To Sear or not to Sear

With regards to meat, searing is the act of burning or scorching the surface of the meat at a high temperature. This can produce a myriad of additional flavours see Maillard Reaction but do you really need to burn the meat to get these extra wonderful flavours?

The thought of burning food sends shudders through me, I grew up when times were hard and wasting food was a no no, even burning toast was frowned upon ! Burnt food has no nutritional value but some people seem to like eating it, each to their own πŸ™‚

IMO, there is a fine line between adding flavours and burning. You can take the “browning” to the extreme to get to wonderful flavours but black is burnt and you can taste the difference, try it!

Lets look at say a nice bit of beef rump or sirloin steak (Aberdeen Angus 30 days dry cured). This piece of meat has been “lovingly” matured for 30 days, it has a nice bit of marbling and a bit of fat on the outside (fat gives it taste). Oiled and seasoned with sea salt & black pepper, It’s going to melt in your mouth and taste fantastic; if you cook it right πŸ™‚

Why would you want to burn it or cook it in flames! it needs oiling and seasoning and then cooking to perfection. IMO nice brown outside and “blushing” inside but pink inside with no blood running is OK.

I use a cast iron frying pan in the kitchen and a cast iron griddle plate on the BBQ.

Beef rib boned, oiled and seasoned with sea salt and black pepper. Note the flat plate, not ribbed!


1. Get the pan / griddle stinking hot and throw the steak in / on and cook for a few minutes (depending on thickness), to brown (or burn), turn over and do same, remove from heat and let it rest for a few minutes (Note, it continues to cook while resting).

2. Get the pan warm / hot and then throw the steak in / on, cook it a little longer than above to brown, turn and repeat, remove from heat and rest.

3. Get the pan warm, throw in the steak, cook for a few minutes and turn without “browning”. Then turn the heat up to “brown” the steak each side. Remove from heat and rest. This is called “Reverse sear” and can be very effective for really thick steaks.

Any of the above methods can produce a melt in the mouth steak and if you keep to brown / dark brown and avoid cooking until black, it will taste fantastic. I’ve never understood the idea of “ribbed griddles” that give lines of black (burnt) meat! IMO, if you have black lines on your steak, maybe the griddle needs cleaningΒ  πŸ™‚

I tend to prefer option 2 above, here’s why.

Meat is muscle and muscle tends to contract when exposed to a high temperature! With this in mind :-

Option 1 above would make the meat contract and could possibly toughen the meat.

Option 2, cooks the meat at a lower temperature. It avoids the “shock” of the high heat and should produce a more tender steak.

Option 3 should produce a steak cooked to perfection, nice brown on the outside and pink in the inside (medium rare).

I tend to use option 2 in the kitchen and option 3 when using the BBQ.

  • Note Don’t forget to rest the meat after cooking. Some suggest resting it for as long as you have cooked but remember it will continue to cook when removed from the heat. The cooking while resting will be more apparent with option 1 & 3.

Cheaper cuts of meat (beef)

Maybe you want to cook something like a beef hotpot / casserole. The temptation would be to “brown” the meat before putting it in the casserole dish and cooking it slowly for a few hours in the oven. You might find it better to not brown the meat and just let it cook slowly to make it tender. Another option would be to buy meat (beef) that isn’t diced and then you can brown the larger bits of meat. You can then slice the meat (while it is still blushing on the inside and then add it to the casserole dish, where it will continue to cook in the “gravy”. If the “diced beef” is a cheaper cut with a lot of fat and connective tissue, it can taste great but it would be better to not brown it. Rely on the contents of the hotpot / casserole and the slow cooking to tenderise the meat. You could try Marinading with “Dairy” products e.g. Yogurt, Buttermilk for an overnight treatment. Pineapple or Kiwi are good for thin bits of meat for a quick treatment (20 – 30 mins) any longer than that, you risk the meat getting “mushy”. Both dairy and fruit use “enzymes” that will tenderise the meat prior to cooking but dairy is a slower (and probably safer) method.


Thin cut beef steaks. These are sold by supermarkets and they vary in “quality”, it’s pot luck ! Some will be as tough as old boots and some will be as tender as rib eye steak. You will need to check the marbling to see if its likely going to be tender but try the following:-

1. Give the steaks a good “pounding” with either a meat mallet or even a heavy pan or rolling pin, this should tenderise the toughest of meats.

2. Tenderise the steaks by soaking in yogurt or butter milk overnight or use fresh pineapple of kiwi for a quick soak (30 mins max).

The (thin cut) steaks can now be “flash fried”. A little oil, salt and pepper and then cooked a minute or so each side to “brown”. Then slice the steaks into strips of about 1cm wide, while the inside is blushing. Leave to rest or pop into to a pan of gravy to finish cooking.

You should end up with lightly browned “beef strips” that are fairly tender.

Pork steaks, Lamb steaks and chicken breast.

You can apply the above cooking methods but chicken breast cooks very quickly and you don’t want it to dry out. With chicken hotpot / casserole, I tend to cook the breast fillets for a few minutes each side to (lightly) brown and then slice them up while they are still blushing on the inside. Then pop them into the casserole dish and make sure they are covered with “gravy”. You will only need to finish off in the oven for about 25 mins, the hot gravy basically finishes the cooking.

*Note Marinades are usually “flavour changers / enhancers” where you add herbs, spices and garlic etc to add flavours to the meat and these are left for a couple of hours or even overnight. Longer is generally better, overnight is usually long enough.

If you want to “Tenderise” the meat, dairy products tend to be slow acting. You could use (fresh) Pineapple or Kiwi but these can quickly turn your meat into mush! Sometimes a good beating with a mallet is all you need!

You can combine the Marinade with a Tenderising “agent”. If going for an overnight job, just add buttermilk or yogurt to the mix.

*note. Acidic “sauces” (gravy) tend to be best for tenderising “cooked or browned” meat. A tomato sauce is a good example. e.g. Bolognese.but adding things like Cider / Wine vinegar is also quite good.

With uncooked or not browned meat, Alkaline or Enzyme “sauces” are good for tenderising the meat. e.g. buttermilk and yogurt.

To sear or not to sear! If you’re a burnt meat eater; hopefully you will now try the brown / dark brown approach and accept that you don’t have to eat burnt meat to get all those extra flavours. Burning meat does not tenderise a lump of tough meat. Burnt meat has no nutritional value. Anyone can burn meat or cook it with black (burnt) lines but don’t be fooled, you want to taste the meat not the “Char”.

If you go to a restaurant and you are served with meat with black bits on it, ask “is it the Chefs night off” and send it back. πŸ™‚