One of the things that makes a steak house steak so special is the intense sear the chefs can get. They have a few tricks up their sleeve that help give their steaks a perfect balance of charred and perfectly cooked that makes the ideal steak. Learning to make a pan-seared steak at home is fun and easy. You are already cooking a steak, why not get the perfect sear while you are at it?
Start With Quality Meat
While you can make a low-quality steak taste great, it is worth the time and effort to source high-quality meats. Most of the grocery stores around are likely to have USDA Choice steaks, which are a good pick. Look for thicker steaks for the best results. Be sure to examine the steaks for intramuscular fat (it looks like white spiderwebs in the meat) and avoid any steaks that are gray, brown, or sitting in a puddle of red juice.
That juice is called spurge and it is all the moisture in the steak having leaked out, not blood. Spurge is a sign of old, improperly handled meat.
Your local butcher may be able to source USDA Prime steaks, which are typically higher in flavor-making fat and are often better quality. You can feel the tenderness of the raw meat and know that this will be the perfect steak for a pan-seared steak recipe.
Related Topic: Choice vs Prime Brisket – Which is Better?
Higher-quality steaks have a more robust and beefy flavor and are more succulent. A fork-tender steak from the grocery store is rare, but once you start shopping with a quality butcher, you can expect juicy tenderness every time.
High-quality meat makes for the best pan-seared steaks.
Choose the Right Cut
Different cuts of beef will give you different flavors and textures from your seared steak. Some cuts are better choices than others, but you can sear almost any steak. Good choices for searing are thicker steak cuts like a porterhouse steak, ribeye steaks, and New York strip steak. Filet mignon wrapped in bacon makes a great choice.
Thinner steak cuts like skirt steak and lean cuts like the eye of round are best broiled or braised and don't make good choices for pan searing. Save these for cuts for a different recipe.
Season the Steaks Fearlessly
Seasoning a steak doesn't have to be complicated. Any one of our Bearded Butcher Blend Seasonings will give you great flavor and help lock in the juiciness.
You can create even more complex flavors by experimenting with some combinations. Our Original is a favorite all by itself, but combining our Butter blend seasoning with our Chipotle blend can make for a multi-layered flavor experience that will blow your mind.
You can also use fresh ingredients to enhance the flavor of your steak. Press smoked garlic cloves into a bowl of just-melted unsalted butter and stir, then baste the steak in garlic butter. Add fresh thyme sprigs and whole rosemary to bring out a classic roast flavor.
When to Season Steak for Searing
Unlike a marinade, seasoning for seared steak doesn't have to sit on the meat for long. Anywhere from a few hours to just before you cook steaks will work.
A dry rub does not become stronger the longer steaks sit. The main thing is to rub the seasoning into the meat, making sure to coat every surface and crevice.
The rub needs to adhere to the surface of the steak to add flavor. Otherwise, it will just fall off when you put it in the pan and it will burn.
Steak Searing Techniques from the Pros
One reason that steak house steaks consistently come out perfect is because the chef has been making dozens of steaks (maybe even hundreds of steaks) pretty much every day for years. A chef has perfected the steak-searing technique through repetition and failure, so don't be afraid to make mistakes.
We will share two searing techniques, but both require that you have one of those white cotton chef coats, or at a minimum, a chef's hat.
We're just kidding, of course – but it is worth mentioning that wearing proper clothing and fastening your hair should be part of any cooking routine. And don't forget to wear closed-toed shoes in the kitchen.
In all seriousness, the only thing you will need to sear a steak like a chef is a good-quality cast iron skillet or a griddle. Everything else comes down to timing and technique.
Prepare a Nice Big Cast-Iron Pan
A big cast iron pan is one of the essential tools for your kitchen, and we think you should get the highest quality you can. It doesn't have to be a Le Creuset pan, Lodge makes perfectly acceptable cast iron skillets that are affordable.
But our favorite pan right now is this 10-inch forged skillet from our friends at Lockhart Ironworks here in Ohio. They are hand-forged carbon steel, which is more versatile and easier to maneuver than cast iron.
You can pick up the same pan we use at home on our website and have a treasured piece of art in your kitchen that you will look forward to using every day.
Tips for Best Results
Make sure that your skillet is big enough for your steaks. You don't want to crowd them, but you also don't need much room between each piece of meat. The main thing is to make sure the edges are not touching.
Clean and season your skillet if you have not done so already (luckily, ours come pre-seasoned).
A clean skillet is essential for flavor and a good seasoning is important because you don't want the steak to stick when you sear it. This is one of the most common mistakes. Starting out with a well-seasoned and clean pan will get you seventy-five percent of the way to a perfect steak.
The Right Temperature for Pan Sear Steak
Everyone likes their steak a little differently, and the best way you can tell when a steak is at the desired doneness is to use an instant-read thermometer. Rare steak will measure around 120 degrees while medium rare steak is around 135 degrees. Medium rare is optimal for pan-seared steak.
The most common technique starts with a very hot skillet that is treated with a small amount of vegetable oil that has been wiped with a paper towel. The steaks go directly into the hot skillet and sear for three to four minutes per side. Then, the steaks, skillet, and all go onto the grill or into a preheated oven to finish cooking. This traditional sear method works by quickly cooking the surface of the steak, causing physical and chemical reactions that lock in moisture.
A popular method that we prefer (and you will see in many high-end steak houses) is the reverse sear. Basically, the steak is cooked in an oven, by sous-vide, or on the grill until it is at the perfect internal temperature, then the steak goes into a hot skillet to sear for two to three minutes per side. Since the steak is already cooked to perfection, the reverse sear simply adds color and texture while enhancing the flavor of the steak. A reverse sear also locks in moisture that is lost as a steak cools, helping to produce a juicier and more flavorful cut of meat.
Letting the meat rest on a cutting board after cooking will also help retain juiciness. Rest steaks for about 15 minutes after either cooking method.
How Long to Sear
Searing should be a very fast process. You want to avoid leaving the steak on one side too long because it can dry out, especially if the cut isn't very thick. One of the ways you will tell that the steak is nearly ready is when it slides easily around the pan.
If there is resistance like the meat is stuck, wait a little longer. Once the surface of the steak has a good sear, it should not stick to the pan.
We usually shoot for three to four minutes for a traditional sear and a little less for a reverse sear. Right around that time, the Maillard reaction begins which transforms proteins at the surface into a delicious brown crust.
Troubleshooting: Solving Searing Problems
Q: Do you sear steak at the beginning or end?
A: Searing before cooking steaks can lock in moisture, but may dry out the steaks if it is done too long. Searing the steaks once they are already at the right temperature is less risky when you want the perfect seared steak. Thick steaks are better for reverse searing than thin ones.
Q: How long should you sear a steak?
A: The trick here is timing, and it is something that becomes more natural the more you do it. When you are searing before cooking, you want to go just long enough to get a little color, but not so long that the internal temperature is rising fast. You still want to slow-cook a steak for tenderness.
A reverse sear is also done at high heat but takes less time because the surface of the meat will already be fairly hot. All you want to do here is get a little color. No more than a few minutes on each side or you risk ruining the steak.
Q: Why am I not getting a good sear on steak?
A: There are two reasons that your steak isn't searing. The first is that the pan is not hot enough. A hot cast iron skillet will instantly begin searing steak. Medium-high heat will cook steak but isn't enough for searing. The second reason is likely that the steak is sticking or you are flipping it too soon. Sear one side and then the other for a few minutes per side so that it cooks evenly.
Q: What is the key to searing steak?
A: There are a few elements that go into a good sear. Starting with high-quality steaks is important, but having a good-quality pan that is properly seasoned is even more vital. You can also add butter to get an even more glorious sear steak.
Practice both techniques until you find the method that lets you sear steaks with professional results. The reverse sear method has become one of our favorites because it's so forgiving.
We usually will pull a steak when it hits about 117 degrees, reverse sear, then let it rest for 15 minutes and we get perfect medium-rare doneness and a delicious steak.
Invest in a good pan, treat it right, and you'll be searing steak like a professional chef in no time.