Sous-vide allows for a perfectly cooked protein through-and-through, but alone it’s still missing something- the crust! When meat is the main focus of the meal a proper sear ties a dish together. The flavor, the texture, the look, and contrast – they are all meal enhancers that our eyes, nose, and tastebuds enjoy. When you pull a steak out of the sous-vide water bath it is cooked to the preferred temperature (and doneness) all the way through. Despite the steak being ‘done’ in its entirety, the outside edge (top/bottom) of the cut needs to be finished. There are a number of ways to handle this situation (including going backwards). We will cover a number of them below.
Burn it and earn it – Sous-vide Sear
Every good cut of red meat deserves a crispy, flavorful and colorful margin. Searing with direct heat does a number of things to take your cooking to the next level. It releases aromatics, imparts flavor profiles that otherwise would be noticeably lacking and it adds a texture that becomes almost a necessity once you’ve experienced it. On top of all that a sear leaves your cut of meat looking just right. The searing of the meat edges is a browning of proteins to which we refer as the Maillard Reaction.
Texture, look, and flavor are all bettered by hitting any cut of meat with direct heat. A good sear rounds out the entire experience of a sous-vide meat cook and will earn you thumbs up from anyone in the room with a fork in hand!
What happens when we sear – the Maillard reaction
When we sear a piece of meat the first thing we do after removing it from the water bath and bag is pat dry. The meat should be as dry as possible to reduce the need to evaporate any surface moisture. Doing so ensures a more even and quickly finished crust. If we want to add some seasoning or a light rub before the sear that is totally fine. When heat (280-330 °F) comes into contact with meat, the amino acids that make up the proteins of the meat begin to undergo a most wonderful chemical reaction with reducing sugars. This reaction is known properly as the Maillard Reaction. In the kitchen we might call it ‘browning’. It shouldn’t be confused with caramelization, which is the reaction of just the sugars.
The results of searing is the browning and crusting of meats. The browning is a visual confirmation that the Maillard reaction has occurred. With the browning comes aromas and flavors that enhance the quality of the meat that only high heat can bring about. As mentioned earlier, the Maillard rxn requires a minimum of around 300°F to begin. Think about boiling meat; at 212°F water boils, and when meat is boiled it turns grey and no remarkable, unique, exceptional, noteworthy or outstanding flavors are produced. That is because the boiling point of water is nearly 100°F shy of the minimum temperature for the Maillard reaction to begin. When searing we usually aim for a minute or so at temperatures around 500-600 degrees to induce the Maillard reaction.
Reverse (reverse) sear
Cooking via sous-vide followed by searing (the typical technique) is actually what we refer to as a ‘Reverse Sear’. It is when the protein is cooked and then subjected to a very high heat sear of the sides and edges. When cooking sous-vide, we often refer to the ‘reverse sear’ method just as the sear. There is however, an alternative order to searing and cooking that we will touch on later in this post.
Dry it and try it
Typically to cook a one inch thick steak to medium rare done-ness, we would cook the steak (seasoned with perhaps salt and pepper) in the sous-vide bath for about 60-90 minutes at 129-130°F. After the water bath we remove the steak from the bag and use paper towels to pat the steak dry. A paper-towel dried cut of meat is going to sear properly, where a wet one will sear unevenly. While a dry cut sears quickly and evenly, a wet steak requires the moisture be evaporated away before the Maillard reaction can begin. Often times it is good to add another quick shake of salt/seasoning after drying and before the sear to build more crust and impart any desired flavors. Once dry, use one of the below methods to sear.
Methods of madness – Maillard rxn and Searing Methods
The ‘go to’ method of searing for most sous-vide home cooks is to heat oil in a cast iron skillet, or a nonstick pan to high heat and sear quickly. The cast iron skillet can be used either in the oven to a set temperature or on the stovetop. The best oils to use have high smoke points and neutral flavors. Avocado oil is the number one choice for home sous-vide chefs (520°F smoke point). When the hot pan or skillet begins to smoke slightly, sear the first side of the steak for about 30-45 seconds then flip to the other side and do the same. Remove the meat and let rest wrapped in tin foil for five minutes before serving (tin foil resting is optional).
When you don’t want to use cast iron or a skillet, try using a BBQ grill. The BBQ temperature should read above 600 degrees Fahrenheit before you throw the meat on. It takes about a minute each side. This will form a fair crust and can impart those attractive grill marks onto the meat. When removed from the grill, wrap in tin foil allow to rest for five minutes then serve.
Besides cast iron or grill searing, a high percentage of sous-vide’rs use the torch method to sear. A handheld torch allows the torch handler to essentially paint a sear across the faces and sides of the meat. Crackling the fat and burning the seasonings with each pass brings out desired flavors. This process allows for a quick and controlled sear, and may be the easiest method overall.
THERE’S MORE THAN ONE WAY TO.. well, you know..
Other notable methods include charcoal chimney starters, heat guns (similar to the torching method) or an oven (broil). A Searzall is a torch attachment that creates a wider flame than a typical handheld torch. All methods that deliver heat above 300 degrees to the meat will bring about the Maillard reaction.
Alternatively there is a method we might call the ‘sear first’ method. Using this method we sear the outside of the meat before cooking the meat in the sous-vide bath. To do so, throw the thawed meat in the freezer for 20 minutes after patting dry and before searing. This firms up the surfaces of the meat and keeps anything besides the outsides from cooking during the sear. You can use any searing method we’ve talked about (or haven’t) for the ‘sear first’ method. In my opinion a pre-sear is usually not necessary and a single but proper post-bath sear is sufficient. Certain meats such as skin-on duck breasts benefit from searing before and after the water bath.
Seariously, Sear it
Whichever method you decide to use (try a few!) just remember to finish with a sear. The Maillard reaction is an integral part of cooking a meat protein to completion. Your nose, eyes, and tastebuds will thank you, as will your dinner guests.