Learn why you should reverse sear your steaks.
Thick steaks are a challenge to cook well. You want a beautiful brown crust, and a tender, juicy interior.
You can cook a steak in a hot skillet. But because it’s thick, by the time the interior is cooked perfectly, the outside layers are not. Instead, you can gently cook your steak in an oven. You’ll get a perfectly cooked interior; however, you won’t get enough browning. And browning meat creates incredible flavor molecules that literally make your mouth water. 😋
A thick-cut steak is a finicky thing. The conventional thought process is to combine the two cooking methods and do what the fancy chefs on TV do. You sear the steak in a hot pan and then finish it in the oven. It works. Best of both worlds, right? But is there a better way?
Short answer: yes.
By the way. While I’m talking about steaks, all this applies to other thick-cut pieces of meat like pork chops too.
Effective browning doesn’t really happen until the surface of the meat hits 300℉ (149℃). And that can take a while in the skillet. Just long enough for the layer right below the crust to overcook, even if the center is cooked perfectly because you finished your steak in the oven. Ugh 😩.
Why does it take so long to brown when you make sure you use a screaming hot pan?
Think about what happens when you put ice in water. It cools down the water. (I know that totally blew your mind right there). But the same thing happens when you take a 40℉ (4℃) steak from the fridge and throw it on a hot pan. It drops the temperature of the pan. With the pan at a lower temperature, it takes the surface of the steak longer to get to 300℉ (149℃) for effective browning. And that extra time in the pan means an unevenly overcooked steak.
But the change in temperature isn’t our only obstacle. As long-time readers of the newsletter know, we also have to beware of steam. The more moisture on the surface of the steak, the longer the surface will stay at 212℉ (100℃). That moisture has to evaporate before the surface browns.
So are we doomed to mediocre steaks?!? Can we have our steak and eat it too!?! Should we all go vegetarian?!?
Nah! (Well “yes” to being able to have our steak and eat it too). There are two tactics that help. Set your steak out at room temperature for 30-60 minutes before you cook it. And then pat the surface dry with paper towels to soak up the moisture.
Both those tricks help. But there is a better way. And it’s a way that gives you a bonus effect you can’t get elsewhere.
So what is a reverse sear? Do you make loud beeping noises while you cook your steak? 🚚 (bad joke #1 ✔️)
No, a reverse sear is when you start cooking your thick-cut of meat in the oven at a low temperature—typically 250 to 275℉ (120 to 135℃). And then after 20-30 minutes, you finish your steak in an extremely hot pan for a few minutes on each side until it develops a nice brown crust.
The first two are reasons that will give you the best browning you’ve ever had. The third is a hidden gem to maximize tenderness.
Remember that temperature change in the pan? Like leaving it out at room temperature, letting the steak warm up in the oven reduces the temperature change of the pan but even more so. A warmer steak reduces the time it takes to brown and drastically improves your shot at cooking the steak evenly.
Remember to properly brown the steak, we first have to get rid of the moisture on the surface. Putting your steak in a low-temperature oven speeds up evaporation, letting you say sayonara to moisture. You’ll get a dry surface that is begging to be seared.
I saved my favorite for last. This one is all about creating juicy, tender meat. And it’s like magic—well actually it’s science. 🧪 Meat has an enzyme called cathepsin. Cathepsins naturally tenderize the meat by breaking down other proteins. And cathepsins get more active as the temperature in the meat rises. But here’s the catch. They stop their tremendous tenderizing tendencies (😆 sorry couldn’t help myself) at 122℉ (50℃). Done. Just like that. So slowly heating up your steak in the oven kick starts those enzymes while keeping the internal temperature below 122℉ (50℃) for as long as humanly possible. The longer your meat is right below 122℉ (50℃), the more the magic happens. (Fun fact: When you age a steak, it’s also taking advantage of cathepsins to make it more tender.)
Want more detailed instruction on how to reverse sear a steak? Jessica Gavin has simple step-by-step instructions, including how long to leave it in the oven depending on your preferred level of doneness.
Where I learned this: This article by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt over at Serious Eats and America’s Test Kitchen’s The Science of Good Cooking