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Does Searing Meat "Seal In" Juices?

Get the Facts, Well-Done


Does Searing Meat Seal In Juices?

Does Searing Meat Seal In Juices?

Photo © Luke Berndt

Does Searing Meat "Seal In" Juices?

For years, the idea that searing meat helped prevent moisture loss was a cherished and oft-cited piece of culinary doctrine. It made sense and seemed consistent with people's experiences, so it was accepted, largely unquestioned, for nearly a century.

In recent years, however, the pendulum has swung the other way, with large numbers of people now declaring the theory to be pure nonsense — a myth, like fairies or leprechauns. It's been "debunked," they say, by "science."

Introducing the "Debunkers"

You can easily identify one of these "debunkers" by the distinct air of superiority they adopt in chat rooms, message boards and blogs — anywhere the topic of searing and moisture loss is being discussed.

Ironically (though not, perhaps, surprisingly), they've bought into this supposed debunking with the same blind credulity they attribute to those on the other side of the argument: They've simply heard or read that searing doesn't seal in juices, found the argument to be compelling, and then just filed it away under "things I've decided to believe."

The only trouble is, they're wrong.

And we're about to see why. But before we do, let's take a more detailed look at the theory that searing yields juicier meat, so we can have a better idea of exactly what the debunkers think they've debunked, and on what basis they think they've debunked it.

To do so, we'll need to define what we mean by searing. That's the very center of the question, after all, so we should make sure we're all talking about the same thing. Let's start by quickly summarizing the attributes of dry-heat cooking.

Dry-Heat Cooking

Dry-heat cooking refers to any technique where heat is applied to the food without using any moisture. Examples would be heating the food with hot, dry air as in an oven, or with heat conducted directly from a hot pan.

In the case of meat, dry-heat cooking also results in the formation of a thick, flavorful "crust" on the meat's surface. This is caused by a chemical process called the Maillard reaction, which is responsible for browning and flavor development, and will only happen in temperatures of at least 310°F.

Since water boils and turns into steam at 212°F, moist-heat cooking methods (such as simmering or braising) can't generate enough heat to form this outer crust. Only dry-heat cooking methods can, methods that include grilling, roasting, sautéing — and searing.

One of the most common applications of searing is with meat that's about to be braised, as a way of improving its appearance and developing the Maillard flavors that braising alone cannot. Typically, the meat's entire outer surface is browned in this way, not just the top and bottom. So with a cube of beef, all six sides of the cube would have to be seared.

But with meat we're about to braise, we don't care about "sealing in" juices. Properly braised meat is going to be moist and juicy no matter what. Searing before braising is done for reasons of appearance and flavor only.

As such, we're not concerned here with searing as it relates to the browning of meat prior to braising. For the purposes of this discussion, "searing" refers to the act of quickly browning a steak or other tender cut of meat, over a very high (i.e., 450°F or higher) heat, sometimes using a small amount of fat, as a part of a cooking procedure that uses dry-heat methods exclusively.

Claim Vs. Counterclaim

Now that we've nailed down a definition of searing, we can move on to examining the question that's at the center of this controversy. On the one hand we have The Claim:

"Searing meat seals in juices."

And The Counterclaim:

"No, it doesn't!"

Versions of The Claim can be traced as far back as 350 BC, when the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote:
"...the parts nearer to the fire are the first to get dry and consequently get more intensely dry. In this way the outer pores contract and the moisture in the thing cannot be secreted but is shut in by the closing of the pores."
Pores? This is cooking we're talking about, not face cleanser. We'll stipulate that a New York strip steak doesn't have pores. But if this notion of meat having "pores" is the basis for The Counterclaim, the debunkers have been debunking the wrong theory. No one is seriously suggesting that searing helps prevent moisture loss by shutting the meat's pores. And anyway, give Aristotle a break. He also thought that the Sun orbited the Earth — so picking on him is a bit like doing an end-zone celebration after beating your dog at checkers.

The Von Leibig Connection

The modern version of The Claim is often attributed to a 19th century German chemist named Justus von Leibig, who was concerned, among other things, with nutrition.

Specifically, he sought to understand what happened to a food's inherent nutrients under different cooking techniques. How, for example, could these nutrients be extracted and concentrated? Indeed, von Leibig would go on to found the Oxo company, which still exists today as a manufacturer of meat extracts, bouillon cubes and related food products (though it's not related to OXO International, makers of the "Good Grips" brand of kitchen utensils).

His theory was that submerging a piece of meat in cold water, then gradually heating the water to a simmer to cook the meat, would result in the meat's interior liquids (and thus, the nutrients and other essential properties such as flavors) being drawn out of the meat and into the cooking liquid.

Conversely, he thought, quickly cooking the meat by submerging it in boiling water would create a barrier that prevented any liquid from passing in or out of the meat.

So von Leibig was talking about boiling or simmering meat, not searing it. Thus the barrier he describes has nothing to do with the crust formed through the Maillard reaction. He happens to have been wrong about the barrier, but von Leibig's theory had nothing to do with The Claim at all. The fact that his theory of boiling meat has come, over the years, to be associated with The Claim, appears to be largely a misunderstanding.

So much for the strategy of "debunkage by association." Having withstood the attempts to dismiss it on a technicality, The Claim can now be judged on its own merits. Read Part 2 of the article >>
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