How to Properly Sear a Steak


It makes me sad when people order steaks from restaurants.  Why?  Because steaks are one of the easiest things to cook yourself, and they are sooooo much more expensive at restaurants.  Steaks don’t need fancy sauces to taste good, and frankly, you don’t want anything to cover up the natural flavors of the meat.  All a steak needs is a good seasoning of salt and pepper, and proper technique.  There’s plenty of flavor already in the beef itself, and the seared salty peppercorn crust complements it perfectly.  Here’s how to make restaurant quality steaks in your own home:

-30 minutes to an hour before cooking your steak, you want to take it out of the refrigerator.  If your steak starts out at 35 degrees rather than 65, the outside is going to have to be cooked a lot longer for the inside to come to your target temperature.  That means your outside will be overdone (translation, TOUGH).

-A few minutes before cooking the steak, heat up a skillet over medium high heat with no oil or anything in it.  Don’t use nonstick coated cookware.  You want a plain uncoated pan, and ideally one that has good heat retention (heavy bottomed, copper core, cast iron, etc).  Additionally, pick a skillet that is close in size to your steak.  If you use gigantic pan for a small steak, the uncovered areas will soon be covered in burned steak juices.

-While your pan heats up, pat your steak dry with a paper towel.  You are absorbing any extra moisture that might be on the steak.  Excess moisture on the outside is the enemy of a seared, caramelized and browned steak, and excess moisture will steam the steak.  Never heard of steamed steak right?  That’s because it’s not very good.

-Next, season the steak.  With LOTS of salt and pepper.  Why do restaurant steaks taste so good?  They are not afraid to really season it well.  For each steak I did 1/2 tsp to 3/4 tsp of salt on each side.  Yes, it looks like a lot.  But the inside is not seasoned, so seasoning the outside is really important.  As I have mentioned in my previous posts, don’t disdain salt.  We need salt to survive, and it has a bad reputation only because these days people eat too much manufactured/prepared food that has mountains of salt in it.  We are cooking from scratch here, so seasoning is okay and needed.  Make sure you rub the salt and cracked pepper into the meat.

-After a few minutes, your pan should be pretty hot.  Hold your hand above the surface.  Is it radiating heat?  Good.  Now sprinkle a couple drops of water onto the pan.  Do the droplets evaporate instantly?  Good.  Now, hold the end of the steak in the pan to test.  Do you hear crazy sizzling? If so, lay the baby down, fattiest part down first.  In the case of a New York Strip (my favorite cut), there’s a nice strip of fat lining a new york strip, so start searing that part first to render the fat:

There’s no need to oil up a steak.  The steak shouldn’t stick, as long as the pan is hot enough.

-Cook the steak on each side for 2-4 minutes for a 1 inch thick steak.  It should be searing to a beautiful brown color.  If it looks gray, your pan isn’t hot enough.  Sear all the outer surface area of the steak.

-While the steak is cooking, don’t touch it.  Resist.  Do not flip your steak more than once.  If you are constantly flipping, you aren’t letting the heat penetrate the meat, you are only cooking the surface over and over again (which will mean a tough edge).

-How do you know your steak is done?  Well, if you have an instant read thermometer, it’s pretty easy to know since it tells you (I usually cook mine to 120 degrees F, and it cooks another 5 degrees as it rests).  There’s a lot of leeway with cooking steak (as opposed to cooking chicken, which is pretty hard to cook correctly without a thermometer).  You could eat the inside of a steak raw if you wanted to.  As long as all the outer parts that were exposed to the air are cooked, your steak is perfectly safe.  You can tell how done a steak is by pushing on it with your fingers.  The firmer it is, the more cooked it is.  Unless you have a thermometer, this is something you will learn over time.

-After you take your steak out of the pan, let it rest on a wire rack for 10 minutes.  If you cut into it right away, all the tasty juices will run out and onto your plate.  Resting the steak gives it time for the juices to redistribute throughout, so your steak is nice and juicy.

-And just one last note about rare steak…I ate “well done” steaks/beef for all my life, until a few months ago.  That’s how I was raised to eat it, so I always ate it that way.  Thank goodness my husband slowly led me to eat rarer and rarer steaks.  It tastes so much better, and is so much more satisfying.

I hope you learned a thing or two about steak!  Keep your eyes out for an upcoming post on the different cuts of meat (ribeye vs. porterhouse vs. NY strip vs. chuck, etc).

Please post any comments, questions, or suggestions below.  Thanks for reading!

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8 Responses to How to Properly Sear a Steak

  1. Finally someone explains something in an easy to understand manner. I have cook book on properly cooking different types of meats. None have explained it better then you. Thank you for this, I’m going to have to try this technique.

  2. thanks, well written! I always say that simple is often the best way to cook many foods! the natural flavors is something that a lot of cooks forget to respect “yes even chefs too” I know I make greats sauces but I always make shore it dos not over power the natural flavors that food has to offer. it is meant to complement the dish! thank you for this it is hard to find this kind of information and that is what I am all about.

  3. Rachel says:

    Bravo Joanne! I love home made steak and honestly, I’ve never had meat done better at a restaurant than how my Dad did it at home.

  4. Joanne,

    You give such wonderful explanations about “why” things are done a certain way. You have a gift and I am happy that you now eat your steak the “proper” way. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Cooking Steak | Mental Notes

  6. Harriett says:

    I just wanted to say that last night I cooked a steak for the very first time following your instructions…. and dined on a perfect medium well steak! You are going in my cookbook and thanks so much –

Enlighten us all with your food thoughts and wisdom =)

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