The Perfect Steak Cheat Code
We’ve covered previously that cooking a great steak doesn’t have to be an intimidating experience that is better left in the hands of the Bourdains, Ramsays, and Blumenthals of the world. It can be a stress-free and incredibly rewarding experience for the home cook as well.
Even though the basic processes of cooking a steak are nothing too intimidating and will seem almost second nature to a well-seasoned cook. The fear of getting the inside of your steak to the perfect doneness and that first cut into the meat before you find out is something that will always cause that moment of “what if…” even to an experienced cook.
But instead of asking what if at the end of the process, let's ask what if at the begging. What if there was a way to avoid the chaotic nature of pan cooking a steak to doneness and instead produce a perfectly cooked steak with half of the hassle?
The technique I’m referring to is the reverse sear.
What is the reverse sear?
Reverse searing a steak is pretty much taking the history of cooking steak and flipping it directly on its head.
Cooks and cookbooks from time immemorial have laid down in black and white that to properly cook a steak, you need to sear it first to “lock-in” the juices, and then its a case of keeping close watch of your steak in the pan as you attempt to cook it evenly from a single heat point.
Now though, in more enlightened times, we know that “locking in” juices with a sear is not actually a real thing, neither is resting your steak, and you do not have to wait for it to come to room temperature before cooking. With these myths busted, we can afford ourselves a lot more liberties in the cooking process.
To reverse sear a steak, all you need to do is place your preferred cut of steak into the oven and cook it until the required doneness is achieved. You can monitor this how you see fit but we will always recommend using a probe thermometer for pinpoint accuracy.
Once your steak reaches the perfect internal temperature, you simply remove it from the oven with no fuss. Your steak will look a little bit different from what you’re used to with the most obvious difference being its lack of sear.
Now you have the perfectly and evenly cooked steak out of the oven, the searing process can begin. Get your pan up to temperature, a splash of your preferred oil, and drop in your steak to get that fantastic sear.
Why should you reverse sear your steak?
The primary benefit to reverse searing a steak is that the meat comes out a great deal juicier and a lot more tender than you would usually achieve through pan cooking only.
The “all-around” heat produced by your oven is able to penetrate the meat to the full extent and bring its entire form up to temperature slowly and evenly. The higher the temperature you use to cook, the quicker the outside of your meat will cook, and the less even it will be. Not a problem with oven heat.
This eliminates a great deal of “eyeballing”, tong action, and hot spitting oil from your family kitchen. Your steak is already cooked so the 30 seconds in the pan is just there for adding the colour. It makes the whole process a lot calmer, a lot easier to manage, and you can even go from pan to plate with your steak for some added wow factor at your meal.
A secondary yet also very important benefit of the reverse sear is actually the quality of the sear itself.
We’ve posted previously about how the best way to get a fantastic sear is to make sure your steak is dry. Anything you can do to dry your steak before it hits the pan will pay off dividends in the final result, even dabbing the surface with a paper towel makes a huge difference to the browning.
An oven is a fantastic way to achieve a perfectly dry surface. As the steak comes up to temperature internally, the exterior is drying and forming a light brown surface that produces a dark sear as you’ve never seen before when it hits the pan.
The final notable benefit to reverse searing your steaks is the whole process is a lot more relaxed than pan cooking. When you pan cook a steak there is usually a very limited time frame where the steak is the perfect doneness. A minute over and you’ve overcooked it, a minute under, and it's still mooing. Not the most relaxing experience on date night.
When you slowly oven cook your steak and the temperature comes up gradually, this window is greatly increased leaving you time to pour wine, set the table, and get your side dishes up to scratch.
Are there any downsides to reverse searing? Why isn’t everyone doing this?
If it all sounds too good to be true then it probably is. Reverse searing is not without its drawbacks that may, or may not, be deal breakers for you.
The first and potentially most problematic drawback is the time it takes. No matter how you cut it, the quickest way to cook a steak is to throw it in a hot pan. There's no getting around the fact that reverse searing, while not being labour intensive, is definitely a time drainer with between 25 - 45 minutes being needed in a preheated oven.
This is why you probably won’t get a reverse seared steak in a restaurant. The time it takes just makes it unviable for anything other than the highest-end kitchens where oven space is not a problem and the customers are enjoying fine wines between courses.
The second drawback you’ll encounter when reverse searing your steak is that it's not great for steaks less than around an inch and a half. Steaks of that thickness tend to overcook quickly in an oven so if you’re going for a leaner trim then stick to the pan.
So is reverse searing really the best way to cook a steak?
For your home cook with plenty of time and who wants a perfectly cooked steak then reverse searing is definitely the way forward.
The low-stress approach makes it ideal for a relaxed romantic evening or a laid back Sunday dinner. The only method I can think of that will produce better results than reverse searing is using sous-vide cooking which, to your garden variety home cook, is perhaps a bit over the top.
In short, when you have a good-sized steak that demands respect and care for cooking, ditch the hot pan (for the start anyway) and get it in the oven for a textbook reverse sear.
After your first time reverse searing, I guarantee you’ll never go back.