At a recent dinner party, a friend asked me whether it was really necessary to sear meat before cooking it, especially if it was just getting slow-cooked in a braise or a stew anyway. My friend logically pointed out that if it wasn't an important step, then why go to the extra trouble or dirty more dishes?
Contrary to widely held belief, searing meat doesn't actually seal moisture inside the cut of meat or result in a juicier finished dish. It does, however, give meat dishes an incredible depth of flavor. Additionally, it gives meat an appetizing color and kills off any bacteria that might be hanging out on the surface of the meat.
Searing over high heat caramelizes the surface of the meat, which enhances the savory 'meat' flavor and fills the finished dish with complex layers of nutty caramel and coffee-like bitterness. In technical terms, this is called a Maillard reaction and it's a flavor profile we omnivores happen to find quite delicious. Without searing, meat dishes can taste flat and boring.
Admittedly, searing isn't strictly necessary for the cooking process. Technically speaking. The meat will cook just fine without searing. (And any surface bacteria will die during cooking anyway.)
But I really believe that the depth and complexity of flavor we gain in this searing step is well-worth the extra effort. What about you?
(Image: Individual Pot Roasts/Faith Durand)