Why Sear Meat Before Cooking?

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Am I lazy? Or, am I just “efficient”?

I’ve always hated doing anything that I didn’t feel was essential. In school, I wanted to do only the coursework that would most easily allow me to pass the exam. And now, when I cook, I just want the fastest and easiest way to get the tastiest food!

If you’re feeling generous, you might say I’m “results-oriented” or “efficient,” but really it’s pure laziness!

So here is what my laziness has to do with today’s article. If you’ve done much cooking, you’ve probably heard that you should sear meat before putting it into a stew. My reaction:

What? Why? It’s just going to get cooked in the stew – why do I need to waste my time searing it first?!?

Which all brings us to this question: Do you really need to sear the meat first?

“Suggested” Reasons for Searing Meat

I’ve searched high and low for proposed reasons for searing (or browning) meat before cooking it in a stew. Below is a list of all the reasonably coherent reasons that I’ve found.

I’ll go through them one by one, and then I’ll let you know whether I think any of them make ANY difference at all!

  1. Searing the meat locks in moisture
  2. This sounds good, since I prefer my meat as moist as possible, but it doesn’t work in practice. Meat is never more tender just because I’ve seared it first.

    And really, it just makes no sense. You’re cooking the meat for hours in a pot after it’s seared, so there’s no way that the searing process could “seal” in any moisture. What I’ve found makes for more tender meat in stews is using fattier cuts (I love using boneless beef short ribs for stews, like the Beef Bourguignon).
    Why Sear Meat Before Cooking?

  3. Searing the meat improves the flavor profile of the stew (Maillard reaction)
  4. This is what all the chefs rave about, and I totally believe this reaction happens. But after adding in all my spices, I have to admit that I can taste very little difference between using seared meat or just raw meat in my stew. There’s probably a slight difference in taste, but for me, it’s generally not worth that extra effort and time. I’d probably do it if I had some fancy people coming over for dinner. Or if I ever cook for Gordon Ramsay. :)

  5. Searing the meat kills surface bacteria on the meat
  6. Who wants bacteria on their meat? This seems like a great reason, but if you think about it, the main bacteria that we want to kill, E. coli, actually gets killed at 160F. If your stew boils, then it’ll have reached at least a temperature of 212F, so those pesky E. Coli bacteria will die anyway. (Also, my slowcooker actually gets pretty hot even on the low setting, so all my slow cooker dishes will also be cooked at temperatures above 160F – you may want to check the temperature of your slowcooker using a meat thermometer.)
    Why Sear Meat Before Cooking?

  7. Searing the meat makes the stew a better color
  8. Again, I like to add spices and vegetables to my stews, so it’s got plenty of great color anyway. Searing does make some difference to the color, but again (like the flavor improvement), it’s pretty minimal.

So, Should You Sear the Meat First?

Personally, none of the reasons above are very persuasive to me. Like I said, I’m lazy (AKA “efficient”). If I have time, I might take that extra 10-15 minutes to sear the meat, but I wouldn’t worry about it if I skipped it.

photo credit: mrjoro via photopin cc

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Comments

  1. says

    As a former chef I shamelessly skip browning meat if it’s going into the slow cooker or a long-cooking stew and have never suffered a lack of flavor for doing so. I applaud and encourage your efficiency :)

    I also rearrange any recipe I come across that uses the hokey-pokey method (brown x, remove x and keep warm while cooking y in same vessel, put x back in with y and shake it all about–generally useless and tends to make x tough in the process).

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