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The application of very high-heat to foods (usually proteins), in order to develop a caramelized, crusty exterior and deep brown color. This method can be best achieved on the stovetop, grill or broiler.
Searing and Browning
While searing is not exactly an acknowledged cooking technique in the French culinary lexicon, the method is certainly used when needed. And searing is fairly prominent in contemporary American cooking because we consume a lot of tender cuts of meat, which lend well to the short cooking times. (Most of it is done on the patio grill- yep, that's searing!) But searing is also the important first step in the braising/stewing technique; it goes by the popular alias "browning" in countless stew and pot roast recipes. Browning meats helps seal in the natural juices, so stews, braises and roasts end up juicier. It also develops substantial flavor and a pleasing texture that neither the moist heat steps of stewing and braising nor even roasting can do on their own. The step is usually applied to meats that are well-seasoned, patted dry and/or dusted with flour just before being placed in very hot, oiled pans. Cookware that resists temperature changes, such as cast iron and carbon steel yield the best results. It is critical not to over-crowd the pan, instead work in batches that the heat source can keep up with. The goal is to evenly crust the exterior in a dark brown color, which can be a bit tedious, particularly with cubed stew pieces.
Then there are specific preparations in which searing is the entire cooking technique- and they are among our most delectable culinary treats. The French classic, Steak Frites is a pan-seared steak (traditionally hanger steak but other premium beef steaks work as well) that is simply seasoned, seared and served with a wad of crisp fries in the beef's natural juices. Preparing a steak Pittsburgh-style is fairly similar, albeit extra-seared! Seared sushi-grade tuna has been a darling on menus globally for decades, whether prepared on the grill or in a pan. And of course, only a very fast searing of high heat can add a delicately crisp texture to the meltingly rich flavor of foie gras. When searing this way, you need to use high heat. This can be dangerous, particularly if you don't have your ducks in a row. Here are your keys to success:
- If on the stove top, use cast iron, carbon steel or stainless steel. Nonstick cookware is not a good choice for high-heat techniques.
- Meats, fish and other foods must be an appropriate size for the technique. Generally, you will have more control with thinner, faster-cooking cuts. However, if your goal is a crusty, seared exterior with an underdone interior (for example with a tuna loin, beef steak or scallops), then a thicker cut works to your advantage.
- Don't sear foods straight out of the fridge. Give them some time to get closer to room temperature so they won't offset the temperature cooking surface as much.
- Begin preheating your pan, or set the broiler or grill on high
- Season proteins well with salt and pepper and pat surface moisture dry just before searing. When searing in a pan, a light dusting of flour helps a lot if necessary, but be sure to shake all excess flour free or it can quickly burn in the pan. When searing under the broiler or on the grill, simply season with salt and pepper and rub with oil.
- When the pan is heated enough, add an appropriate amount of oil to your pan and immediately place in your seasoned, patted foods to begin the sear.
- Use tongs to help keep you fingers clear of the heat and lay the food in the pan so it does not splash.
- Don't shake the pan, and move the food minimally until it is time to turn over. The second side typically browns faster.
- If you have created enough of a sear on your food, but feel the inside has not cooked enough, it can be finished in the oven, preferably on a rack over a pan.
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