The Real Reason Your Steak Won't Sear Properly

For carnivores, there may be no meal that has more prestige and appeal than a well-cooked steak, no matter the cut of meat. The antithesis of a meal that has people flocking to the dining room table with fervor, though, is none other than a gray, flaccid steak. Read ahead to learn how to avoid that and cook only the best steaks imaginable going forward. 

When aiming for a perfectly seared, excellently crisped steak exterior, avoid moisture by all means necessary. As Foodal clarifies, "if there is water present when attempting to brown meat, steam will be created, and browning will not occur." Good Housekeeping elaborates on this point, noting that "meat won't brown if there's too much moisture on the surface, or if your pan isn't hot enough." To avoid these issues, be sure to season the steak heavily, use a heavy-bottomed cast-iron skillet, and cook over high enough heat. Furthermore, ensure your steak has been brought to room temperature and well dried (a few pats with a paper towel should do the job) prior to being added to the pan. 

Always be sure to season thoroughly: a thick steak needs a good amount of salt to properly season it. Serious Eats also extolls the virtue of early seasoning — if you have time, salt the steak as early as can be so it can permeate the meat. And always opt for kosher salt for the best flavor.

What to keep in mind when searing steak

In addition, be sure to use a neutral oil such as vegetable, canola, safflower, or peanut, since olive oil's lower smoke point makes it less-than-ideal for high-heat searing. As Epicurious notes, too, don't be spooked of some smoke: a properly seared, well-browned steak will almost always yield some smoke: "make sure to turn on the exhaust fan, an overhead fan, or at the very least, a small tabletop fan in the kitchen to help circulate air."

Another (common sense) move is to purchase high-quality meat. It should be well-marbled and somewhat thick; the thickness will help produce a super-crispy exterior, while an uber-thin steak may cook through prior to the exterior becoming properly browned and caramelized. As Kitchn notes, it's also important not to crowd the pan – if making more than one steak, either use a very large pan in order to adequately cook both, or cook in batches.

One especially delicious option would be to baste your steak as it cooks – throw in a half stick of butter, some garlic and some rosemary or thyme, and (carefully) hold the pan handle as you spoon melted, herbed butter over top the steak. As noted by Serious Eats, be mindful not to add the butter to early, though, or it might burn before the steak is properly caramelized. It's a good idea to add the butter just a few minutes before the steak seems like it will be finished.

Don't believe falsely purported myths

Don't be hesitant to flip, either – well-seared steak can be turned repeatedly, not just once, so don't fret about perfectly strategizing for the right time to flip (via Serious Eats). One especially final important note: don't forget to let the steak rest! The specifics of the meat (cut, bone-in vs. boneless, etc.) shouldn't change the inherent properties of this method, but always try to cook steak prior to cutting it. Small cubes of steak simply won't brown or sear as well as a large, singular piece – there isn't enough surface area and the meat will cook through prior to the exterior's browning properly. Also, always remember to cut against the grain when slicing, as Epicurious notes.

Looking to amp up your meal? Make a luxurious pan sauce and be sure to serve your perfect steak with some amazing sides, as outlined in Salon.

To sum it all up, Serious Eats has a  straight-to-the-point version of the proper tenets of steak cookery: "The TL/DR version: start with a good, thick, well-marbled steak. Season it well. Sear it in hot oil in cast iron, flipping as often as you'd like. Add butter and aromatics. Keep flipping and basting. Rest. Carve. DIG IN." Follow these simple tips and you're sure to please your entire household with beautifully cooked steak.