A lot of braising or slow-cooked meat recipes have you start off by searing the meat first until it's brown and crusty on the outside before you add the liquid, turn down the heat, and simmer until tender. For quick-cooking cuts of meat, like flank or skirt steak, searing may be all you have to do before it's ready to eat.
Searing meat is one of those fundamental cooking techniques worth learning, but why does it need to be done? Can the meat just be cooked without searing and taste the same? One theory is that searing helps develop a crust that seals in the juices to keep the meat moist — let's find out if that's true!
What actually happens when you sear meat
When meat is seared, which means cooked at a high temperature over dry heat, it undergoes something called the Maillard reaction, which is a browning reaction. As the meat hits the hot pan, moisture on the surface of the meat evaporates and the meat undergoes a chemical change that results in a roasted or meaty aroma and flavor. Think of it as caramelizing the meat much in the same way that onions or sugars caramelize and change in flavor.
So does this change mean that the browned meat seals in the juices?
The answer is no! In fact, as stated earlier, browning actually happens from moisture loss. Juiciness in meat really comes from fat content, cooking the meat to the right internal temperature, and making sure seared meats like steaks rest after cooking.
Why sear the meat then?
There are three main reasons why meat should be seared:
Because the Maillard reaction creates such an appetizing aroma as it occurs, we might have trained our eyes to prefer meat that looks browned on the outside, as opposed to the pale gray color that meat cooked over lower heat takes on. Browned meat just looks more appetizing.
In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee says: "Roasted, broiled, and fried meats develop a crust that is much more intensely flavored, because the meat surface dries out and gets hot enough to trigger the Maillard or browning reactions." Simply put, seared meats just have much more concentrated, complex flavors.
3. Sauce Foundation
As meat browns, it leaves behind some tasty caramelized brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Pan sauces and braising liquids get their incredible depth of flavor from these little guys called sucs, or sometimes fond in America. Without them, the finished sauces just won't be as good.
Now that you know what searing does, don't skip out on doing it! It's an extra step, yes, but really worth the effort if you want to extract as much flavor from the meat as possible.