How to Get a Good Sear

June 21, 2016


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?

Searing a steak from Food52

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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.

Searing steak from Food52

Salt it

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

Searing steak from Food52

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. 

Sear away!

Searing steak from Food52

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.

Searing a steak from Food52


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!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • josefernandez
  • Courtney Potts
    Courtney Potts
  • Leo Lemoine
    Leo Lemoine
  • Skip Feinstein
    Skip Feinstein
  • Steve D
    Steve D
Brette Warshaw

Written by: Brette Warshaw

I'm a reader, eater, culinary thrill-seeker, and food nerd.


josefernandez August 5, 2016
Best non-cast iron pan to sear stakes or any meat is a carbon steel pan. I love my bourgeat black steel...have not failed me yet.
Courtney P. March 30, 2015
AntoniaJames June 21, 2016
It doesn't look like cast iron at all. I've never seen cast iron that looks like that, in any event. It looks more like a carbon steel pan. You can get them at restaurant supply stores quite reasonably, or you can order them online. I recently purchased on Amazon a Matfer Bourgeat "black steel" skillet which is the Cook's Illustrated test kitchen top choice in their review on carbon steel skillets. I could not be more pleased. It's a bit lighter than cast iron, but just as good in all respects. ;o)
Leo L. August 6, 2014
I don't think you know the difference between SEAR and BURN!
Skip F. July 31, 2014
OK. you've got the sear. Then what?
Steve D. July 6, 2014
Got this from Cook's Illustrated. Dry steak as much as poss with paper towel, then coat with cornstarch (dries up moisture and completely disappears when cooking). Put in freezer for half hour. Maximize pan or grill heat and slap 'er on. Flip often, in my opinion, to know what's going on, 'cu things happen fast at max heat. Done before you know it. Crispy sear and pink interior.
GourMel May 21, 2014
Could I use a stainless steel pan instead of cast iron and still get a nice char?
BillinSDCA March 12, 2014
I love pan searing but I can't figure out how to end up with a finished steak that is on the 'rare' side of medium-rare. I always end up with a medium finished steak. It tastes good but it's not the way I would love it. I keep lowering the cooking times but after the 5 minute rest when I cut in I'm bummed out that it's not on the rare side of donenes.
bmg314 July 23, 2014
Oven to 500 (but not broil setting).
Dry pan in oven for twenty minutes.

Oil your steak (not the pan!), but don't over do it. S&P. JUST S&P. Half hour at room temp, maybe 45 minutes.

Turn burner on high.

Remove pan from oven to stove top. Put steak in pan. (Remove batteries from smoke detectors, it will get smoky). 30 seconds each side.

Move back to oven. Two minutes each side in the oven.

Remove to cutting board and let rest for 10 minutes or so.

Perfection. I promise.
fastbreak October 14, 2014
I actually do the opposite of bmg314. Heat the oven to 500, season the steak with salt and pepper (truffle salt if you have it!) Turn the burner on high and oil the pan (with grapeseed oil - higher smoke temperature) wait until the pan begins to smoke slightly. Put the steak on. Once it is on resist the urge to move it. 3 minutes on one side, 1 minute on the other and 2-3 minutes in the oven. Take it directly off the burner and put right into the oven. After the oven, remove it from the pan and set it on the cutting board and don't even look at it for 10 minutes. Also perfection - I promise!
Amanda S. October 4, 2013
My mouth is watering and all I want is an enormous steak
Amanda S. October 4, 2013
*a very well-seared enormous steak
Turbeville G. October 2, 2013
Salt, and leave uncovered in the fridge on a rack as Kenji recommends for overnight or even a few days. The surface develops a lovely sheen and crisps up like a champ.
MariahK October 2, 2013
I've always wondered about adding butter at the end...if my pan is as hot as you say it should be to sear the meat won't the butter just burn and get bitter? Or does the basting keep it from sitting on the surface of the pan too long?