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Searing is a cooking process which involves introducing a piece of food such as meat or fish to a very high temperature and briefly cooking it before turning the temperature down or removing the food from the heat. It is also sometimes called browning, and it is used to prepare meats for cooking as well as to create standalone dishes. There are a number of reasons to include searing in food preparation, and they all boil down, so to speak, to making the food taste better and giving it a more interesting texture. Searing is also very easy to do, and it requires no special equipment.
One thing searing does not do is “seal in the juices” of the meat, although many people mistakenly believe this. In fact, seared meat appears to lose juices just as readily as non-seared meat does, as demonstrated in tests by food scientists such as Alton Brown. However, there are lots of other benefits to searing, as we shall see.
The first thing searing does is create a caramelized, brown crust through the Maillard Reaction. The Maillard Reaction is a complex term for what happens when sugars and amino acids are heated together, creating a characteristic crust and a wide assortment of flavor compounds. This crust will ultimately make the meat more flavorful if it is being subjected to further cooking. In addition, searing will give food an interesting mouthfeel, with a tender inside and a crispy exterior.
To sear, a cook needs a pan and high heat. Many cooks sear on the stove top, although it can also be accomplished on a grill or in a broiler. The meat is usually allowed to rise to room temperature so that it relaxes, and surface moisture is gently patted off before the heat is introduced to the pan. Some cooks sear with a small amount of oil, while others do not. In either case, the meat is allowed to completely brown on one side before being flipped to sear the other side.
After searing, a meat could be roasted, braised, or cooked in any number of ways. Seared meat will ultimately taste more complex and flavorful, especially in slow cooked dishes like stews. If you have been struggling with slightly bland stews and chili, you should probably sear your meat first. Seared meat may also be served plain, if it is of sufficiently high quality. Usually seafood such as tuna is served seared, with a crispy exterior crust and a buttery, essentially raw interior. The creamy center interacts with the crunchy crust in a way which this wiseGEEK writer rather enjoys, and you might like it as well. Be aware that poultry, freshwater fish, and pork should never be served rare, and only very high quality red meat and saltwater fish should be seared.
You just about have to use a cast iron skillet to sear meat the right way, in my opinion. Cast iron just seems to get the crust just right, and then, if you're roasting it, you can pop the pan into the oven. You don't have to switch pans to one that's oven safe. You can even remove the meat, deglaze the pan and put the meat back in. I have a pork tenderloin recipe that calls for searing the meat and then putting it in the oven to roast. With cast iron, it all happens in one pan, and then when I do the sauce on the stovetop, I use the drippings in the pan.
I am not a fan of seared-only seafood. I'm just kind of funny about it. It has to be cooked through (not well done, necessarily) before I'm interested in eating it. Needless to say, nigiri sushi is not one of my favorite foods.
My mom always seared a chuck roast on the stovetop before putting it on for pot roast. Then, she would deglaze the pan and use the juices during the roasting process.
I generally sear meat too, before I cook it. I think it just adds to the flavor layers of the meat. I'm a big fan of using wine to deglaze my pan -- again, an extra layer of flavor for the dish.
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