How to: Sear the perfect steak

From seasoning and surfaces to timing and slicing, here’s all you need to know about cooking beef beautifully

Few things make mouths water quite like the prospect of a flawless steak. That caramelised crust, that picture-perfect centre. But cooking a steak has gained a reputation as something best left to restaurants and grill enthusiasts. This is wide of the mark.

That’s because broken down into easy-to-follow steps, searing a steak is a deliciously simple process. Here, we walk down that path to perfection, hopping off at all the important places to ponder all the important things. Join us and before you know it, you’ll be so pro you could cook perfect steaks in your sleep. (Well, not quite, but we can dream the dream.)

Before the pan

Once you’ve chosen your cut, you need to make sure it meets three criteria. We’re shooting for perfection here, so we don’t want to slap it straight in the pan. Don’t worry, they’re all a doddle…

Room temperature Steak should be taken out of the fridge in advance of cooking. When exactly will depend on its size and thickness, but aim for at least half an hour beforehand. This way, the heat from the pan will penetrate through the steak faster and more evenly than it could with a fridge-cold cut.

Seasoning Steaks are big hunks of meat, so they need to be generously seasoned with salt. Visually, the right amount is a light coating, enough so you can clearly see the grains. Season from a height (#saltbae) to ensure an even coverage, and don’t fret about the quantity – a fair bit will fall off as the steak sears, so it won’t end up salty. There are two preferable times to season: either once you’ve fished it from the fridge, or just before it hits the pan.

The former is an advanced option, but a good one. Left to do its thing while the steak comes up to room temperature, salt will draw out moisture. This has two benefits: it will intensify the flavour (because there will be less water), and it will (eventually) give the steak a drier surface which, as we’re about to find out, is essential for that must-have crust.

Dry surface If you want to develop a sear you’d show off on social media, this is a stage you shouldn’t skip. All you have to do is dab your steak with kitchen paper to blot up all the moisture. (If you salted earlier on, you’ll need to be a bit more thorough – there’s also no need to season again.) For an on-point sear, the steak’s surface temperature needs to climb beyond boiling point. If the surface is wet, this can’t happen – or by the time the heat from the pan finally does drive off the moisture, the steak will likely be overdone.

The pan

At this point, turn your attention to the frying pan. Ideally it will be a thick, cast-iron one, but failing that the largest pan you have will work just fine. Place it over a high heat and leave it there to get smoking hot. Hotter than you might think is right. You need this fierce heat to generate a great crust.

Now’s the moment to add oil to the equation. You can either oil the steak or the pan – there’s no right or wrong way, only preference. But do steer clear of extra virgin olive oil (a waste at such a high temperature) and butter (which will burn before the steak is cooked).

In the pan

It’s time to place your steak in the pan. Lay it in with the meat going away from you to avoid hot oil splashing on your hand (tongs help). Remember to not overcrowd the pan – too many steaks will drastically lower the temperature and affect the way the meat sears and cooks. If you’re dealing with more than two steaks, use multiple pans or fry in batches.

Now that your steak’s cooking, time to tackle the topic that’s probably been discussed more than any other – when to turn. You can go down one of two routes: the classic, which sees the steak turned once halfway through. And the modern, which requires you to babysit the steak and turn it every 15 seconds (the idea being that as one side sears, the other side cools and relaxes).

For us, the end results are so similar that the close clock-watching technique feels like unnecessary faff, especially if we’re concentrating on more than one steak or cooking for guests. We’ve never been let down the one-flip route. (If you’re cooking a sirloin or ribeye, don’t forget to sear the sides for a few seconds – that fat needs some help to soften and melt.)

Once the steak has been turned, it’s time to invite butter to the party. (And if it brings plus ones like a crushed garlic clove and sprig of rosemary and thyme, even better.) Add a good knob of butter – steak is special-occasion fare, after all – and start spooning it over the meat. You, and the steak, won’t regret it.

Are we there yet? How you judge when your steak is ready depends on how experienced you are. For the first few goes, the safest bet is to use a meat thermometer. They aren’t too expensive and are incredibly helpful and accurate. Insert the probe into the thickest part of the steak: rare meat will register at 50 degrees (Celsius), medium 60 and well done 70. Remember that as your steak rests, the temperature will rise a couple of degrees, so lift it out just before you’ve reached your desired degree.

But if you don’t have a thermometer, you can turn to your hands. Prod your steak with your finger and compare the way it feels to how the bottom, fleshy part of your thumb feels when it’s touching other fingers (the index is rare, middle is medium, little is well done). Your ability to use this technique with really precise results goes up the more you practise it.

Rest in peace Both the most important and easiest step. Transfer your steak to a board or plate, loosely cover it with foil and rest for roughly half the time it was in the pan. Go away and do something else: assemble sides, lay the table, pour some drinks or dance the ‘I’ve just cooked perfect steak’ jig. When you return to your steak, the meat will have loosened and relaxed and the delicious juices will be evenly distributed.

To slice, or not to slice That is the final question. There’s something so pretty about slices of steak fanned over a plate (plus it really shows off your on-point skills). But leaving your diners to carve the steak can also be exciting – if a little nerve-racking. If you opt to pre-slice, cut across the grain. To find this, look for the close-knit lines that run down the steak then slice against them. This shortens the muscle fibres and means the meat will melt in your mouth.

There’s a great range of steak in store, including an ever-expanding grass-fed selection. Read more about it here.