The reverse sear has been part of the home cook’s lexicon for a long time now, but even so, there’s still plenty of confusion about this close-to-foolproof method for cooking meat.
Case in point: The steak recipe I published in February. The technique I used, culled from “Modernist Cuisine,” was a more traditional approach, with an initial sear (of a partially frozen steak) followed by a low, slow roast. The reverse sear flips that, by starting with the low, slow roast and then finishing with a fast, hot sear. Commenters went berserk for and against my recipe, with many lording the reverse sear as the preferred method over my apparent sheer lunacy. Others mistakenly called my approach reverse sear — or further muddied the waters by calling it the reverse reverse sear. It got a little … out of hand.
Now seems like as good a time as any to revisit the topic, especially with food writer and cookbook author Alison Roman (she of #TheCookie and #TheStew fame) featuring the reverse sear in her new book, “Nothing Fancy,” publishing next month. Roman’s emphasis is on employing it when cooking larger roasts and cuts of meat for entertaining. With the high-pressure, satisfying-everyone-and-their-uncle holiday season rapidly approaching, I was particularly intrigued by the concept.
But first, some basics on the technique:
How it works. Cookbook author J. Kenji López-Alt may be the person most responsible for spreading the gospel on reverse sear, first at Cook’s Illustrated and then at Serious Eats, where he is now chief culinary adviser. Anyone looking for the most detailed explanation of how the reverse sear works and how best to accomplish it ought to take some time to read his definitive explainer. The gist of it is that the low-and-slow time in the oven ensures the meat is evenly cooked from side to side. With the interior of the meat mostly done in the oven, you can concentrate on creating an appealing brown crust quickly over very high heat — without the danger of overcooking the meat just below the surface, i.e. the dreaded gray ring. The creation of the crust is further enhanced by the fact that the oven has done most of the work of drying the surface of the meat. That way the outside browns and crisps rather than steams. The heat and energy can focus on the meat rather than on driving off moisture.
What meat to use. It needs to be large enough to benefit from the long cook time, as thinner cuts can overcook when baked for a long time. If you plan to do this with steak, López-Alt recommends using one that is at least 1 ½ inches thick (rib-eye, strip, porterhouse, T-bone, tri-tip or filet mignon). In “Nothing Fancy,” Roman employs the technique for a seven-pound rib roast, but also suggests a lamb shoulder. Bon Appétit likes a chuck roast. You get the idea.
Prep it. The beauty of the reverse sear is that it’s more technique-driven than recipe-driven. As long as you have time and a thermometer to monitor the temperature of the protein, this is something anyone can do, regardless of what type of meat you use. Season it with salt and pepper, and don’t hold back — Roman recommends 1 teaspoon of salt per pound of meat. If you have more time, salt the meat up to 2 days in advance and let it hang out in the refrigerator on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet. This helps with flavor and dries the surface of the meat.
Get cooking. When it comes time to cooking, leave the meat on the rack-and-sheet setup. López-Alt gives a wide range of temperatures, from 200 to 275 degrees, although a lot of the recipes I’ve looked at tend to focus on the 225 to 250 degree range. It’s really a matter of preference, in terms of how much time you have and how perfectly even, and fail-safe, you want your cooking to be. Meat will take longer to cook at a lower temperature and will give you the most uniform doneness. It also gives you a larger margin of error. As pitmaster and cookbook author Meathead Goldwyn says, “It is easier to hit the bull’s eye of a slow-moving target. You stand a better chance of getting the food done to the proper temp without overshooting the mark. You widen the window on perfection.”
What is that target? Aim for 10 to 15 degrees less than your desired final temperature. That would be about 110 degrees Fahrenheit for medium-rare, 125 degrees for medium, etc. López-Alt has a handy chart for steak temperatures. This, of course, is where that instant-read thermometer comes in handy. (If you have a probe that you can leave it in the meat while it cooks, all the better.) Check the temperature of the meat periodically in the center, avoiding any bones. Thermapen, the maker of my favorite thermometer, says you can find the center by pushing the thermometer into the meat past where you think the center is and then pulling it back until the temperature drops. The center will have the lowest temperature.
If you’re doing a large roast for company, Roman says, you can loosely tent the meat with foil after it comes out of the oven and let it rest at room temperature for several hours.
Don’t be alarmed when your cooked meat looks like the hunk of dead flesh that it is. As filmmaker, YouTube food personality and home cook Andrew Rea of Binging With Babish says, it “looks a little ugly” at this point. But that’s where the next step comes in!
Searing. Remember, you’ve done most of the work already. This last bit is to get the outside of the meat beautifully browned and crispy, during which you’ll also push the temperature into its final desired temperature. Go for a skillet that you can safely use on medium-high to high heat, such as cast iron or stainless steel. Heat a tablespoon of oil until it smokes (some people add butter right before they add the meat) and then, you guessed it, sear it on all sides, including the fat, until deeply colored. For a smaller steak, this can take less than a minute. Larger cuts, such as Roman’s rib roast, which she sears fat side down for five to eight minutes, will need longer in the skillet. You can also do your “sear” in an oven cranked to 500 degrees, which will take several minutes. (Reverse sear works on a two-zone grill as well. More details from Goldwyn here.)
Congrats, you’ve been patient, and now it will pay off. Because most of the cooking happened at such a low temperature, López-Alt says, there’s no need to let the meat rest. Dig in.
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