The Science of Sear

A Moment of Science

There’s no better sound than sizzling meat when you’re hungry.

But what’s going on when you sear meat? Thad Stuckey, executive chef of Hooked Seafood explains why many home cooks actually have it wrong.

“It’s not necessarily locking in the juices, a lot of people seem to say that for some reason. It’s locking it in… it’s keeping it more moist… but that’s not exactly what’s happening. What you’re doing is creating a chemical reaction on the surface of your food that is both intensifying the aroma, the texture, and the flavor of that piece of meat.”

That reaction, called the Maillard reaction, takes the amino acids that are in food and converts them, creating new flavor molecules that we love to taste and smell! Grilled steak, roast pork, fried chicken- all wonderful by-products of the Maillard reaction but yet all of them are distinctly different. 

“The different amino acids in different proteins is why the beef that’s cooking right now compared to the scallops we’re gonna do in a second,” says Stuckey.

It’s not just flavor, this reaction also creates color and texture as those new molecules arrange themselves in little circles on the surface that appear brown. It’s important to note that this is browning and not burning! The Maillard reaction starts around 285 degrees Fahrenheit and ends around 350. Above that, a different reaction, pyrolysis, occurs. Burning!

That’s why so many recipes call for 350 as it’s in the sweet spot for creating some fantastic flavors with this reaction in the shortest amount of time without burning.

Now some char can be a good thing, but when creating a good sear- temperature matters! Moisture matters as well, 

“You want to make sure the surface of the product that you’re searing is dry. If it’s not, take a paper towel and pat it down. That will help enforce that Maillard reaction. Water is the enemy… you want dry heat.”

So the bottom line is that a sear doesn’t seal in moisture. In fact, it actually makes the meat drier as this process sucks out the moisture on the surface. There are methods using lower cooking temperatures that will create more moist and tender meat but you’ll miss out on flavors and textures that you only get with that Maillard reaction. 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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