(This post was originally written for the Griller’s Gold blog and has been adapted for this blog. To see the original, click here)
Anyone who has cooked a decent amount of time knows the basic technique of searing a cut of meat, fish or poultry to seal the outside, color it and give it flavor, then cooking it until done. It’s a simple technique – and probably the way we all first learned to do two-zone grilling. Cold meat on hot fire, a couple minutes on each side to “seal it” and brown it, and then move it to a cooler part of the grill to slow down the cooking and allow you to control the heat to nail your doneness.
The problem with the sear-first method, is that you wind up with meat that has a nice pleasing crust on the outside, but when you slice it open, you’ve got a pretty deep overcooked “gray zone” and the only part of your cut of meat that’s perfect doneness is the deep center. So it looks like this, right?
Photo by CompleteCarnivore.com
If you like your steaks medium well to well done, that’s probably not something you’re worried about. But if you like it from rare to medium, don’t you wish there were a better way?
The better way is “reverse sear” and it’s a simple concept, when you break it down. All you’re doing is reversing the process – you cook slowly over indirect/more gentle heat, then when the meat is ALMOST done, you crank the heat up or move your meat over the direct heat source, give it a fast sear, and boom, you’re done! The result is nothing less than spectacular – you still get your crust, but your “perfect zone” is basically edge-to-edge. It looks like this:
Photo by 24hourcampfire.com
Doesn’t that look AMAZING?
So the first question people getting to know this technique ask is “well if searing overcooks the meat, let’s skip that step.” Oh, no, no, no, NO! Some cooking science here – that searing and the pleasing browning on the outside is called the maillard reaction, and yeah, that’s a fancy French term. The science is pretty simple – it’s caramelization reaction of proteins with carbohydrates. Toasting bread is actually a maillard reaction and we all know how good toasted bread tastes. So yeah, we’re going to sear it. But only when it’s just about ready to serve.
There’s also one great advantage of reverse searing, and that’s timing. If you’re like me, you like being a guest at your own dinner parties – rather than being slaved to the grill. With reverse searing you can “pause” the action because you only sear right when you’re about to serve! You can hold the meat up to an hour prior to serving as long as you have it covered up. See below.
One key thing about reverse searing – you’ll need to be able to measure the temperature of your meat. Remote probe barbecue thermometers are ideal for this, as are the “onboard” probes that some grills come with (just know how accurate yours is before you trust that $75 prime cowboy ribeye to it!). And of course instant reading thermometers work great for this. If you’re a “by touch” barbecuer, this may not be the technique for you.
So, how do I reverse sear, and what should I reverse sear?
Reverse searing is pretty straight forward – and it’s basically the sous vide method of cooking that has been moved to the grill. Rather than starting the meat out hot and fast, you cook low and slow until it reaches just short of serving temperature, then you take it off, give it a rest, and put it back on over direct heat to give it a fast searing, and you’re done. This can be done on any grill provided you can control the heat. With charcoal, it’s setting up a direct side and an indirect side and managing the “rage” of the fire in the coals with the dampers. On a gas grill, it’s using only one burner and having your meat at the opposite side of the grill away from the burner for the low and slow, then fire up all the burners for the hot sear. On a pellet grill (which by the way is the easiest to manage for this technique), you simply set it for a low temp, then set it for a high temp.
What to Reverse Sear:
Reverse sear works best with thicker cuts of meat – think 1 ½” or more in thickness. And honestly, the thicker the better. In terms of which meats, I’ve found that this works best with pork, beef, and lamb, as well as game meats like venison, elk and exotic meat like ostrich. Because you need to thoroughly cook poultry, this is not a recommended technique for chicken, turkey, and the like. Also fish don’t do great with this technique either.
Photo by Wild Fork Foods
Start with your nice, thick piece of meat – a pork loin roast, a 2 ½” thick ribeye steak, thick New York strips, Picanha, lamb racks, leg of lamb, etc. You’ll season it and whatnot (see below for Reverse Seared Ultimate Ribeye Steaks). Fire up according to the following instructions for each type of grill:
- Pellet Grill – set the “EZ Bake” knob to 250F and preheat for at least 15 minutes
- Charcoal Grill: Light your fire only using 1/2 a chimney of charcoal (you ARE using a chimney lighter, right? IF not, about 20 coals to start) and then dump that on top of an equal amount of unlit charcoal. Leave the lid off for about 4 minutes to let the lit stuff engage the unlit, then put the lid on the grill and set the lower damper to about 1/4 inch. Let preheat for 15 minutes.
- Gas Grill: One burner, lit to medium – this is where you need to know how your grill performs – if that either exceeds or doesn’t hit about 250F, adjust accordingly, but let preheat for at least 15 minutes.
Put your meat on the grill away from the heat source (on gas and charcoal), and close the lid. For the best, most even results, you’ll need to periodically turn the meat, since the heat all three grill types radiates upwards. how often will depend on how thick your meat is. I like to turn big chops and steaks and lamb racks about every 10 minutes. For a 3” or thicker pork loins or things like legs of lamb or smaller beef roasts, I turn them about every 15 minutes. And for something like a prime rib, if it’s bone in, I don’t turn it, and if it is boneless, I turn every 15 minutes or so.
You’re cooking until your meat is just short – 5 to 10 degrees – of the ideal doneness temperature. Here’s a quick chart for you. The doneness levels other than pork are for beef and lamb generally, and pork requires its own special temperature. Not too done, but more done than you would normally eat beef.
|Doneness Level||Final Internal Temp||Reverse Sear Temp|
You’re probably asking, “how long will this take” and of course we’re going to answer “well, it depends!” and it does – on the thickness of your meat, whether it’s cold and windy outside, the type of grill you’re using, etc. Some rules of thumb though – I find 2 ½ thick ribeyes take about 40 minutes to reach about 120 degrees (I like our steaks on the rare side of medium rare) on the pellet grill, a 3-4” thick pork loin will take more than an hour to get to 138, and lamb racks (which we like just short of medium) take about 45 minutes to get to 130F. But again, you have to cook by temperature here, not by time, and not by feel. When your meat hits the desired temp, take it off, put it on a pre-warmed platter (doesn’t have to be hot, but shouldn’t be ice cold either), put foil over the meat, and then we like to cover it with a doubled towel. We want that meat to rest but also to stay cuddly warm while you get ready to sear.
On to the searing! If using a pellet grill, whether you stay on it for searing depends on if your pellet grill will hit a good searing temperature (at least 450 degrees) and if you have a good searing surface. I have found that pellet grills, with their indirect heat nature do a better searing job if you use something like a cast iron skillet, a cast iron griddle, or, my favorite searing surface, GrillGrates searing grates. Those will concentrate the grill’s heat and deliver a better, darker crust for your meat. Many pellet grillers don’t like to crank the heat that high on their pellet girls – if that’s you, then you have a lot of options – preheat a cast iron skillet in a 450-500F oven and sear it there, fire up your gas grill and sear it there, and if you’re a real purist (and especially if you’re already fired up and cooking other things on it) … nothing beats a good charcoal sear. For charcoal and gas grillers, simple – just open the vents or turn on the other burners and let things get good and hot.
Photo by GrillGrates
The searing is easy – you’ve been doing this all your life. We have found a few good hints though:
- Only start searing when you’re within 15 minutes of wanting to sit down to dinner. We like to have everything ready to serve, then we start searing. We want to serve hot off the sear.
- When using a grate like GrillGrates, your standard pellet grill’s grates, or the grates on a gas grill, keep turning the meat every 2 minutes and each time you do, turn it ¼ turn as you flip it. That will get you those nice cross-hatched grill marks.
- If you’re using a cast iron skillet, whether on your pellet grill or inside the oven, again turn frequently but also don’t be afraid to press down on your meat a bit to ensure the surface really flattens against that hot metal.
- If you’re using the “cast iron in the oven” method, return the pan to the oven in between turns.
- Generally speaking it will take a pellet grill about 15 minutes or so to go from 250 to 450 or 500 degrees. If you’re in a hurry, do this in the oven with the cast iron skillet – and just have it preheated and ready to go. Gas and charcoal can be much faster.
- Fats and oils – if you’re doing a cast iron reverse sear, dip thickly folded up pad of paper towel (or a cotton kitchen towel) in some cooking oil, and give the surface of the pan a fast wipe – you want a bit of oil but not so much that it will catch fire. There WILL be smoke, so be sure to have your vent fan running if you have one.
- Look out for flareups – especially if doing lamb. Lamb racks can go from amazing to conflagration in seconds. Consider doing your sear “near” the heat rather than directly over it.
When is it done? Well, of course you can check the temp, which is what I do. But a good rule of thumb is pretty simple – between 5 and 8 minutes total time – you’re looking for a nice dark surface and beautiful appearance.
And because your meat already rested, you’re ready to serve right off the grill or out of the pan.
As promised, here’s my recipe for ultimate reverse-seared Ribeye Steaks:
Buy: Bone-in or Boneless Ribeye steaks, at least 2” thick. We like 2 ½ inches thick. Buy the best you can afford – choice or prime grade works great for this.
Trim: Trim the edges of any large amounts of hard, white fat. Ribeyes will generally have a pocket of it between the cap and the center meat and that’s fine. That’s flavor!
Seasoning: My method is to “dry brine” the steaks 24 hours before cooking. Take them out of the package, put them on a rack on a large baking sheet, and give them a generous coating of coarse-grained kosher or sea salt and then put them in the fridge unwrapped overnight. Take them out about 1 hour prior to cooking and let rest on the counter (but make sure the dog won’t get them!). Then just before cooking I like to rub them with a tablespoon or so of Worcestershire sauce per steak, then sprinkle on a generous hit of freshly ground pepper and a shake of granulated garlic powder.
Fuel and Preheat: Preheat your grill to between 225 and 250, setting up a charcoal for indirect heat and throttling the airflow to hit that temperature. On a gas grill, one burner set to medium or medium low will usually deliver that. For pellet grills … set the “EZ Bake” control to 250. Also for beef on a pellet grill, I like hickory or a “competition blend” pellet the best.
Cook using the reverse sear method outlined above. While the steaks cook, prepare a compound butter using a stick of softened butter, 2 cloves of fresh garlic – minced or pressed, 1 ½ t fresh thyme leaves (or ½ tsp dried) and ½ tsp freshly ground pepper. Mix up well and set aside.
Sear using one of the sear methods above. As it comes off the grill or out of the pan, top each steak with a generous spoonful of the compound butter and let it melt over it. Then slice across the short dimension of the steak in ¼ inch thick slices and serve! For sides consider creamed spinach, roasted mushrooms and gratin potatoes for an ultimate steakhouse feast!
And that’s it! Now you’re ready to be a pro reverse sear chef!
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