen


Don’t Fear the Sear

By using the information above, you should be able to follow recipes that recommend searing with less mishaps. When cooking animal fat, there will be lots of smoke. The cast iron pan handle will be ripping hot, so always wear your glove when handling it. As you practice searing with recipes while using these guidelines, you will eventually find more success and even freedom to change methods and times to your preferences.

Don’t forget to TEMPORARILY unplug your kitchen smoke detector while searing meats if possible or else you’re going to be guilted into sharing your bounty with the concerned neighbors.

2 thoughts on “Searing

  1. Pingback: Pan Seared Steak | Shoestring Cookery

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