The Truth About Searing
Just like everyone seems to have a sworn remedy for getting a witch out of your well that might be causing infertility in your animals, you’ll hear numerous methods from self-professed grill masters about searing meat on the grill to “lock in the juices”. None of them work as described. The meat’s surface cannot be cauterized or locked – cells burst and give up moisture when heated. We simply need to be careful about drying out an expensive piece of grass-fed beef with fats that render out at 30% lower temperature. Your special steak can easily become dry and tough if left on the grill too long. Indirect heat i.e. “low and slow” is the best approach.
A good sear will, however, produce the joyful communion of roasty, nutty, caramelized meaty flavors that we associate with a successful live-fire exercise. This happens through the chemical magic of the Maillard reaction or browning that occurs through the interaction of denatured proteins and reducing sugars in the presence of high heat. Named for the Frenchman who discovered it in 1912, this desirable deep flavor development is inhibited by the presence of water. Make sure your meat is patted dry (even if marinated) before starting. Tougher shoulder cuts benefit greatly from physical tenderizing with forks or a Jaccard tool. This opens up the grain and allows acids in the marinade to penetrate these denser muscles and denature the proteins within enabling a more emphatic Maillard browning to occur.
For this same reason, roll stew chunks in seasoned flour and avoid crowding the pan when searing chunks to start a stew. Brown in batches in bacon fat, remove the meat to the side, sweat your vegetables, then return to the pot with beer / wine / broth. Bring to boil, then reduce to gentle simmer, add herbs and a bit of tomato paste and place in a 350 oven for up to 4 hours depending on the cut.
In the great outdoors, clean your grill with a wire brush to ensure good contact and avoid ingesting carcinogenic acrylamides formed in charred meat. If you are oiling the grill use canola or sunflower oil – olive oil has a low smoke point and can contribute a bitter off-flavor. Sear two minutes per side over 500 degree hot coals – you should not be able to keep your hand over them – banked to one side. Thinner cuts may be done at this point. Wrap and rest 5 minutes. Move thicker steaks away to other side or into a 400 degree oven to finish for 6-8 minutes perhaps with wilted spinach, rosemary and lemon zest (Florentine style). Many chefs will pan-baste with butter to finish. Let us know your favorite method. We would love to share it with our friends.