If you haven't yet learned the simple art of pan searing a steak, it's high time. This is an easy, delicious treat that any cook can master with a few simple steps and--of course--the right tools.
Using the right pan is the key to getting a good sear. There are a few options, but we have a definite favorite. Just as important is not using the wrong pan. Some pans won't give a very good sear, and some are downright unsafe.
Heat Conduction and Capacity: Cooking Basics
We start with the basics, so you understand why we recommend the pan we do. The physics of cooking are complex, but we break them down into the two most important factors: 1) heat conductivity, and 2) heat capacity (also called "heat retention").
Heat conductivity, or thermal conductivity, is a measure of how fast and how evenly a pan heats. It is an important concept in cookware, the sole purpose of which is to heat your food efficiently.
Heat conductivity is primarily a function of the type of metal the pan is made from.
Copper has the highest heat conductivity of any cookware material (excluding silver, which is too expensive for cookware, though it does exist), which means it heats quickly and evenly and responds to changes in temperature quickly.
Aluminum has the second-highest heat conductivity rating. It heats about half as quickly as copper, but better than most other pan materials. Aluminum is probably the most common cookware metal, used in nonstick, clad stainless steel, and even bare aluminum pans, as well as sheet pans and bakeware.
Stainless steel has poor heat conductivity, meaning it heats slowly and unevenly. This is why stainless is clad to aluminum and/or copper in clad stainless steel cookware: to improve the heat conductivity. Without an aluminum core, stainless steel would be pretty much unusable for cookware.
Cast iron and carbon steel--very similar metals--both have poor heat conductivity ratings because they heat slowly and unevenly. (Yes, really.)
Glass and enamel have extremely poor heat conductivity. In fact, they are considered insulators rather than conductors of heat. This makes them good for some tasks, such as baking, but not great for cooktop use, and terrible for high heat searing. For this reason, we won't discuss this option again.
Another factor that affects thermal conductivity is the mass of a pan. That is, how thick and heavy the layers of heating material are. A pan with a thicker, heavier layer of aluminum or copper is going to conduct heat more evenly than a pan with a thinner layer, although it will take longer to heat and respond to temperature changes, simply because there is more mass.
This brings us to heat capacity.
Heat capacity is the amount of heat energy stored in a material. You can also think of it as heat retention: that is, how long a material hangs onto heat after the heat source is removed or cold food is introduced to the pan.
Mass is also an important factor in heat retention, probably even more so than for heat conductivity. In other words, the thicker and heavier a pan is, the longer it will retain heat, regardless of the material it's made of.
This is a key factor in choosing the right pan for searing a steak. The thicker and heavier the pan, the smaller the crash will be when you add cold food to it. Material matters too, but perhaps less than you might think it does.
Which Property Is Most Important for Pan Searing a Steak?
You may notice that heat conductivity and heat retention are opposites. Conductivity is about responsiveness, while capacity refers to how resistant a material is to temperature changes, or lack of responsiveness.
Both properties are important to cooking, and most cookware is geared to the middle of the spectrum, offering decent conductivity and decent heat retention. For most tasks, people want pans that heat evenly and quickly, which makes heat conductivity is the more important feature.
For this reason, probably the most versatile pans on the market are clad stainless steel, which are thin enough to conduct heat quickly, yet thick enough for the heat to be even and to retain heat well enough for most cooking tasks. (Although not all clad stainless fits this definition--more on this in a minute.) Add to this the durability of stainless steel, and you have a really versatile all-around pan.
However, for searing a steak, you don't want a versatile, middle-of-the-road pan. Rather, you want a pan that's on the heat retention end of the heating spectrum. That is, you want a pan that can hang onto heat very well, even when cold food is added to the hot pan. How fast a pan heats, and even how evenly, takes a back seat to heat retention.
Why is this? To get that delicious, crispy crust on your meat, you need a pan that starts out smoking hot and remains as hot as possible when you add a room temperature (or cold) steak.
If the pan is too thin, it loses too much heat when you add the steaks, the result being that the steak won't develop a crispy, flavorful crust before it cooks all the way through. The end result is a disappointing steak.
The Best Pan for High Heat Searing
Cast iron is the best pan for high heat searing and thus for pan searing a steak because:
- its mass gives it excellent heat retention
- it is inexpensive and durable (will last for decades)
- its dark color won't show the inevitable staining from high heat and oil splatters.
Yes, cast iron has poor thermal conductivity, meaning it heats slowly and unevenly. This is one reason that it may not be the best choice for your everyday cookware. (Another reason is that it's heavy.)
However, once hot--give it several minutes to get hot on the burner or in a 500F oven--cast iron's heat retention is the best of any cookware material in existence. You can toss that cool steak in the pan and it will barely make a dent in the temperature.
Our favorite cast iron pan is Lodge. It's inexpensive and made in the USA.
You can spend hundreds more on a fancy, artisanal brand of cast iron. These start out smoother than Lodge, but otherwise the heating properties are pretty much identical (cast iron is cast iron, regardless what you pay for it).
Furthermore, the smoothness of a pan doesn't affect its searing capability. Thus, we recommend Lodge over more expensive brands.
You can read more about cast iron in our article The Best Cast Iron Skillets: How Much Should You Spend?
Will Other Pans Work for Searing Steak?
Yes, but they aren't our first choice.
Here are the other options:
Copper: Thick copper--at least 2.5mm--works for searing because its amazing thermal conductivity will bring it back up to temperature quickly after you add a steak. Also, the thick layer creates a lot of mass, which also improves heat retention.
Thinner copper will continue to lose heat as fast as it takes it on, making searing adequate, but not stellar. Thick copper will recover from the temperature crash quickly enough to give you a good sear, and also have enough mass to improve its heat retention.
However, you may not want to use a heavy copper pan for a few reasons. First, thick copper pans are expensive--some of the most expensive pans on the market. And the combination of high heat and spattering oil from frying can badly discolor the exterior of a skillet. Do you really want to do this to your beautiful, expensive copper pan--especially when there is an affordable option that does a better job?
Aluminum is also quite responsive to temperature changes, so it has mediocre heat retention. However, if the aluminum is thick enough--at least 3mm and preferably more--it will have good heat retention and will spring back to searing temperature quickly. Unfortunately, most aluminum cookware has a nonstick coating, and that is a no-no for high heat searing; more on this in a minute.
Clad Stainless Steel is typically too thin to have excellent heat retention. You can get an okay sear with an All-Clad skillet, but nothing like you can achieve with cast iron.
One exception is the Demeyere Proline skillet. The Proline's aluminum layer is almost 4mm thick, making it a good option for searing.
Heavy clad stainless is a good choice if you want to make a pan sauce with anything acidic like wine or tomatoes. Acids can react with the seasoning on cast iron, ruining it and also taking on a metallic flavor. You won't have this issue with a stainless cooking surface.
However, as with copper cookware, you may want to keep your Proline skillet looking beautiful. This pan is an investment piece that will last forever, so you may not want to stain it with the grease splattering that comes with high heat searing.
You can read more about the Proline skillet in our article All-Clad Vs. Demeyere: Which Is Better?
Carbon steel: Many people think carbon steel, having many of the same properties as cast iron, is just as good for high heat searing, but the physics of heating says otherwise. Carbon steel has good heat retention, but it is thinner and lighter than cast iron. This reduced mass makes it not as good for high heat searing.
On the other hand, carbon steel comes in different gauges (thicknesses), and if you go with the thickest gauge pan you can find, you will achieve satisfactory searing.
If you have ergonomic issues and prefer something lighter than cast iron, carbon steel will work. One of our favorite carbon steel skillets for searing is the Matfer Bourgeat. It's one of the heavier gauge pans on the market and a good choice pan searing steaks.
You can read more about how to choose a carbon steel skillet in our article Carbon Steel Vs. Stainless Steel: Which Is Better for Cookware?
What Is the Best Pan Size for Searing a Steak?
We prefer a 12-inch skillet to anything smaller, especially if you're going to sear more than one steak at a time.
A 10-inch pan will work, but the main point here is to not overload a small pan. When you do this, the moisture from the meat can overpower the cooking surface, causing steaks (and anything else) to steam rather than sear.
If you've ever had your pan-fried meats turn out gray rather than crispy and brown, you have seen the result of overcrowding a pan.
One problem with cast iron is that it's heavy, so you may not want a 12-inch skillet as it is a bit more unwieldy than a 10-inch. But if you can handle the weight, we really recommend going with the larger size. It's more versatile all the way around.
Are There Any Pans NOT to Use for High Heat Searing?
Nonstick. Never use a nonstick pan for any high heat applications. High heat ruins nonstick coatings and can even result in the release of toxins if the pan contains PTFE. (And yes, "PFOA-free" pans can contain PTFE--in fact, they probably do.)
If that's not enough to dissuade you, the slipperiness of a nonstick coating results in mediocre browning, so even if you don't care about ruining the coating, you're not going to get much of a sear no matter how hot you get the pan.
Tin-lined copper. Any copper pan lined with tin should not be used, as tin has a melting point of about 450F. A gas burner can heat a pan to 500F in about 5 minutes--so don't use tin-lined copper for high heat searing.
Other Tools Needed to Pan Sear a Steak
Since the right temperature is critical to steak-searing perfection, other tools you might want are both related to temperature.
Instant-Read Thermometer: One other essential tool for searing is an instant-read thermometer. Seriously, this little tool is going to up your steak searing game into the realm of professional chef! An instant-read thermometer is a shortcut to perfection.
This is true for many other applications in your kitchen, too: baking, grilling, even making a better cup of tea. An instant read thermometer takes all the guesswork out of cooking and baking. It is a must-have for any cook.
Our favorite instant-read thermometer is the Thermapen. They're not cheap, but they are super durable, with some models even being water proof. (They also make a great gift.)
If you can't afford a Thermapen, there are many less expensive options on Amazon.
Infrared Thermometer: Another great tool, though not as crucial, is an infrared thermometer. You use this to test the heat of your pan. It is also a versatile kitchen tool which you can use for deep frying oil, testing tea kettles, and a thousand other applications.
We decided not to get into the actual searing process here because we discuss that in detail in the article How to Pan Sear a Steak. In that article, we have a step-by-step guide, plus a handy infographic that shows searing times and levels of doneness.
Our verdict for the best pan to sear a steak in: cast iron. It's inexpensive, durable, and holds onto heat better than anything else, resulting in a crispy crust and perfectly finished interior.
The second best choice is a tie between heavy carbon steel and heavy clad stainless (i.e., not All-Clad or any of its knockoffs).
Heavy clad stainless is best if you want to make wine-based pan sauce--but cast iron is by far the better choice if you want a flawless crust and an interior finished to perfection.
Thanks for reading!
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