To sear a food, such as meat, chicken, fish, and seafood, simply means to brown it using high heat. It's what gives food a rich color and flavor. Some of today's most popular restaurant menus feature pan-seared entrees. This style of cooking is fast so it is also a good option for home cooks. At one time it was believed that searing would seal in the juices; however, studies have found this is not the case. Searing is still invaluable for producing a pleasing appearance and great taste with ease. This technique is also used to brown meats that will be cooked in liquid, such as a pot roast or slow-cooked meat, since these methods will not produce browning.
To get a beautifully browned product, follow these tips:
- It's key to have a heavy, quality skillet for the job. Cast iron and stainless steel are ideal, providing even heating and the ability to withstand high temperatures. Heavy pans with nonstick surfaces are fine for searing. Make sure the skillet is big enough for the amount of food you have; otherwise the food may steam instead of brown. You may even need to cook in batches if your skillet seems crowded.
- Make sure the food you sear is completely thawed. Rinse fish after it is thawed.
- Dry all foods to be seared with a paper towel just before cooking. If you have too much liquid on the food, it will sizzle in the pan, creating steam that will prevent the food from browning.
- Don't salt the food before cooking. Salting can draw moisture and juices out of the meat. However, you can add other seasonings before cooking.
- Heat a small amount of oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. You can usually use less oil with nonstick pans. The choice of oil is important. Some fats, such as olive oil and butter, will smoke and break down at high temperatures; if using, watch the skillet closely and adjust the heat as needed. Oils that can take higher heat include peanut, safflower, soybean, and canola. Vegetable shortening will work, too. If the meat has a lot of fat on it, you may be able to skip the oil entirely, although most meats are lean enough that they will require some fat in the skillet.
- Add meat, poultry, or fish to the hot fat in the skillet, and monitor the cooking carefully. You want the surface of the food to be darker than golden but not burned.
- Use tongs instead of a fork to turn the food so you don't lose juices.
- Once the food is seared, continue cooking it according to your recipe. After searing, fish or scallops may require just a few more minutes of cooking at a lower temperature before done.
Follow the steps above, but note that roasts require special care when searing, especially round ones. While you need to keep rotating a roast to make sure all sides get browned, leave each side on the heat long enough to ensure even browning before moving. Use tongs to pick up and hold the roast to sear the short sides, being careful that the roast doesn't tip over and splatter hot grease. Searing a roast browns the outside but does not cook the meat through.
For perfectly grilled steaks and chops with seared lines, pat meat with paper towels to remove any excess moisture before cooking. Preheat grill to between 575 degrees F and 600 degrees F. Reduce the heat on one side of grill to medium-low. This creates two zones: one for direct heat used for searing and the other for indirect heat. Once the grill is hot, sear steaks or chops over high heat for 1 minute on each side, making a quarter turn halfway through. Then move the meat to the lower-heat side of the grill to finish cooking. For more details, check out our slide show on How to Grill Steak to Perfection featuring grilling pro Elizabeth Karmel.