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Sear vs Reverse Sear Steak: What’s the difference?

Everyone loves a good sear on their steak. It’s what creates that beloved browned crust that adds just the right texture, aroma, and taste to a fine cut of steak.

Related: Why sear a steak? What searing does and does not do… (Spoiler: Searing doesn’t “trap” the juices inside.)

The searing method that most people are familiar with is what is often called a front sear (others might call it a regular sear). This searing method generally includes putting a steak on an intensely hot surface like a hot pan or flat top grill.

The reverse sear method requires the additional step of cooking the steak at a low temperature or on indirect heat until it’s just shy of the desired doneness, then moving it to a hotter surface to be seared.

Reverse sear method advocates swear that reverse searing a steak results in a more evenly cooked, flavorful piece of meat.

However, those in the front sear camp often say that the difference is barely noticeable and the simple technique of searing is more than enough!

So is it better to sear or reverse sear a steak?

Are there certain times where reverse searing a steak is more appropriate than searing?

How does one decide between the front sear and reverse searing method?

Which method will yield the best steak!? We’re putting the two searing methods to the test in this post…

What is the reverse sear method?

There are many different ways to reverse sear a steak. The reverse searing method typically involves cooking the steak at a low temperature until it reaches an internal temperature of 10-20 degrees below the desired doneness. Then you would move it to high heat for the sear and to bring it to its final temperature.

For instance, if you want a steak to be medium rare (between 130-140 degrees Fahrenheit), you would cook the steak in the oven or over indirect, low heat on a grill until it reaches an internal temperature of about 115-120 degrees. Then you would move it to high heat until it reaches the desired temperature of 130-140 degrees, or medium rare. That way you still get the golden brown crust.

Many people like to do the initial cooking in the oven, which provides for more precise temperature control. However, the reverse sear method can be done on a grill or flat top grill by utilizing zone cooking, where there’s a low heat side and hot side of the grill. You’ll want to keep the lid closed on the grill while cooking over low heat or get a dome lid that you can put over the steaks.

Related: The PERFECT Reverse Sear Steak Method…

What are the pros and cons of front searing a steak?

Before jumping into the test, let’s review some of the advantages and disadvantages to front searing and reverse searing steaks. We’ll start with front searing…

The pros of front searing a steak…

  • It’s quicker to front sear steaks. If you’re in a rush, it’s easier to sear the steaks and be done with it. Throw some salt on your steaks, toss ’em on high heat, flip ’em, and a few minutes later you’ll have near perfectly cooked steak.
  • Front seared steaks (typically) develop a better crust. When you front sear a steak, it will typically stay on high heat longer than if you reverse sear the steak. As a result, you’ll get that nicely browned, golden crust.
  • Less materials (and attention) are needed when searing a steak. No need to keep a close eye on the steak while it’s cooking over low heat and no need to get out the baking sheet. When searing, you’ll need to pay attention to the steak for less than 10-minutes.

The cons of searing a steak (and why you should consider reverse-searing)…

  • The steak can cook unevenly, especially on thicker cuts of steak. The thicker the cut of steak, the harder it will be to get even cooking throughout the steak. We typically recommend reverse searing anything over 2 inches thick. That way you can still get that pink center without burning the outside of your steak.
  • It can be messy. The grease splatter when searing can make quite the mess, especially if you’re searing meat inside in a pan. We use a splatter guard to prevent against this.

What are the pros and cons of reverse searing a steak?

Now onto the reverse sear! Here are a few things to consider before reverse searing steaks…

The pros of reverse searing a steak…

  • Reverse seared steak cooks more evenly. This is especially true for thicker cuts of steak. When you try to sear a thicker cut, you run the risk of overcooking the outside while hitting the target temperature. The reverse searing method will get you a more even color throughout your steak.
  • There’s greater control over the cooking process. If you want more control, but don’t want to go through the trouble of sous vide, reverse seared steak is a good compromise. It’s a great way to impress friends, too. (We do love us some sous vide… the meat cooks evenly every.dang.time.)
  • The reverse searing method is best for thick steak cuts. If the steak is over 2 inches thick, we know we’ll need to do more than sear it. Thick steaks should be reverse seared (or at least not just seared).

The cons of reverse searing a steak…

  • There’s more moisture loss in reverse searing steaks. Many worry that the reverse searing method dries out the steak. While it does typically result in more moisture loss, the difference is (usually) negligible. The upside, however, is a less messy sear.
  • Reverse searing steaks doesn’t work for thin cuts of steak. Trying to reverse sear anything under 1.5 inch cuts is… pointless—at least in our humble opinion.
  • The crust on reverse seared steaks just isn’t as thick. Of course, this might be a “pro” for some people. However, we love the crust that develops on a regular sear.

The Test: A Comparison of Seared and Reverse Sear Steaks

We decided to cook four different steaks for this experiment to get the best idea of the differences between the searing and reverse searing methods.

One group of steaks were >2 inches thick and the other were <2 inches thick. We made sure to cook one of each group using both the regular method and the reverse sear method. That way we could evaluate the differences of each method on different size cuts of meat.

All of the steaks were boneless ribeye cuts. After much debate, we only salt to each cut of meat. All of the steaks were brought to room temp before cooking.

We wanted everything to be cooked medium rare (duh.) so we aimed for an internal temperature of 130-140 degrees. Read on for more details on how we cooked each group of steaks…

Cooking a seared steak… 

The seared steaks were cooked in a cast iron pan with ghee. We like cooking with ghee because the smoke point is higher. More on that in our simple guide to searing…

When the pan started lightly smoking, we threw on the steaks.

We used a food thermometer for the thicker cuts of steak. The thinner cuts each cooked for about 2-3 minutes on each side.

Cooking a reverse seared steak…

We decided to reverse sear our steaks in the oven for more precise temperature control. We debated about cooking over indirect heat on the charcoal grill or using the zone method on the Blackstone. While that’s what we would usually opt for, we thought the control of the oven as more appropriate for the experiment.

We set a target temperature of 120 degrees for all of the cuts of meat and used a multi-prong food thermometer to continuously monitor the steaks.

Once they hit the target temperature, we threw the steaks on the cast iron pan and finished them the same way we cooked the regularly seared steaks until they reached the target temperature.

The cooking time difference between searing and reverse seared steak

It took about half the time to cook the regularly seared steaks than it did to reverse sear steak. This, of course, was expected.

The thicker cuts of steak took longer than their counterparts—also probably obvious.

Texture comparison of seared vs reverse seared steak

The crust on both the thinner and thicker cuts of regularly seared steak was more intense than the reverse seared steaks.

Some people really like to go for the grill marks, but we prefer the even crust over the entire surface area of the steak, which can be achieved with a pan or flat top grill.

The reverse seared steaks still had a good sear, but it was lighter than the front seared steaks.

How does a reverse-seared steak taste compared to a seared steak?

All of the steaks were delicious, but the reverse seared steaks, especially the thicker cut, was the most tender. When ranking the steaks, the thick cut, reverse seared steak got the highest scores.

From there it seemed to be a matter of preference: I, for instance, liked the thicker crust on the thin cut ribeye that got the regular sear. Ryan, however, enjoyed the reverse seared steaks a bit more. And Jesse liked all of the cuts pretty evenly.

So what does this mean?

Which is better: seared or reverse seared steak?

It’s ultimately a matter of personal preference.

Do you like that intense crust or not? Are you about precision or control? Or would you rather just throw the cuts on high, direct heat and make easy work of it?

That’s up to you. Trust us when we say that it’s all good!

The only thing we’d say for sure is that you’ll want to reverse sear any cuts over 2 inches thick and anything less than an 1.5 inches thick is probably not worth reverse searing.

Frequently asked questions about searing and reverse searing a steak…

Is it better to sear or reverse sear a steak?

In our opinion it depends on the thickness of the steak. If it’s thicker than 2 inches, we would recommend reverse searing for a more even cook.

When should I sear a steak? When should I reverse sear a steak?

We would recommend searing a steak when you’re short on time or have a cut of steak that 1.5 inches or thinner. If your cut is more than 2 inches thick, you’ll want to consider reverse searing.

What is the point of reverse searing a steak?

Reverse searing a steak is a great option for thick cuts of steak, more control over the cooking process, and (often) a more tender, flavorful steak.

Does reverse searing dry out the meat?

It is true that all-other-things-equal, a reverse seared steak will lose more moisture than a front seared steak. However, the moisture loss difference is negligible and in our experience does not lead to dried out steak.

What steak cut are you? Take our quiz to figure out what steak cut best describes you!

Ribeye? Sirloin? New York Strip? Take the quiz and find out what cut of steak best describes you.

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