It might be grilling season, but it's also steak season. So we're bringing this post back to our attention. What's a steak without a good sear, anyways?
There are a few times in the kitchen when we need to let go: to throw something into the oven, or onto the stove, or into a corner, and let heat or time or chemicals do what they're meant to do.
Searing a piece of meat or fish requires that faith.
Because while getting a perfect sear can seem like a toss-up—something to stress over, something to second-guess—it's something that, with confidence, is easy to master. Yes, that pan looks way too hot. Yes, that meat might be sticking. Yes, there's smoke and there's sizzling and you're sweating, and things are moving quickly and you're nervous and not sure quite what to do.
Take a deep breath. Get your cast-iron ready—you're about to get a perfect sear, every time.
For meat: You can choose your own adventure here; salt your meat right before cooking, or salt it forty minutes ahead. Why forty minutes? As Kenji from Serious Eats says, forty minutes gives the salt enough time to penetrate the meat; you're essentially dry-brining it.
If you go the salting-early route, make sure to wait those full forty minutes; after 25 to 30 minutes, the salt will create beads of moisture on the surface of the meat (and wet surface means a flabby, gray dinner). That extra ten minutes allows the moisture to be re-absorbed, leaving you with a dry surface perfect for searing. (And if there are still spots of water after forty minutes, just pat it dry.)
For fish: Salt it right before adding it to the pan.
Get Your Pan Hot
Get out your seasoned cast iron, add a coating of vegetable oil, and get it hot. Really hot. You want the surface of your food to start caramelizing as soon as it hits the pan.
Once your oil is shimmering and you feel waves of heat radiating from your pan, get your food in there! While Kenji actually recommends flipping every fifteen seconds—which you can do, if don't mind babysitting—we're fans of the flip-once-or-twice method: Let the bottom of your meat get nice and charred, then flip and repeat on the other side.
For fish, you'll want to start skin-side down to get it extra-crispy. Unlike meat, you're best leaving fish alone until it's ready to flip; once you start playing around with it, it gets less and less direct heat. Once the fish is in the pan, press down on it, so that all of the skin touches the pan. It will want to buckle, to curl. Don't let it.
A few minutes before your food is ready, you can add a bit of butter and aromatics (think rosemary or thyme) to your pan—and then spoon the melted butter over the food until it's finished cooking. The melted butter and aromatics will allow for more even cooking—and will help caramelize the surface even more.
Do you have any tips for getting a good sear? Let us know in the comments!