Searing, often referred to as pan-searing, is a technique where the surface of the food, most often fish, meat, or poultry, is cooked at an intense temperature until a browned crust is formed. To obtain the desired crust, the meat’s surface temperature must exceed 150 °C (300 °F), since water boils at 100 °C (212 °F) searing requires the meat surface to be free of water. While this method increases shrinkage, it also develops intense flavor through the Maillard reaction, improves appearance with a well-browned crust, and makes food more interesting to the palate by creating a contrast in taste and texture between the crust and the interior of the food. As a result, it is an essential technique in cooking.
Several misconceptions about the searing process exist. The notion that you can “lock in the moisture” or “seal in the juices,” was embraced by many cooks, including Auguste Escoffier, and is often repeated by cookbook authors. Scientific experiments dating back to the 1930s, however, prove the process of searing results in an equal to or more often a greater loss of moisture when compared to other techniques. This is why many chefs now wait to sear until the end of the cooking process, opting to sous vide and sear, which results in more moistness along with the benefits of the Maillard reaction. Expanding from this rationale, another technique is the reverse sear, where the meat is started in a low-temperature oven and then finished in an extremely hot grill or pan.
A second misunderstanding associated with searing meat is caramelization, which is a process that only affects simple carbohydrates (sugars). In contrast, the Maillard reaction involves reactions between amino acids and reducing sugars. So while caramelization and the Maillard reaction cause browning in some of the same foods, the two processes are distinct from one another. Finally, the Maillard reaction results in a far more complex and diverse spectrum of flavors in comparison to the simple flavor of caramelized sugar.
Keep in mind that after a piece of meat is seared, the Maillard reaction often leaves behind precious brown bits stuck to the pan’s bottom called fond, which is the foundation of many delicious sauces. If you want to use the fond, remove the meat from the pan, discard the excess fat, scrape the pan to loosen the brown bits, and return the pan to the heat to deglaze. Follow that by adding liquid to the hot pan, this is the actual deglazing. Any liquid of your choice from juice to stock, to water and most obviously wine, will result in an easy and inexpensive yet tasty pan sauce. Reduce your sauce over the heat to your preferred consistency while seasoning with salt and pepper, then add in a tablespoon of butter just prior to serving to add richness and the deglazing process is complete.
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