What is Reverse Searing?

Grill masters everywhere, including those here in our own grill department, are passionate about reverse searing.  Love it or hate it, we'll let you decide.  But before we light that fire, and before we can understand what the debate is all about, we must first understand what it means to reverse-sear a steak, and why it is even called REVERSE searing.

Typically, cookbooks and cooking shows have taught us that when you're grilling a steak, the first step should be searing to "lock in the juices."  Now, many believe that searing doesn't actually lock in juices at all, it merely adds flavor.  The idea of reverse searing is to flip the traditional sear from beginning to end, and that in doing so, we end up with better results and a more flavorful, perfectly-cooked steak.

There are advantages and disadvantages to reverse searing.  First the disadvantages (and there are three main ones):

  1. TIME. It is, of course, much faster to throw a steak on the grill, flip it a few times, until it is done.
  2. If cooking on top of a stove, reverse searing leaves no fond.  Fond are the browned bits that stick to the bottom of the skillet that some people like to use to make a finishing glaze.  So, if you want to make a finishing glaze, you'll have to be resourceful.
  3. Reverse searing does not work well with thinner steaks.  For reverse searing to work well, the steak should be thicker than an inch and a half.

Now, on to the four main advantages (and these involve a little science, so hang with me):

First, reverse-seared steaks are more evenly cooked.  Chefs everywhere support the idea that the more gently a steak is cooked, the more evenly it cooks.  That's because the difference in temperature as you cook your way from the edges of the steak to the center is related to the speed at which energy is transferred to that piece of meat.  (The higher temperature you use to grill the steak, the faster energy is transferred to it, and the less evenly your steak cooks.) Reverse searing allows you to start your steak at a lower temperature, ensuring you have even-cooking.  A juicier steak is naturally your reward.

Second, reverse searing leads to better browning.  When you sear a piece of meat, your goal is a crisp, dark brown crust that perfectly pairs with the tenderly pink meat underneath.  To create this crust, you will need to trigger the Maillard reaction.  (Here's where the science comes in.) The Maillard reaction is a series of chain reactions that happen when proteins and sugars are exposed to high heats.  To really understand why reverse searing works, you need to understand four ways energy is transferred when grilling your steak:

  • When you place a steak on a grill, you are transferring the energy from the grill to the steak.
  • It takes energy to raise the surface temperature of the steak.
  • It takes energy to evaporate the surface moisture of the steak.
  • It takes energy to trigger the Maillard reaction.

The key, though, is to monitor this energy-transfer in order.  Water needs to be at least 212 degrees to start evaporating, and the Maillard reaction begins when you reach temps of 300 degrees or higher.  This Maillard reaction will not begin, however, until most of the steak's surface moisture has evaporated.  Your goal when searing a steak is to make sure that the temperature and the evaporation take less of your focus so you can move more quickly to the browning process.  

Moisture is the biggest obstacle to a perfect sear, so any process that reduces the surface moisture on a steak will improve how well that steak browns and crisps on the outside, and how evenly the steak cooks on the inside. Strange though it seems, to get the juiciest steak, you want a steak drier on the surface.  

Third, reverse searing leads to tender steaks.  (Again, here comes some science.)  When you're talking tender steaks, you are talking enzymatic tenderization.  Meat contains enzymes called cathepsins, and these break down tougher muscle protein.  While your steak is sitting in the fridge, waiting for you to grill it, these cathepsins are doing their work very, very slowly.  But...as you then place the steak on the grill and the steak begins to heat up, these cathepsins work faster and faster.  When the temp of your steak reaches 122 degrees, the work of the cathepsins drops off.

Steaks grilled the traditional way pass too quickly through this process for it to really have much effect.  But...by slowly heating your steak with the reverse searing method, you are slowly breaking down tough muscle proteins, so that your steak will come out far more tender!

Fourth, the reverse sear method is more forgiving.  When you stand there and grill your steak at a higher temperature, you have a very small window of time to get that perfect center.  A minute too long or too short and you've missed your target.  Since reverse searing allows you to cook the steak more slowly, you are giving yourself a bigger window to hit that target temp, time after time!

Now that we've discussed WHY to try reverse searing, let's talk about HOW to reverse sear:

To reverse-sear your steak, you want to use the two-zone method on your grill;  that is, you want an extremely hot zone and an indirect, medium-heat zone.  To achieve this, light your grill, and without even waiting for the grill to heat up, go ahead and place your steak on the indirect side.  With the steak already on the grill, slowly bring the grill temperature up to 250 degrees and hold that temp steady.  Close the grill and keep on eye on the steak's temp with a meat thermometer.  You'll need to flip your steak not only over, but also from end to end and keep it away from the direct heat as much as possible.  

When your steak reaches about 115 degrees, remove it from the grill, tent it with foil and let it rest 15 minutes or so while you build up your fire.  This allows juices to soak back into the steak, tenderizing it.  Add more hot coals on a charcoal grill or, if on a gas grill, crank the heat as high as it will go and close the lid.  You are trying to reach temps of 550-600, so you can start your sear.  The goal is to have the grill grate as hot as possible, so you can brown that steak quickly, so you aren't adding heat to the center.  Flip to each side, then serve immediately.

As with any new cooking method, practice makes perfect.  Also, you'll want to try this method several times, adjusting the timing to your own personal tastes.  In the end, whether you become a fan of the reverse sear or stick with traditional ways, happy grilling from Fleet-Plummer!

Jason Windsor


Jason Windsor is a pretty pretty princess.