I've been using and writing about the reverse sear—the technique of slow-cooking a steak or roast before finishing it off with a hot sear—for well over a decade now, but I've never written a definitive guide for using it on steaks. It's a really remarkable method, and if you're looking for a steak that's perfectly medium-rare from edge to edge, with a crisp crust, there's no better technique that I know of.
Here is that definitive article we've been missing, outlining what I think is the best way to cook a steak, indoors or out.
The full history of the reverse sear is a little hazy (though AmazingRibs.com has a pretty good timeline). It's one of those techniques that seem to have been developed independently by multiple people right around the same time. With all the interest in food science and precision cooking techniques like sous vide that cropped up in the early 2000s, I imagine the time was simply ripe for it to come around.
My own experience with it started in 2006, when I was just beginning my very first recipe-writing job. I'd recently been hired as a test cook at Cook's Illustrated magazine, and my first project was to come up with a foolproof technique for cooking thick-cut steaks. After testing dozens and dozens of variables, I realized that I already knew the answer: Cook it sous vide. Traditional cooking techniques inevitably form a gray band of overcooked meat around the outer edges of a steak. Sous vide, thanks to the gentle heat it uses, eliminates that gray band, producing a steak that's cooked just right from edge to edge.
Unfortunately, at that time, sous vide devices were much too expensive for home cooks. Instead, I tried to devise a method that would deliver similar results with no special equipment. The reverse sear is what I came up with, and the recipe was published in the May/June 2007 issue of the magazine (though it didn't get the name "reverse sear" until some time later).
Why Should You Reverse Sear Your Steak?
It's called the reverse sear because it flips tradition on its head. Historically, almost every cookbook and chef have taught that when you're cooking a piece of meat, the first step should be searing. Most often, the explanation is that searing "locks in juices." These days, we know that this statement is definitively false. Searing does not actually lock in juices at all; it merely adds flavor. Flipping the formula so that the searing comes at the end produces better results. But what exactly are those better results?
More Even Cooking
The temperature gradient that builds up inside a piece of meat—that is, the difference in temperature as you work your way from the edges toward the center—is directly related to the rate at which energy is transferred to that piece of meat. The higher the temperature you use to cook, the faster energy is transferred, and the less evenly your meat cooks. Conversely, the more gently a steak is cooked, the more evenly it cooks.
By starting steaks in a low-temperature oven, you wind up with almost no overcooked meat whatsoever. Juicier results are your reward.
When searing a piece of meat, our goal is to create a crisp, darkly browned crust to contrast with the tender, pink meat underneath. To do this, we need to trigger the Maillard reaction, the cascade of chemical reactions that occur when proteins and sugars are exposed to high heat. It helps if you think of your screaming-hot cast iron skillet as a big bucket, and the heat energy it contains as water filling that bucket. When you place a steak in that pan, you are essentially pouring that energy out of the skillet and into the steak.
In turn, that steak has three smaller buckets that can be filled with energy.
- The first is the temperature change bucket: It takes energy to raise the temperature of the surface of that steak.
- Next is the evaporation bucket: It takes energy to evaporate the surface moisture from the steaks.
- Third is the Maillard browning bucket: It takes energy to trigger those browning reactions.
The thing is, all of those buckets need to be filled in order. Water won't really start evaporating until it has been heated to 212°F (100°C). The Maillard reaction doesn't really take place in earnest until you hit temperatures of around 300°F (150°C) or higher, and that won't happen until most of the steak's surface moisture has evaporated.
Your goal when searing a steak is to make sure that the temperature and evaporation buckets are as small as possible, so that you can rapidly fill them up and move on to the important process of browning.
Pop quiz: Let's say you pull a steak straight out of the fridge. Which of those three buckets is the biggest one? You might think, Well, it's gotta be the temperature bucket—we're starting with a steak that's almost freezing-cold and bringing it up to boiling temperatures.
In fact, it's the evaporation bucket that is by far the biggest. It takes approximately five times more energy to evaporate a gram of water than it does to raise the temperature of that same gram of water from freezing to boiling. That's a big bucket!
"It's a strange irony that to get the moistest possible results, you should start with the driest possible steak."
Moral of the story: Moisture is the biggest enemy of a good sear, so any process that can reduce the amount of surface moisture on a steak is going to improve how well it browns and crisps—and, by extension, minimize the amount of time it spends in the pan, thus minimizing the amount of overcooked meat underneath. It's a strange irony that to get the moistest possible results, you should start with the driest possible steak.
The reverse sear is aces at removing surface moisture. As the steak slowly comes up to temperature in the oven, its surface dries out, forming a thin, dry pellicle that browns extremely rapidly. Want to get your steak to brown even better? Set it on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, and leave it in the fridge, uncovered, overnight. The cool circulating air of the refrigerator will get it nice and dry. The next day, when you're ready to cook, just pop that whole rack and baking sheet in the oven.
More Tender Meat
This one is not quite as obvious, but it can still make a detectable difference: enzymatic tenderization. Meat naturally contains enzymes called cathepsins, which will break down tough muscle protein. Their activity is responsible for the tenderness of dry-aged meat (see our complete guide to dry-aging here).
At fridge temperatures, cathespins operate very, very slowly—dry-aged meat is typically aged for at least four weeks—but, as the meat heats up, their activity increases more and more rapidly, until it drops off sharply at around 122°F (50°C). By slowly heating your steak, you are, in effect, rapidly "aging" it, so that it comes out more tender. Steaks cooked via traditional means pass quickly through that window, reaching the 122°F cutoff point too rapidly for this activity to have any real effect.
When you're cooking steak at a high temperature, you have a very narrow window of time in which the center of that steak is a perfect medium-rare. A minute too short, and your steak is raw; a minute too long, and it's overcooked. With slow cooking, that window of time is greatly expanded, making it much easier to nail the right temperature time after time. Meathead Goldwyn, author of Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue, likens it to shooting an arrow at a tortoise versus shooting at a rabbit: The slower it moves, the easier it is to hit.
How to Reverse Sear a Steak
The process of reverse-searing is really simple: Season a roast or a thick-cut steak (the method works best with steaks at least one and a half to two inches thick), arrange the meat on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, and place it in a low oven—between 200 and 275°F (93 and 135°C). You can also do this outdoors by placing the meat directly on the cooler side of a closed grill with half the burners on. Cook it until it's about 10 to 15°F below your desired serving temperature (see the chart at the end of this section), then take it out and sear it in a ripping-hot skillet, or on a grill that's as hot as you can get it.
Then dig into the best-cooked steak you've ever had in your life.
You want it broken down step by step? Okay, here goes:
1. Season the Steak
Season your thick-cut steaks—I like ribeyes, but this will work with any thick steak—generously with salt and pepper on all sides, then place them on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet. If you're cooking the steaks on a grill, skip the rack and pan.
For even better results, refrigerate the steaks uncovered overnight to dry out their exteriors.
2. Preheat the Oven
Preheat the oven to anywhere between 200 and 275°F (93 and 135°C). The lower you go, the more evenly the meat will cook, though it'll also take longer. If you have a very good oven, you can probably set it even lower than this range, but many ovens can't hold temperatures below 200°F very accurately.
If you're doing this outdoors, create a two-zone fire by banking a chimney of coals under one side of the grill, or turning on only half the burners of a gas grill. Cover the grill and let it preheat.
3. Slow-Cook the Steak
Place the steaks—baking sheet, rack, and all—in the oven, and roast until they hit a temperature about 10 to 15°F below the final temperature at which you'd like to serve the meat. A good thermometer is absolutely essential for this process. I recommend either the Thermapen or one of these inexpensive options.
If using the grill, just place the steaks directly on the cooler side of the grill, allowing them to gently cook via indirect heat. Timing may vary depending on the exact temperature that your grill is maintaining, so use a thermometer, and check frequently!
4. Sear the Steak
Just before the steaks come out of the oven, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil or other high-temp-friendly oil to a heavy skillet, then set it to preheat over your strongest burner. Cast iron works great, as does triple-clad stainless steel.
As soon as that oil starts smoking, add the steaks along with a tablespoon of butter, and let them cook, swirling and lifting occasionally, until they're nicely browned on the first side. This should take about 45 seconds. Flip the steaks and get the second side, then hold the steaks sideways to sear their edges.
To finish on the grill, remove the steaks and tent them with foil while you build the biggest fire you can, either with all your gas burners at full blast and the lid down to preheat, or with extra coals. When the fire is rip-roaring hot, cook the steaks over the hot side, flipping every few seconds, until they're crisp and charred all over, about a minute and a half total.
Serve the steaks immediately, or, if you'd like, let them rest for at most a minute or two. With reverse-seared steaks, there's no need to rest your meat, as you would with a more traditional cooking method.
Temperature and Timing for Reverse-Seared Steak
For 1 1/2–Inch Steaks in a 250°F (120°C) Oven
Doneness Target Temperature in the Oven Final Target Temperature Approximate Time in Oven Rare 105°F (40°C) 120°F (49°C) 20 to 25 minutes Medium-Rare 115°F (46°C) 130°F (54°C) 25 to 30 minutes Medium 125°F (52°C) 140°F (60°C) 30 to 35 minutes Medium-Well 135°F (57°C) 150°F (66°C) 35 to 40 minutes
NB: All time ranges are approximate. Use a thermometer!
Disadvantages of Reverse-Searing Steak
I'll admit it: Reverse-searing is not all rosy-pink centers. There are three key disadvantages to the process.
The first is time. It's much faster to simply season a steak and throw it in a hot pan, flipping it every so often until it's cooked.
The second disadvantage is that steaks cooked via the reverse sear produce almost no fond, the browned bits that get stuck to the pan and form the base for pan sauces. So, if you want a sauce with your reverse-seared steak, you'll have to construct it separately.
This second disadvantage is, of course, not really much of a disadvantage. The fact that there's no fond in the pan means that all that stuff is stuck firmly in your meat already. You'll probably find that a reverse-seared steak needs no sauce at all.
Finally, the method doesn't work very well for steaks thinner than an inch and a half or so, since they end up cooking through too quickly. If a two-inch-thick steak sounds too big for you, I'd suggest serving a single large steak for every two eaters.
Is Sous-Vide Steak Better Than Reverse-Seared Steak?
It's true that the reverse sear was initially intended to mimic the effects of sous vide cooking, but as it turns out, the method is actually superior in one important way: searing. Sous vide steaks come out of their bags wet, which makes it very difficult to get a good sear on them, even if you carefully pat them dry. A steak cooked via the reverse sear will come out with a better crust, and thus a deeper, roastier flavor. That said, sous vide is even more foolproof than reverse-searing. It's virtually impossible to overcook a steak when cooking it sous vide, so if consistency is your goal, sous vide should be your cooking method of choice. (You can check out my complete guide to sous vide steaks here.)
Once you let go of reverse-seared notions about cooking steak, I guarantee that you won't want to use anything but the traditional method to cook your meat in the future.
Wait—strike that. Reverse it.