A few years back my in-laws were over at our house for a barbecue.
I remember standing at the grill having a conversation with my mother-in-law when for a moment our conversation paused as she let her husband know how cool it was that I was carefully moving the steaks around so that they had grill marks.
I thought to myself, “Yeah that’s right, my food will not only taste good but it’s going to look good, too.”
The steaks were great and we had a fine evening.
A few nights later my wife and I decided we wanted to have a really nice date night (without the kids) and have an elegant dinner where I took her for the very first time I met her.
We both ordered our favorite item on their menu, Filet Mignon.
When our steaks arrived I immediately noticed the absence of grill marks.
Instead, the meat was painted with this heavenly crust evenly distributed across the entire steak.
It was at that moment I jumped up and yelled out to everyone in the room, “No grill marks… see!”
Well okay, maybe I didn’t jump up and say that but rather quietly noted it to my wife.
But it was at that very moment that I realized that on the steaks I cooked at home, the grill marks were always the best bite; but whenever we went to nice steakhouses… I mean the really nice ones, I never saw grill marks.
In fact, all I ever got from fine dining steakhouses were evenly distributed medium-dark brown crust on my steaks.
By the way…
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It was as if there was a secret society of highly trained chefs who knew the real secret that grill marks were overrated and that perfectly cooked (thicker) steaks should never have grill marks. Grill marks were to be left for pretty photos and backyard home cooks like ourselves.
For Thicker Meats, Forget Grill Marks
Over the years I have learned that there are 3 kinds of doneness, or perhaps I should say design or color, you can have on the surface of your meat:
- tan (no sear at all)
- grill marks (half tan, half sear)
- sear (medium to dark brown color, not black and burnt)
Tell me, which of these two steaks do you think has a more flavorful exterior?
For me it’s the one on the left and that’s how I cook my steaks, hamburgers, pork, etc. which are thicker than about 1″ now.
Speaking of hamburgers, the way I have found to get the best caramelization (i.e. an even coat of crust rather than burgers with grill marks) is to use a flat top or skillet and smash the burger down pretty flat (thin).
Why only thicker (1″ and above)?
Thin meats (and other foods you might grill, like veggies) tend to cook really fast and by the time you get a beautiful sear on the exterior, the interior will be overcooked.
As you might expect, different foods sear at different rates and much of it also depends on what spices you might have rubbed or marinated onto the surface, how the product was grown, fed, and so on.
Sugar, for example, starts to caramelize around 170°F.
Then there’s the Maillard Reaction which is when the browning and flavoring of your meat really kicks in (when the surface of your meat starts to hit around 290°F – 320°F).
So if your rub has a lot of sugar in it, be real careful not to burn your crust because grill grates can easily reach over 170°F.
A Griller’s Best Friend–The Maillard Reaction
The Maillard Reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned foods their desirable flavor. Seared steaks, pan-fried dumplings, breads, and many other foods make use of the effect. It is named after French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard, who first described it in 1912 while attempting to reproduce biological protein synthesis.
You can Google “Maillard Reaction” if you want to learn all the science behind it.
It’s kind of like shooting a gun. Anyone can pick up a gun and pull the trigger, but there’s a huge difference between shooting a gun and learning how to hit a target.
To hit a target with any measurable amount of success, you need to take time to understand how a gun works, why it works, the weight of the bullets you’re using, how much kick the gun has when you shoot it, all about wind speed, and know a little physics (how gravity affects the bullet as it travels).
The same is true when it comes to grilling.
Anyone can just throw a piece of meat on a grill and Q it. But hitting the target precisely each and every time takes understanding. Understanding of things like:
- Your grill/smoker/charcoal grill
- Types of heat (conduction, radiation, convection)
- What happens to food a specific temperatures (when all those atoms start to party inside)
- How time affects things
- How seasonings affect things
But no worries, I’m not here to give you a science lesson, I’m just here to help you cook tasty food. What you really need to know about the Maillard Reaction is that when the surface of your meat hits around 300°F (give or take 10°), the outer layer of your food will begin reacting and form a nice dark crust filled with lots of flavor.
Be careful, though. There’s a point at which your food will go from tasty dark to burnt dark, so watch things closely.
Remember, the more you learn about the why things happen, the better cook you’ll be and at some point dots will start connecting. For example, you might think that to get the Maillard Reaction you need to cook your food at a hot temperature–and fast.
But the reality is, if you look back up at the bulleted list I have above you’ll notice that time was one of those factors. Have you ever cooked something low and slow (225°F – 250°F) and noticed your meat still formed that awesome crust (bark)?
Pork Shoulder I cooked the other day…
Time and temperature are two very powerful tools every barbecuer should understand.
It is important to note, though, that this reaction will be hindered if you are braising the meat in too much juices or some other kind of liquid, like chicken stock or butter.
Okay, Grill Marks Are Out. How Do I Get a Good Sear?
A neighbor and friend of mine was (and still is) the Assistant Executive Chef at a major hotel here in Las Vegas and back when I was trying to figure this whole sear thing out he and I hung out at another friend’s house party.
While we kicked back and drank a few beers under the shade of a giant wobbling umbrella, I asked him, “Chuck, how in the heck do those fine dining steakhouses get that perfect crust?”
His eyes squinted a little while a smile stretched on his face as he said, “John, the secret is timing and heat.”
Chuck was my gold mine. He went on and explained to me much of what I have described to you here in this article (Maillard Reaction, sugar caramelization, how the different means of heat transfer affects meat, etc.).
He went on to tell me that most steakhouses use high heat commercial broilers which you don’t see in home kitchens. This video demonstrates what Chef Chuck was talking about. One thing to note, in this video the chef mentions that he sears the meat to “lock in the juices”. That is false. Searing meat does not lock in juices, but the video is a great example of what steakhouses use to get that awesome sear.
And who wants to eat soot?
“Great, John. I’m glad steakhouses have those; but tell me how to get a good sear at home!”
Funny you should ask because that’s exactly what I asked Chef Chuck. His response was simple. He said…
“You have to get creative.”
There’s a number of things you can do to get that great sear on your steaks, poultry, pork, seafood, veggies, etc. at home. Here’s some ways I’ve either done it or have heard what others do.
Buy a gas grill with an infrared (sear) burner.
Some gas grills come with what’s called a sear burner on it.
This is actually a burner which uses infrared heat to heat you food.
To the right is an amateur video of someone using their gas grill’s sear burner to sear their steak.
If you’re using a charcoal grill, you could pile your charcoal high so that there’s intense heat under your food. If you have a charcoal grill like mine then you can raise and lower how close the charcoal is to your food.
Try to get the charcoal an inch or two below your food.
Just watch for flare ups. A little fire hitting your food is fine, but if it’s consistent, move your food around.
If you’re only cooking for one or two people, you could use a little trick to get intense heat just below your meat by using a chimney charcoal starter.
This is actually the one way Chef Chuck told me to do it at home. He said just get a cast iron skillet pipping hot and sear the steaks there. Here’s an example from Chef Ramsay.
*TIP 1: For thin steaks you should consider just searing and then removing from the heat source. For larger thicker foods, like a 1.5 inch steak, you should consider reverse searing your food.
*TIP 2: If you’re going to sear at super high heat (500+ degrees Fahrenheit), be careful what kinds of seasonings you put on your food. Many seasonings, like pepper for example, can burn at high temps and the taste of burnt spice will ruin your food. You may want to consider only using salt on your food while searing (you can use pepper, injections, garlic, sauces, and all that to add flavoring afterward).
On a side note, you could always use infused oils (like garlic oil) to paint on your food before searing. That way the garlic won’t burn but you’ll still get a little garlic flavor added.
Sometimes what I do is reserve bacon grease and freeze it in my freezer for later use. Then when I cook a steak I’ll melt the grease in a pot and use that as the oil on my steak before searing.
Tip 3: Flip your food often when searing; you don’t want to cook the inside too much (especially true if you’re reverse searing). Pretend like you’re a rotisserie machine and flip your food every 30 seconds to a minute. Time and experience will teach you what you need to do.
How do you get a good sear on your steaks?
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