Pan searing meat is about high heat. Not medium heat, and not almost hot, but very hot. Why do we want it to be as hot as we can get it? Because the hotter it is, the shorter time we have to keep it on the heat. Have you ever seen those gorgeous pictures of a steak cut open and it’s edge to edge perfect with a thin crust? That’s the reverse sear method, and it requires a very fast and quick sear.
There are numerous ways to sear meat, some are classic and others are pretty novel. This discussion is only going to focus on the classic pan sear typically for stove top cooking or on the grill. Whenever a recipe calls to finish off (or even start) a piece of meat with a pan sear, the following information will give you the best chance for success.
In order to pan sear meat at the temperatures we need them to be, the proper tools are required. When a recipe calls for searing meat, we don’t use cheap cookware! Ever. Cheap cookware can cause chemical leaching, strong smells in your house, and even melt some of the cheaper/weaker cookware.
Examples of cheap cookware:
Non-stick Box Set – These box sets are notoriously cheap. They are typically made with very thin walls, extremely thin layer of Teflon, and the handles are attached with a single screw that ALWAYS comes loose; Usually priced between $50 and $100 for the complete 12+ piece set.
As seen on TV gimmicks – So lets get real here… anything you see on TV that has an abnormally long commercial time, ends with .99, and has a second one free (you just pay handling) is total crap and designed to just take as much money from you as possible. That’s a discussion for another day, but for our purposes, those pans are just something to waste money on.
Good cookware for searing:
Seasoned Cast Iron – Cast Iron is the preferred searing tool, and my recommendation is Lodge; Lodge has been around since 1896 and manufacturing for their seasoned cast iron skillets are still made in the USA. Yay! Their enamel covered cast iron pots are made in China. Booo… Regardless, they are quality products. My Lodge cast iron skillet, shown below, is now 24 years old (2020). It has gone through being rusted out (I’m sorry, it’ll never happen again) back to looking like new. It has sat directly on hot coals, been in ovens, on grills, stove tops… It’s excellent stuff.
Thick Stainless Steel – Stainless Steel is also an excellent searing tool as long as it is a thick steel or clad layer pan. One good way to tell if something is good for searing is weight, that’ll tell you if it’s thick or not. I’m a fan of Cuisinart Multi-Clad series. I bought these years ago, and they still look like the day I got them with the help of an occasional scrub with Bar Keepers Friend.
Given the two options, I highly recommend searing with an all Cast Iron Skillet. Quality cast iron cookware can hold up to incredible heat, and when we want to sear meat we want the hottest we can get! (Campfire Coal Temp: 2,000 degrees F. Iron Melting Temp: 2,800 degrees F).
There are lots of methods for searing meat, however we are only going to focus on the actual sear, not any of the steps you took to get to this point. Those will be part of individual recipes. But as a side note, your meat is probably about 10 degrees F lower than your final temperature when starting this step. 😉
How to sear on Cast Iron/Stainless Steel:
- Set skillet on the stove top over medium high heat or in the grill set on high. Let the skillet heat up (Cast Iron ~5 minutes, Stainless Steel ~3 minutes, minimum). Cast iron will absorb A LOT of heat, and it will keep it too. Stainless Steel will absorb and release heat faster than cast iron.
- Use a canola or peanut oil to coat the pan. Canola and peanut oil has a very high smoke point, so you won’t get a lot of smoke as you would with olive oil. Just make sure there isn’t a puddle of oil (this is called frying). I would recommend using a folded over paper towel to rub the oil around to a thin layer on the pan.
- Place a small sliver of butter right on the pan where you want to sear and immediately put your meat on top of it. Cook for two minutes undisturbed and then flip with more butter, two more minutes, DONE. You should have a beautiful example of the Maillard Reaction.
To clean up your Cast Iron:
1. While the pan is still hot, take a folded over wet paper towel and quickly wipe the pan out.
2. Pour about a dime sized amount of canola or peanut oil into the pan, and wipe around with a dry paper towel. (You may find that brown grease/residue comes up with your towel. This is okay. You don’t have to keep rubbing until it’s perfectly clean.)
3. Let cool and done!
If you happen to let the skillet cool before cleaning, you may need to scrub the bits. Do not use soap, this will remove the seasoning and non-stick features. Mix a quantity of coarse kosher salt and a little oil to make an abrasive slurry and use that to rub out the bits.
How to clean up your Stainless Steel
- Once the pan has cooled down a bit, fill with hot soapy water and let soak for about an hour.
- Scrub with a scrubbing brush (not a soft sponge). The burnt food should come off easily.