What Is Searing Or Browning Meat or Fish or Cheese And Why Do We Need To Brown Meat?

If you think you are ‘searing’ or ‘browning’ meat in order to  ‘seal in’ the juices think again!

Some traditionalist maintain that searing really is a method of ‘sealing in’ moisture. The nearly infallible Aristotle for example, presents his case by arguing that:

“…the parts nearer to the fire are the first to get dry and consequently get more intensely dry. In this way the outer pores contract and the moisture in the thing cannot be secreted but is shut in by the closing of the pores.”

And, more recently, the just-as-nearly-infallible Delia Smith advocates putting a steak directly down onto the hot surface of a frying pan, explaining “what this does is sear the meat, sealing the edges and encouraging the juices to stay inside.

But it’s rather delightful that even people who are right most of the time can sometimes be a bit wrong because:

  • the lovely sizzling noise is water evaporating… not staying within the meat… and the sizzling continues for a few seconds, even after you take it off the heat.
  • the chemical reaction taking place between the amino acids and reducing sugars (known as the Maillard reaction) is NOT making the external surface of the meat impermeable.

To be fair to Delia, however, technically she is not wrong. According to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘to seal something in’ means to ‘prevent something from escaping by closing a container or opening’. It suggests a totality. But Delia tempers her suggested technique with the word ‘encouraging’. Some liquid may be lost (some fat also), but not all of it – you don’t want your meat to become biltong. And indeed – you should not add salt until the last minute in the process because it DOES draw out the moisture.


To sear or not to sear?

But IN ANY CASE if you’re not sealing in the ‘juice’ (in fact the watery fluid contained in the individual muscle cells) is ‘searing’ the right thing to do?



  • firstly because what is, in fact, happening is a complex chemical reaction (even now not wholly understood) involving sugars and the amino acids in protein, called the Maillard reaction. This is producing a gorgeous, rich aromatic smell and taste – and a lovely brown glinty appearance.
  • secondly because non-seared meat needs longer in the oven. This is because any juice which has remained in the meat has simmered around the muscle fibre, and that, in turn has become tough as old boots
  • thirdly, and perhaps most tellingly of all, the delicious aroma and flavour produced by searing, results in the generation of more saliva (apologies for getting so technical) so MORE ‘juice’ is produced, albeit not in the meat!

To sear or not to sear? I know what the expert – see featured image – would say!


What to sear

It’s not just meat that benefits from searing – meaty fish or seafood – monkfish or scallops, for example, will also benefit from searing. So will cheeses such as halloumi, or paneer.


How to sear

Sear over a high heat. Place the piece of meat or fish down on the hot surface and DO NOT FIDDLE. The bottom will brown and the piece will loosen itself.

When it’s ready, turn it, placing it on a different part of the frying pan where the surface will be hotter and you will get a better sear.


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