Sorry to drop the bomb like that, but we wanted to get it out of the way.
The idea that searing meat locks in flavor has been proven, time and time again, to be little more than an old wives’ tale. No matter how many times chefs and scientists debunk the idea, it doesn’t seem to go away. Even the mighty Alton Brown couldn’t put the myth in its grave after a 2008 test on the Food Network.
Well, today we’re going to do our best in the fight against grilling myths. By looking at the science of meat cookery, we can easily see that this idea is little more than just that -- complete fiction.
Where Did This Myth Start?
Typically, it’s hard to pinpoint where these things come from. But with the meat-searing legend, we do have an original source. The first man to make this mistaken conclusion was a German chemist named Justus von Liebig. In his 1847 book, von Liebig wrote:
“...in roasting, the escape of the juices should be retarded by heating as strongly as possible at first; the juice then hardens on the outside and protecting surface, which prevents subsequent loss.”
From the 1850s on, this idea was embraced by historically renown Chefs like Escoffier, and became a foundational part of traditional French cooking.
Unfortunately for Escoffier and his pals, modern science has something to say about von Liebig’s findings.
Truth is - Meat is about 70% water, most of which is locked into long-strand muscle fibers. When you heat a steak, these fibers are twisted (think of a wet towel), and the juices are squeezed out. There is not a thing in the world you can do to escape this. These fibers are all throughout the steak -- including right on the outermost layer. Next time you sear a steak, look right on top of it -- you’ll see a small pool of moisture collect, even after searing. Searing a steak has its benefits (more on that later), but retaining moisture is not one of them.
Can This Be Tested?
It sure can! And has been! In a 2008 Food Network piece, Alton Brown weighed two pieces of meat. Both had been roasted in the oven, but one had been seared beforehand. The roasted steak lost about 13% of its total weight after cooking. Meanwhile, the seared steak lost 19% of its weight.
That’s right, guys and gals -- the seared steak lost more moisture than the un-seared steak!
Need one more expert opinion? Check this out - Noted food scientist Harold McGee (author of On Food and Cooking) called the meat-searing theory “the biggest myth in cooking,” one that he’s been "trying to debunk for decades."
All this being said, searing meat is not useless, and is most definitely still a good idea.
Searing gets the famous Maillard reaction started, which imparts that crisp, savory crust we all love. It’s beautiful to look at, and beautiful to eat.
So, our advice? Sear away! The crust of a steak is absolutely delicious. But don’t assume it’s going to lock in any juices -- it may do just the opposite.