Food Myths No.3:
‘Searing meat at a high temperature ‘seals’ it’
This article first appeared in Olive magazine
One of my favourite myths is this: ‘First sear your meat at high temperature to seal in flavour and moisture’. It’s got a lovely sense of amateur chemistry to it and sounds so sensible and so right. But it’s so, so wrong. In the past, I screwed up many a precious joint in that first blast of an oven as hot as Hades, but oddly enough, it sometimes worked perfectly. Confused, I set out to discover the truth.
It turns out that this ‘sealing’ nonsense has been around since Aristotle and, crucially, was endorsed by the eminent German chemist Justus von Liebig in 1847 who claimed that searing creates a crust, without which, protein leaches out of your meat.
Why Liebig threw his weight behind such a big lie is unclear. The publicity didn’t hurt the marketing of his very own ‘Liebig’s Extract’ (a Bovril-esque beef tea), but a conspiracy theory is annoyingly hard to prove. Maybe he just got his sums wrong. Whatever the root cause, his theory thrived, picked up by everyone from the groundbreaking British cookery writer Eliza Acton to the great French chef Escoffier.
However, as the great food science writer Harold McGee explains in ‘On Food and Cooking’, it’s all nonsense: seared meat simply isn’t waterproof, and however you blitz it, it’s extremely difficult to destroy protein. In fact, meat cooked at a low, constant temperature stays much moister.
These myths persist because humble cooks like you or I are amateur chemists, mucking about in the perilous home laboratory we call our kitchen. Who are we to argue with German scientists with crazy names?
But there’s another side to all this: browning can have a beneficial effect – just not the one that we’ve been told. It’s the wonderful and all-important Maillard Reaction. This is the little-understood but deliciously flavour-enhancing reaction that kicks in at high temperatures, colouring food and creating the rich, deep flavours in roasted meat, coffee beans, bread crust, chocolate and grilled bacon. Compare this with the blandness of microwaved bacon, which has effectively been boiled. Nuff said.
The point is that browning doesn’t seal anything in, and can disastrously dry your meat out, but it a bit of Maillard can make food taste infinitely better. It’s a delicate balance, so when you’re following a recipe that tells you to brown your meat, make sure you turn the heat down as soon as you’re happy with the colour, whatever that recipe says. Luckily, if it looks delicious, it almost definitely is delicious.
So, although cooking is beset by myths, I for one wouldn’t have it any other way. If it wasn’t for mistakes and experiments by flawed geniuses, the best things in life would never have been invented – no braised oxtail, no carpetbagger steaks, no gratin dauphinois and, heaven forfend, no crispy bacon sarnies.
Try this recipe for
slow-cooked pork ribs with a Maillard-reaction crust