Searing is a cooking method generally used on meats such as beef, pork, poultry or fish. The idea is to create a caramelized crust by placing the meat on a very hot pan, mesh grill or broiling pan and allowing it to cook at high heat until a dark brown surface appears.
Searing is not the same as charring, which would leave the surface black and burnt-tasting. Instead, the goal is to convert the natural sugars of the meat and any dry seasonings into a crispy outer layer while preserving the juiciness of the internal layer.
When cooks sear a steak, they begin with a relaxed cut of meat, meaning the meat has been allowed to warm to room temperature and the moisture has largely retreated into the interior muscles. Although marinades can be used with meat about to be seared, many cooks prefer the surface to be as dry as possible.
Too much surface moisture could mean the meat would not get a good sear, but more of an undesirable steaming and charring. The pan or grill is heated until the surface temperature is at least 300 degrees F, although many professionals suggest superheating the pan until it reaches 500-700 degrees F. The idea of a sear is a quick meeting between an extremely hot pan and dry meat until the surface of the meat is a solid dark brown, but not blackened.
Some people believe a good sear holds in the moisture of the meat, but in reality a seared piece of meat actually loses more juices than an unseared piece. This is one reason why many professional chefs only recommend searing steaks which will ultimately be cooked to medium or less.
A seared steak cooked to medium-well or well-done status will probably be disappointingly dry and tough. A properly seared steak cooked to rare or medium-rare should benefit from the added flavor of the seared crust, however.
Searing provides a more intense seasoned flavor and a pleasing crunchiness to steaks, pork chops, chicken breasts and fish filets. The key is to work with a very hot pan or grilling rack, use a relatively dry piece of meat, and resist the temptation to remove the meat from the heat source at the first sign of browning.
Also remember that a seared piece of meat will still be raw or barely heated in the middle, so it will need further cooking before it can be served, even in a very rare condition.