A prevalent myth in grilling steaks is that "searing a steak seals in its juices."
Fact: Searing Does Not Seal in Juices
Searing a steak creates no “seal” or barrier that prevents juices from escaping from the inside.
Steaks do not have pores. Pores exist only in the skin (epidermis) of an animal. Searing the outside of a steak does not close any pores or create any other seal or barrier. In fact, rather than sealing in the juices, searing the meat does almost the opposite: it dries out and removes juices (moisture) near the steak's surface, so searing causes a loss of moisture rather than protecting against it.
Searing Is Important!
There is an important reason to sear a steak, but it is not to "seal in" the juices. Instead, the reason to sear a steak is to caramelize (i.e., in scientific terms, to use the Maillard and browning reactions) to create a flavorful exterior crust.
When a steak is grilled in the heat and smoke of a wood fire, the result produces several desirable contrasts:
- Taste: the caramelized exterior versus the beefy interior;
- Texture: the crunchy exterior versus the soft interior;
- Juiciness: the dry exterior versus the juicy interior;
- Appearance: the dark-brown exterior versus the pinkish-red interior.
Harold McGee, the esteemed author and food scientist, explains, in "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen", p. 112:
SEARING IN JUICENESS AND FLAVOR
There is one misconception about meat cookery that still enjoys great popularity, even though it has long since been discredited. Does the gist of this description of cooking sound familiar?
"Thus as the exterior pores contract, the moisture contained in the object cannot escape any more, but is imprisoned there when the pores close."
This quotation comes not from a blurb for convection ovens, but from Aristotle's treatise on meteorology (Book 4). The theory has changed little except for the terminology -- today we would say that the food's juices are "sealed in" by high temperatures, keeping it moist and tender.
McGee then traces the history of this theory through the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries, including the mid-19th Century explanation of the "science" for the "sealed in" theory by the German chemist, Justus von Liebig in his "Researches on the Chemistry of Food. McGee continues:
We know today that most of [Liebig's science] is simply not true. . . . Any crust formed around the surface of the meat is not waterproof. . . . But in its day, Liebig's account answered the unspoken need for some rational, systematic approach to cookery. . . . But even after Liebig's rationale for the early-searing method had been disproven, the method itself lived on under various guises, often rather eccentric. . . . [T]he grounds of the argument have shifted since Liebig's time. The issue is no longer nutritional value or juiciness, but taste. And here we are on firmer ground. We do know for a fact that whether done early or late, searing does not seal, but it does brown: it won't prevent flavor from escaping, but it creates flavor via the complex browning reactions. . . . So there is a good reason to sear meat, but it has nothing to do with nutrition or juiciness. The many recipes and ads that perpetuate Liebig's theory probably do so because the image it evokes is vivid and appealing.
Perhaps it is understandable that laymen and amateurs wax poetic about how high heat "sears in" their steaks' flavor and juiciness. However, expert steakmasters should dispel this prevalent myth and explain to others the science of SteakPerfection.
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