Want a juicy, flavorful steak with a golden brown crust? We explain how to pan sear a steak in under 10 minutes.

By Kelly Vaughan
April 30, 2019
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Whether you prefer a tender filet, a beefy New York strip, or the texture of a hanger, everyone wants the ability to cook a restaurant-quality pan seared steak at home. Nailing the proper sear can transform a piece of beef into a melt-in-your-mouth entrée with complex flavors and a perfect char. To cook a perfect steak with a caramelized crust and a juicy pink inside, pan sear it in a very hot cast iron pan to create an evenly browned exterior on each side. Start by searing the steak in vegetable oil, then finish with lots of butter and herbs like thyme and a couple of fresh garlic cloves to amp up the earthy aroma. Below, we explain how to sear a steak, plus tips for building flavor and cooking it to perfection.

RELATED: Steak with Arugula and Balsamic Mushrooms Recipe
 

1
Let Steak Come to Room Temperature

To produce a super tender steak, leave it out at room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking. A cold cut of meat hitting a very hot pan will cause the steak to become tough and chewy. Bringing the meat to room temp will allow the muscle fibers to relax, which helps the steak to cook more evenly and prevent a loss of moisture. Luckily, 30 minutes is a short enough period of time that we don't need to overly fret about food safety. That being said, there are a few rules to follow to prevent growth of harmful bacteria: use a plastic cutting board (it's easier to sanitize than porous wood boards), wash your hands thoroughly after touching raw meat, and sanitize any other areas that the raw meat comes in contact with to prevent cross-contaimination.

2
Don’t Be Shy With Seasoning

Pre-seasoning steak thoroughly with kosher salt and black pepper on each side enhances the natural beefy flavor of the meat. Hold your hand at least 6” above the steak and evenly distribute ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper on both sides. While the added height may look like a technique that chefs just use to impress guests, it actually has a purpose—the extra height allows the salt and pepper granules to separate and fall in one even layer across the surface of the steak. Do this over a plate, which avoids a mess and allows you to roll the steak in any excess seasoning.

3
How to Pan Sear a Steak

Using an extremely hot cast iron pan ($25; williams-sonoma.com) is the key to achieving an even char. Heat the cast iron pan on medium high until it’s smoking. Get your fingers wet and shake them over the pan: the water droplets should evaporate immediately. When your skillet is ripping hot, add 2 tablespoons of neutral oil, like vegetable, canola, or grapeseed oil. Once the oil is shimmering, add the seasoned steak to the center of the pan, carefully laying it away from you to avoid splashing hot oil. Cook until deeply browned on one side. For a medium 6-oz. filet, this should take about 3½ minutes. Flip the steak and cook until deeply browned on the other side, another 3½ to 4 minutes. Depending on how well-done you like your steak, adjust the cook time based on the guide below.

4
Use a Light Touch Once the Steak Is in the Skillet

Flipping the steak too often, and more than once, will prevent the perfect sear from forming. If you try to lift the steak and there’s some resistance, step back and let it cook a little longer. The steak will easily release from the pan once it has browned evenly on one side. In addition, moving the steak around the pan frequently also risks losing some of the meat’s prized juices.

5
Baste the Steak with Butter and Aromatics

Basting the steak with melted butter, as well as herbs like garlic, rosemary, and thyme, will add an unbeatable boost of flavor. During the last 2 to 3 minutes of cooking, add 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, 2 smashed garlic cloves, and a few sprigs of thyme or rosemary to the pan. Carefully tip the pan towards you so the butter pools on one side. Using a large spoon (a medium-sized serving spoon works well), continuously spoon the melted butter over the steak. Moving the butter nonstop evenly distributes the fat and prevents it from burning (the butter should stay foamy in the pan, which indicates that it’s not burning). You can also press the herbs directly on top of the steak with the spoon to infuse more earthy notes.

6
Check the Temperature of Your Steak

Knowing the internal temperature of your steak is the key to cooking it exactly how you like it and cooking it long enough to prevent potentially unsafe bacteria from growing and getting you sick. Using a good instant read thermometer ($99; thermoworks.com) is the best, smartest, and only accurate way to determine the temperature of the steak. Use this handy temperature guide as a gauge:

  • Rare—120°-125°F
  • Medium Rare—130°-135°F
  • Medium—140°F-145°F
  • Medium Well—150°F-155°F
  • Well Done—160°F-165°F

7
Let Steak Rest Before Cutting

Once the steak is done cooking, take it out of the pan, set it on a plate or cooling rack, and tent loosely with foil. Let the steak sit for 5 minutes in order to help retain its juices, which will keep it moist and tender bite after bite. After 5 minutes, remove the foil, slice and serve.

Seared Steak Recipes

Once you nail the basics of searing steak, you can build flavor with sauces and rubs, like our classic Pan Seared Steak Au Poivre or add this Cocoa and Espresso Rub. Seared steak is the perfect base for Seared Steak with Cauliflower Puree or served alongside Sesame Steak Fries.

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