Searing is a dry cooking method using high heat, usually applied to meats and fish, that caramelizes the naturally occurring sugars (yes, meat and fish contain a tiny amount of sugar) in the meat to produce a rich brown crust, add depth of flavour and leave a nice “fond” – caramelized brown bits on the bottom of the pan which can de deglazed with a little liquid to provide delicious brown sauces to your dishes.
To illustrate the technique, I will use the example of searing cubes of beef for a beef stew.
You can use any pan or pot, but one with low sides is best in order to allow steam to more quickly dissipate. Excess moisture prevents caramelization. Cast iron is also best because it retains its heat when adding items to it. Adding cold items to a hot pan drops its temperature quickly.
First, your meat should be dry. Some people dredge the meat in flour to achieve this, but a better way is just to pat the meat dry on some paper towel.
You will first add a bit of oil (what kind depends on your preference and what you are making). Then you will heat the pan over a medium-high heat. With some practice and experimentation you will soon find the right heat. Too hot and your food may char, too cold and it will not properly sear.
Once your pan is hot (the oil should be shimmery but not quite smoking), you will add your beef cubes. Do not crowd the pan – sear the meat in batches. There should be some space around each piece of meat. Putting too much in the pan at once excessively drops the temperature of the pan and the meat, all crowded together, traps moisture and you end up steaming your meat rather than searing it.
Once you put the meat in the pan, leave it alone. Do not stir at first. Depending on the temperature of your pan, you should wait a minute or two before stirring and turning the pieces over. The meat may stick to the bottom at first, but if you have the right temperature, it will loosen itself from the pan once it has seared.
Once your searing is done you will be left with what the French call a “fond”. These are the brown bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. This is where a lot of the flavour is. Adding liquid at this point will “deglaze” the pan – releasing the brown stuff from the bottom and incorporating it into the dish. The fond adds tons of flavour and colour and is what sets apart a good stew from a mediocre one. The liquid you add will depend on your recipe, but can be water, stock, wine, or even the liquid released from vegetables, such as the onion you would likely add as the next part of your stew. To more quickly release the liquid from your vegetables, add a pinch of salt when you add them to your pan.