My new obsession: Reverse searing a steak in the smoker.
Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the reverse sear. Sure, it’s often necessary with bigger cuts of steak—but when possible, I prefer to get a steak I can front sear and be done with. That might sound like blasphemy to some, but I love that I can sear a 1-inch ribeye in less than 10 minutes.
That being said, there’s something special about reverse searing in the smoker. Because the reverse sear can take in the ballpark of 30 minutes (varies depending on the thickness of the cut) in the smoker, the steak really does pick up a smoky flavor. So you end up with the best of both worlds: the slow, low cooking of the smoker and all the smoky goodness it imparts with the satisfying, flavorful crust that every steak ought to have.
It’s an approach that demands a bit of patience, but the rewards are well worth it.
And if you’re already smoking something, it’s totally worth the time and effort to throw a few thick cut ribeyes or New York strips on the smoker, too. As you’ll be able to tell from this post, the day I decided to smoke two thick-cut bone-in ribeyes (about 2 inches thick), I was also smoking a brisket.
This article is your definitive guide to mastering the reverse sear steak in a smoker, a method that pairs the time-honored appeal of slow-smoked flavor with the juicy perfection of the reverse sear technique.
So, what exactly is reverse searing? Traditionally, one would sear a steak at high temperatures to create a crust, then finish cooking it at a lower temperature. The reverse sear method, as the name implies, flips this process around. The steak is initially cooked at a lower temperature to achieve a perfectly even internal doneness, and then it’s seared at high heat to develop that coveted crust. This results in a steak that’s cooked to your desired level of doneness from edge to edge, avoiding the common problem of a steak that’s overcooked on the outside and undercooked in the center. It’s a game-changer for steak enthusiasts.
Throughout this guide, we’ll delve into the benefits of reverse searing, how to select the perfect cut of steak, setting up your smoker, and the step-by-step process of executing a flawless reverse sear in a smoker. Whether you’re new to the art of steak cooking or a seasoned grill master looking to up your game, this guide promises to be a valuable resource on your journey to steak perfection.
Table of Contents
Understanding the Reverse Sear Method
Before we dive into the details of reverse searing a steak in a smoker, it’s essential to understand what reverse searing is and how it compares to traditional searing.
We won’t spend much time on it because we’ve already written extensively about the differences between front searing and reverse searing.
Traditional Searing (or Front Searing) vs. Reverse Searing
In the traditional method of cooking steak, the meat is first seared at high temperatures. This searing process, often performed in a hot pan or on a grill, creates a beautiful, flavorful crust on the exterior of the steak. After searing, the steak is moved to a lower heat to finish cooking to the desired level of doneness if needed. While this method can produce a delicious steak, it often leads to an unevenly cooked piece of meat, with the outer layers being more cooked than the center. As I mentioned, if I front sear a steak, I don’t want to have to put it in the oven to finish it.
Reverse searing flips this process on its head. The steak is initially cooked at a lower temperature, whether in an oven, a smoker, or the cooler side of a grill. Once it reaches a certain internal temperature (usually around 115-120°F—I prefer getting it closer to 120°F), the steak is then seared at high heat to create the crust. The result of reverse searing is a steak that is evenly cooked from edge to edge, offering a uniform level of doneness and a perfectly seared crust. The superior uniformity and control over doneness make reverse searing a preferred method for many steak aficionados.
The Science Behind Reverse Searing
Understanding the science behind cooking can transform your culinary skills from mundane to masterful. In the case of searing a steak, this boils down to understanding the Maillard reaction.
Again, we’ve already written extensively about the science behind searing and its benefits, so we won’t belabor the point here.
The Maillard Reaction
The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned foods their distinctive flavor. When you sear a steak, the high heat triggers the Maillard reaction, leading to the formation of hundreds of flavor compounds. This reaction is what gives a seared steak its unique, mouth-watering aroma and flavor.
Optimizing the Maillard Reaction with Reverse Searing
The beauty of reverse searing is how it optimizes this Maillard reaction. By slowly bringing the steak up to temperature, the outer layers of the steak lose less moisture, preserving the meat’s juiciness. When the steak is eventually seared at a high temperature, the dry, hot surface of the steak reacts quickly and dramatically, creating a deeply flavorful crust. This method allows for a more pronounced Maillard reaction and leads to a steak that’s juicier and more flavorful than one cooked using traditional searing methods.
This was definitely evident when I reversed seared my ribeyes in the smoker.
Let’s jump to how we execute the reverse searing method using a smoker, to achieve that deeply satisfying, smoky flavor that is the hallmark of great barbecue.
Choosing the Right Steak for Reverse Searing
The choice of steak is crucial when it comes to reverse searing. Not every cut of steak will respond well to this method, so it’s important to know what to look for when you’re buying steak for reverse searing.
In general, I like to choose cuts that are at least 2 inches thick. For this particular trial, I chose two, 2-inch thick ribeyes. Ribeyes are generally my go-to cut due to their marbling and availability.
Best Steak Cuts for Reverse Searing
Reverse searing works best with thicker cuts of steak, as they benefit most from the slow, gentle cooking process. Some of the best steak cuts for reverse searing include:
- Ribeye: Known for its rich marbling and robust flavor, Ribeye steaks are an excellent choice for reverse searing. The abundant intramuscular fat renders down during the slow-cooking process, infusing the steak with flavor and keeping it juicy.
- T-bone: A T-bone steak provides two unique flavor experiences in one cut – the tender filet mignon and the flavorful strip steak. Its thickness and bone-in nature make it perfect for reverse searing.
- Porterhouse: Similar to a T-bone, but with a larger portion of filet mignon, the Porterhouse is a steak lover’s dream. Its size and composition make it ideal for the reverse sear method.
- Tomahawk: This is essentially a ribeye with the bone left long for presentation. Its thickness and large amount of marbling make it another excellent candidate for reverse searing.
Importance of Thickness
Thickness plays a critical role in selecting a steak for reverse searing. The steak should be at least 1.5 inches thick, although 2 inches or more is often recommended. Thinner steaks may overcook during the searing stage which defeats the whole point of reverse searing.
Considerations When Buying Steak
Importance of Good Marbling
When buying steak for reverse searing, look for cuts with good marbling—you know, the white flecks of fat within the muscle of the steak. This intramuscular fat melts during cooking, helping to keep the steak moist and adding flavor. Steaks with little marbling can end up dry and lacking in flavor.
Different Grades of Meat
Steak comes in various grades, including USDA Prime, Choice, and Select, as well as specialty grades like Wagyu.
- Prime is the highest grade, characterized by abundant marbling and tenderness. It’s an excellent, though more expensive, choice for reverse searing.
- Choice is a step down from Prime but can still deliver a great-tasting steak, especially if you select a cut with good marbling.
- Select is a leaner grade with less marbling. While it can still be tasty, it may not deliver as rich a flavor or as tender a texture as the higher grades.
- Wagyu is a breed of cattle known for its exceptional marbling and tenderness. While Wagyu steaks can be quite expensive, they deliver an eating experience that is second to none.
I often choose ribeyes because even a choice ribeye will taste good.
Setting Up Your Smoker for Reverse Searing
A successful reverse sear steak in a smoker depends not only on the steak you’re using but also on the smoker and your ability to control its temperature. Let’s jump in.
Choosing the Right Smoker
Different Smoker Types
There are various types of smokers available in the market, each with its own set of advantages and drawbacks:
- Pellet Smokers: These use wood pellets for fuel and are known for their ease of use and precise temperature control. They’re great for beginners and those who value convenience, although the flavor they impart can be milder compared to other types. I use a Pit Boss Pellet Smoker and love it most of all for its convenience. Maybe, just maybe, another smoker would give me a marginal increase in smoky flavor, but the ol’ Pit Boss hasn’t failed to impress a crowd.
- Electric Smokers: These offer the ultimate in convenience, with set-it-and-forget-it simplicity. However, they don’t offer the same depth of smoky flavor as wood or charcoal smokers.
- Charcoal Smokers: These offer a deep, robust smoke flavor that can’t be matched by pellet or electric smokers. However, they require more skill and attention to maintain consistent temperatures.
Recommendations for Best Results
The best smoker for reverse searing a steak ultimately depends on your personal preferences and skill level. If you’re just starting out or value convenience, a pellet or electric smoker might be the way to go. If you’re a seasoned barbecue enthusiast and crave that intense, smoky flavor, a charcoal smoker might be your best bet.
Honestly, I don’t think it matters too much what kind of smoker you use to reverse sear the steaks as long as you’re able to control the temperature. In my opinion, the steaks are not on the smoker long enough (compared to something like a brisket or pork shoulder) for the type of smoker to make much of a difference.
I used a Pit Boss pellet smoker for this tutorial and the steaks had a noticeable smoky flavor by the end of the process.
Temperature Control in Smokers
Ideal Smoking Temperatures for Reverse Searing
Most people will say that the ideal smoking temperature for reverse searing a steak is between 225°F and 250°F. This lower temperature range allows the steak to slowly come up to the desired internal temperature without overcooking.
However, I’ll sometimes reverse sear a steak at a temperature as high as 300°F if I’m using the oven. Although in the smoker, I’ll keep it closer to the ideal range since I do want it to pick up the smoky flavor.
Tips for Maintaining Temperature Consistency
Maintaining a consistent temperature in your smoker is crucial for the success of your reverse sear. Here are some tips to help you achieve this:
- Preheat Your Smoker: Before placing your steak in the smoker, make sure it has reached the desired temperature and the smoke is flowing steadily.
- Use a Quality Thermometer: Relying on the built-in thermometer on your smoker isn’t always the best idea, as they can often be inaccurate. Invest in a good-quality digital thermometer to monitor both the smoker’s temperature and the internal temperature of your steak. My favorite thermometer is the my long range, wireless ThermoPro meat thermometer. It’s got all the bells-and-whistles that someone who does a lot of grilling or smoking would want in a thermometer. It runs for about $65 on Amazon, so it’s not exactly cheap, but it’s definitely not one of the more expensive thermometers on the market.
- Avoid Opening the Lid: Every time you open the smoker, heat escapes, and the temperature drops. Try to resist the urge to open the lid unless necessary.
Now that you have your steak and your smoker ready, it’s time to move on to the main event—the process of reverse searing a steak in a smoker. We’ll guide you through every step to ensure you achieve the perfect reverse seared steak.
How to Reverse Sear a Steak in the Smoker
Mastering the art of reverse searing a steak in a smoker requires a keen understanding of each stage of the process. From preparation to serving, each step has its own significance. Let’s walk through the entire process. The key is to remember to start prepping the next step as you’re completing the previous step.
Preparing the Steak
Seasoning Suggestions and Techniques
Before you begin cooking, you’ll want to season your steak. Simplicity is key here—a good steak doesn’t need much. A liberal application of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper is often all you need. You can also use your favorite steak seasoning or dry rub if you prefer. Apply the seasoning evenly on all sides of the steak. I often just season my steaks with salt. I don’t see the point of adding anything else.
I highly recommend salting your steaks and then letting them sit in the fridge for 24-48 hours. If you’re tight on time, your steak will still turn out fine if you salt immediately before it goes on the smoker. However, I’ve found that there’s a more even taste after salting for longer periods of time.
Importance of Letting Steak Reach Room Temperature
Some will say to let the steak sit out of the fridge for about an hour before cooking so it can reach room temperature, and that this helps the steak cook more evenly. I used to do this until I read Franklin Steak. He doesn’t recommend it, so I gave it a shot moving my steaks straight from the fridge to the grill and things went fine.
Smoking the Steak
Detailed Step-by-Step Smoking Process
Once your steak is prepared and your smoker is preheated to between 225°F and 250°F, it’s time to start smoking:
- Place the steak on the smoker grates, away from direct heat.
- Insert a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the steak to monitor the internal temperature. This is another reason I love my ThermoPro thermometer: It’s easy to monitor multiple steaks and the ambient temperature of the smoker.
- Close the smoker lid and let the steak cook slowly in the smoke.
Ideal Internal Temperature Before the Sear
Monitor the internal temperature of the steak closely. Once it reaches an internal temperature of 115°F to 120°F, it’s ready for the searing stage.
REMEMBER: You’re going to want to start heating the grill or cast-iron pan (or whatever you’re searing in) BEFORE the steaks come off the smoker.
Finishing with a Sear
Tips for Searing Inside the Smoker or on a Separate Grill
For the searing stage, you’ll need high heat. Some smokers can reach the required temperature, while others may not. If your smoker can get hot enough (usually over 500°F), you can sear the steak directly in it. If not, you may need to use a separate grill or a hot skillet for the searing stage.
The Pit Boss smoker claims it can reach searing temps, but I haven’t tried it. I mostly don’t want to risk a perfectly good steak not getting a great sear. Someday I’ll give it a shot…
Ideal Searing Temperature and Time
Regardless of where you sear your steak, the surface needs to be very hot—around 500°F to 600°F. Sear the steak for about 1-2 minutes on each side, until it develops a deep brown crust. Be sure to sear the edges as well. I leave the thermometer in the steak to continue monitoring the temperature during this phase.
Resting and Serving
Why Resting is Crucial After the Sear
Once the steak is seared, it’s crucial to let it rest for about 10 minutes before slicing. This allows the juices to redistribute throughout the steak, keeping it moist and flavorful. Patience is tough after nearly an hour of cooking.
How to Serve and Cut for Best Results
Serve the steak whole, or slice against the grain for the tenderest eating experience. If you’re dealing with a bone-in steak like a T-bone or Porterhouse, consider removing the bone and slicing each muscle separately.
Tips and Tricks for Perfect Reverse Sear Steak in a Smoker
Achieving the perfect reverse sear steak in a smoker is an art that requires patience, practice, and precision. Here are some tips and tricks to guide you on this journey:
- Using a Meat Thermometer: A meat thermometer is an essential tool for reverse searing steak in a smoker. It takes the guesswork out of cooking, helping you monitor the internal temperature of your steak and ensuring it’s cooked to perfection. Look for a model with a probe that can stay in the steak while it’s in the smoker, allowing you to keep a constant eye on the temperature.
- Slow and Low is the Key: When it comes to smoking, the adage “low and slow” is your guiding principle. Cooking at a low temperature for an extended period of time allows the steak to cook evenly and promotes a more tender result. It gives ample time for the smoke to penetrate the steak, infusing it with a deep, smoky flavor.
- Bone-In vs. Boneless Cuts: Both bone-in and boneless cuts can work well for reverse searing, but they each have their advantages. Bone-in cuts often offer more flavor, as the bone marrow can contribute to the taste of the steak during the cooking process. On the other hand, boneless cuts can be easier to handle and serve, especially if you’re slicing the steak before serving. I almost always use bone-in cuts when reverse searing on the smoker.
Remember, perfecting the reverse sear steak in a smoker is a process, and every steak is a new opportunity to refine your technique. Experiment with different cuts, seasonings, and smoking woods to discover your ideal combination.
Is it worth it to reverse sear a steak in a smoker?
Heck, yeah! This is my preferred reverse searing method. Reverse searing a steak in a smoker is a technique that brings out the very best in a good cut of meat, combining the deep, smoky flavors of slow cooking with the mouthwatering, caramelized crust of a high-heat sear.
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