Steven Raichlen's Barbecue! Bible

Reverse Searing: Godsend or Gimmick?

Reverse Searing: Godsend or Gimmick?

When I started smoking meat 25 years ago, no one knew of reverse searing. Today, you can hardly browse barbecue websites without being urged to try it. The process turns the traditional method of cooking a steak or roast—hot sear followed by slow roast—on its head. You start by smoking the meat low and slow to an internal temperature of about 100 degrees, then you char it over a hot fire to raise it to the desired temperature, applying the crisp smoky crust at the end.

Reverse searing has several advantages: better heat control, as you can cook the steak to a precise degree of doneness. The meat cooks more evenly, too: no more “bulls-eye” effect—the dark crust with grey-brown ring of meat just beneath it, fading to pink, with the reddish-blue core characteristic of a really thick steak grilled over a really hot fire. Reverse searing gives you a consistent doneness and color from the top crust to the bottom. And because you rest the meat between low heat smoking and high heat searing, you can serve it hot off the grill. Best of all, it enables you to smoke the one cut of beef most people would never dare cook in a smoker.

I’ve been reverse searing a lot recently, and here you’ll find a great recipe for a reverse seared tri-tip. The dark crust, the uniformly and perfectly cooked center, the unexpected smoke flavor will make any carnivore’s heart beat faster.

But one thing bothers me: Why don’t you find reverse searing in any of the great steak cultures—in Argentina, for example, or in Italy or Spain? And what if the much-touted benefits of reverse searing came at a price?

Which brings us to an Italian-inspired grill parlor in Los Angeles called Chi Spacca (“the meat cleaver”). I use the word parlor deliberately because in this world of grandiose steak houses, everything about Chi Spacca is small-scale, from the 33 seats in the intimate dining room to its daily changing, thoughtfully curated menu. Chef Chad Colby grills some of the largest steaks in North America. His bistecca alla fiorentina (porterhouse) measures 3 inches across and weighs in excess of 3 pounds; his costata (dry-aged, bone-in New York strip) tips the scale at 36 ounces. In contrast to the huge meats, he does all his grilling on a wood-burning grill that measures a modest 36 inches across.

Colby’s meats are redolent with wood smoke (from California almond wood), but he uses neither smoker nor smoking gun. They’re also perfectly cooked—no burnt crust or red-blue raw spot in the center.

Chad ColbyHe achieves this smoke-scented perfection the old-fashioned way, by working over a two-zone fire—a hot zone for searing, a cooler zone for cooking, with a portion of the grill fire-free where he can keep the meat warm during resting. To cook his monster steaks Colby uses a four-step process:

  • Searing the steak over a screaming hot fire for 3 to 4 minutes per side to crust the surface.
  • Resting the meat off the heat for 6 minutes to let it recover from the shock of the high heat and the aggressive sear of the muscle.
  • Standing the steak upright and cooking it on the low fire side of the grill for about 30 minutes, using the bone to conduct the heat from the bottom of the steak to the center.
  • Resting the steak again—this time on a raised wire rack over a sheet pan, so air circulates freely around it without making the bottom crust soggy.

He jabs the meat often with a needle-thin instant read meat thermometer. His target temperature—100 degrees F—which Colby calls “chef’s temperature” and defines as “warm rare.” “I serve my beef like sushi,” Colby says. “It shouldn’t be colder than your mouth.”

Colby believes that a charred crust with warm rare center shows his beef—prime, organic, 21+ day aged, grass-fed, grain-finished Black Angus—to the best advantage. There are other benefits. All Colby’s steaks are served at chef’s temperature, so customers can’t complain that the meat came more or less well-done than ordered. At Chi Spacca, meats are meant to be shared, so at least some of the diners will likely appreciate their steak that rare. For people who like their beef more well-done, Colby returns the sliced meat to the grill to cook it to the desired temperature.

Colby’s steaks come out as perfectly cooked as their reverse seared counterparts, but they possess something the latter lack. For want of a better word, I’d call it vigor. Although a steak comes from a dead animal, it has a living quality to it. The meat tenses when exposed to a hot fire—it sears and contracts the way a live muscle would, reflecting. It has a sort of energy, even violence. If you were to taste a Chi Spacca steak and reverse seared steak side by side, both would have a smoky crust and perfectly and evenly cooked center. The Chi Spacca steak would taste more alive.

Reverse searing. Gimmick or godsend? Visit the Barbecue Board and tell us your experiences using the singular technique.

Get the recipe for Reverse Seared Tri-Tip.

Join the Discussion

  • Chris Heatherly

    I got a Sous Vide machine for Xmas this year and my favorite is Sous Viding Tri Tip to medium rare and then searing of hot coals.

    • TOM

      Chris – have you tried doing a reverse sear using your Sous Vide machine? I prefer it to doing a final sear. For one thing, it really takes some of the pressure off of meal time because all you have to do is pull out the tri tip and slice it up. Also you again do not have to worry about leaving it on the grill to sear too long. Give it a try I think you will like it.

      • John Lappe

        “Reverse sear” means you Sear just before serving. In other words, you do a final sear!

  • Bryan J. Maloney

    Match the technique to the meat. There is no such thing as an all-purpose cooking technique.

  • Lothar

    I am a recent convert to reverse searing for thick cuts. I’ve started buying whole tenderloins and cutting my own steaks at about 2″ thick. I find it very difficult to get a good medium rare center without turning the exterior to charcoal if I don’t reverse sear. As an amateur enthusiast I feel like I have a lot more control and consistency when cooking an expensive cut that I do NOT want to ruin. Of course – thinner store-bought cuts I can do the more traditional sear and coast technique.

  • jr_cdn

    Two things to point out here. First, traditional cultural methods of cooking steak from Portugal or Argentina or Italy do warm steak before searing–we now need to take refrigeration into account and let steak warm up more first. So many traditional recipes do the reverse sear the way you’ve described it here… you’re working with a steak at room temperature (or higher) to begin with. I believe this is also why some traditional steak cultures also suggest, after salting, you rest the steak “near” the grill for five minutes or so, before you cook it, which has the same effect of bringing it near that initial 100F warming before searing. I’m sure that’s true for Colby’s steak as well: I’d bet he’s not starting with a piece of steak under 40 F. So even the “grill first” folks, done properly, are working with a pliant and warm peice of meat which conforms to the idea of the reverse sear in this article. Secondly, the reverse sear I like is a little different, and requires a bit more precision. You takes the cooking within 10 or 15 degrees of your serving target (past 100F generally). For a large porterhouse you want to serve at, say 130-135 (a very nice medium rare IMO), you could take the steak to 115 -120 slowly, rest it, and after it has hit 130+ while resting and has fallen (about 15-20 minutes), then you can sear it at 500F+ and get a lovely crust without re-cooking the interior of the steak. Anyway, “chef’s temp” described above of 100–just over body temp!) is much, much too rare for most people I suspect.

  • Randy

    Going to try it out tonight….

  • StoneAge

    Just sear it on the outside to kill any bacteria and eat the rest raw. It’s WAY better for you – the enzymes on the inside that are needed to digest it have not been killed by the slow cook. Medium to well done meat eaters tend to have a few pounds of undigested meat in their intestines – rotting. Not a good thing for health. Blue rare is the best way to eat a steak. Taste (My opinion) and health (science)

    • Scott Seibel

      There’s no undigested meat in anyone’s intestines. That myth was put to rest long ago. But agree rare is best tasting.