How to Pan Sear Steak: A Primer

Note: Matthew Latino does not, in any way, consider himself a photographer. If he ever gets his sandwich cookbook to anywhere near publishing quality, he or the publishing company will hire a professional. He is unsure of who actually decides these things.

In my personal culinary opinion, there are few things greater than a properly cooked steak and few things more disappointing than a ruined one. I have spent many years attempting to eat the overcooked, burnt, steaks my maternal grandfather would cook on his small outdoor grill on the patio. Personally, I don’t want anyone having to ruin any meat they paid good money for. So to begin our lessons on cooking meat, let’s begin with learning how to pan sear a steak.

Searing is a process of cooking meat at a very high temperature, for a short period of time to promote flavor and texture by  forming a caramelized crust. It is similar to browning or blacking, although browning is a slower process and blackening requires the meat to be coated in butter and multiple forms of seasoning before cooking. While I will cover those methods in other blog posts, first let me give you some tips on searing:

  • Most cooks wil have you sear your meat in a cast iron skillet. While this method is all well and good, I am not going to make you go out and get another piece of cookware. Cast iron skillets usually run small, and while this is fine, as you should never overcrowd your pan when searing (it drops the temperature of the pan causing uneven cooking and in this case, prevents the crust from forming), most recipes ask you to make a sauce out of the fond (pan drippings), which is difficult in small pans, especially when cooking for larger groups. My solution is using an oven safe, non-stick, stainless steel skillet/pan. These normally run larger, can absorb the heat necessary for this technique, are safer to handle, and frankly, you should have one of these already as they are extraordinarily practical.
  • When choosing a steak  for searing you are going to want to choose tender, and thin cuts of beef. Searing is usually a primary step in cooking larger pieces of meat; however, we’re using it a quick cooking method, so thickness is crucial. Steaks between 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick work best, as long as it can fit in your pan, length shouldn’t be an issue. Tenderness is always important in cooking methods where the cut of meat is neither being used for its fat content (stocks) nor is being cooked for a long time (braising). If possible, ask a butcher how thick are the steaks.
  • Since the pan has to be kept at a hot temperature you will be needed an oil with a high smoke point, that is one that does not burn/smoke easily in high heat. Any oil you would use in frying will work well here, but I have found that canola oil works the best as it doesn’t impart any unwanted flavors. This doesn’t mean you should sacrifice giving as much flavor to your meat as possible . The combination of butter an oil imparts the best of both worlds: great flavor and high tolerance to heat. You should still use less butter than oil and make sure it is fully incorporated to prevent burning.
  • Speaking of burning, searing creates a lot of smoke. Find ways of ventilating your kitchen, and be prepared for a smoke alarm or two.
  • The reason for the high heat being needed for crust formation is that all water must be  removed from the surface of the meat before caramelization can begin. This means if you are going to flavor your steak it has to be with a dry rub. Don’t worry about keeping your steak moist, most recipes with pan seared steak call for you to make a sauce from the fond.

Enough prep talk, time to commence the process. To cook any amount of 1 to 1 1/2 inch steaks, you will need:

  • 2 Tbs of canola oil or enough to lightly coat the bottom of the skillet.
  • 1/2 Tbs. of butter per steak
  • 1 Tps. of salt per steak
  • 1/2 Tps. pepper per steak
  • Any other dried herbs and/or spices
  1. Begin by evenly coating all steaks with salt and pepper on both sides.
  2. Place your skillet over high heat and add the oil and butter. Stir to combine and wait for the butter to begin darkening.
  3. As soon as the butter begins to darken, carefully place in your steaks making sure that there is at least an inch of room between any two steaks. For 1 inch steaks, cook for 3 minutes; 1 1/2 inch, cook for 4 minutes. In any case, DON’T CONSTANTLY CHECK YOU STEAKS FOR DONENESS. It ruins caramelization.
  4. After the allotted time has passed,  flip each steak. This time 1 inch steaks cook for 2 minutes, 1 1/2 inch cook for 3 minutes.
  5. After the allotted time has passed, removed your steaks from the pan and tent them (wrap loosely) with aluminum foil. Not only does this method allows your steaks to reabsorb their natural juices, but also it allows for the steaks to finish cooking without having to worry about leaving them in the skillet.
  6. Repeat until all steaks are done.

What you will get from this is any number of perfectly cooked, juicy, tender, and flavorful medium-rare steaks. Now some of you might like your meat a little more or less well done, and while most of my recipes that include pan seared steaks call for medium-rare, my preferred level of doneness (it’s a word), I will not dissuade you from having the steak cooked your way. For rare cook for one less minute on each side, for medium cook for one minute more. I would still strongly suggest otherwise as your steaks will taste less caramelized, and in the case of medium, more burnt. Still, who am I to say how you should cook your food, I just want you to enjoy a hassle-free and delicious meal.


1 Comment

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One response to “How to Pan Sear Steak: A Primer

  1. Pingback: Steak au Poivre with Mushrooms (Traditional & Latino) | Latino By Name Only

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