A lot of people are reluctant to cook steak at home because it's an expensive cut of meat and they don't want to ruin it. But the truth is that pan-searing a steak is easy.
To do the job, all you need is the right pan, an instant read thermometer, and--of course--the right cut of meat.
We'll get right into the steps, and if you have any questions, you can scroll down for more detailed information: the best pan, the best cut of meat, how to tell when your steak is done, and more--including a printable doneness chart you can keep in your kitchen.
Step-by-Step Instructions to Pan Sear a Steak
Here are the steps to create a perfect, juicy, steak with an incredible crust. If you need more information, scroll down to learn about selecting steak, what pan to use, sous vide instructions, how to check for doneness, and more.
1. (Optional) Refrigerate Uncovered for a Day
If you plan far enough ahead--and we recommend that you do--you can unwrap your steak and leave it uncovered in the fridge for 24 hours (and up to 48). This helps to dry out the surface, and, as you will find out, a dry surface is crucial to getting that delicious, crusty exterior.
You may also want to "dry brine" the steak by salting it before leaving it to sit in the fridge; read more about this method here.
If you aren't able to do leave it for a day--or dry brine--no problem. Just follow the rest of the instructions and you'll still get fabulous results.
2. Determine the Right Searing Time
There's almost no worse sin in the cooking world--or one that breaks more hearts--than overcooking an expensive cut of steak.
To determine the correct searing time, you have to take into account:
- The thickness (you can approximate or actually measure--if you're new to pan searing, you may want to measure).
- The cut (a fattier cut is more forgiving, so you should start probing a leaner cut a little earlier in the sear than you would a fattier cut).
- The desired doneness (obviously, the rarer you want it, the sooner you should start probing it)
- The temperature of the pan (knowing this will help you adjust the cook time and know when to start probing the steak).
In general, to sear a 1-inch thick steak to medium rare, you need to sear it in a 450F pan for 3-3.5 minutes per side. But because conditions can vary so much from steak to steak, pan to pan, and stove to stove, use your instant read thermometer to start testing the steak after about 2.5 minutes, or after the first flip.
(Important: To get the right reading, insert the probe into the center/interior of the steak--be sure not to insert past the center, or you'll be reading the pan temperature instead.)
You can always add more heat, but you can't un-cook an overdone steak, so always err on the side of undercooking.
To not overcook your steak, you also have to pull it out of the pan before it reaches the desired temperature. Pull a thin steak out 5 degrees before it hits the internal temp you want. Pull a thick steak out 5-10 degrees before it hits the internal temp you want. (Example: if the steak is on the thin side--less than 1.5 inches thick--and you want it medium rare, take it out of the pan at an internal temp is 125F.)
For more info on the right cooking time, jump to the How Do You Know When the Steak Is Done? section below. The chart will be a big help in figuring out how long you need to sear your steak.
(And yes: you do want to figure out the approximate searing time BEFORE you start. Don't wait until the steak is in the pan to do this.)
3. Remove Steak from Refrigerator One Hour Before Searing
It's not absolutely critical to bring the steaks to room temperature before searing--in fact, if the steaks are thin (less than an inch thick), you may want to leave them in the fridge until you're ready to sear them, especially if you're worried about overcooking them.
However, letting the steaks warm to room temp before cooking helps to ensure they're dry, and will help thick steaks in particular cook more evenly--thick meaning more than 1.5 inches.
So for the most even cooking--especially for thick steaks--remove the steaks from the fridge one hour before you're ready to sear.
4. Dry Steaks Thoroughly
Drying the steak is not an optional step, as a dry surface ensures the best possible browning.
To dry, blot it with paper towels or a clean dish towel until the towel stops picking up moisture. Be sure to do this on both sides and the edges--especially if it's a thick steak--until the paper towel does not pick up any more moisture.
You want the steak as dry as possible.
5. Season Steaks Generously
If you've dry-brined the steaks, you can skip this step.
One hour before cooking, sprinkle both sides of the steak generously with salt--and we do mean generously. Kosher salt is preferred, but any good quality salt will do (no iodized salt, please).
How much salt is enough? 3/4-1 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat. That's coarse kosher salt; if you're using a fine-grained salt, you'll want to use less; probably about a half teaspoon per pound.
You can also sprinkle with pepper and other herbs or spices (thyme, rosemary, garlic), but there are conflicting opinions about this. Pepper and herbs are going to burn at proper searing temps. But you may like the flavor of burnt peppered and/or herbed steak, so you can decide for yourself.
Salt is the most important seasoning to add--the rest are completely optional.
Why one hour before cooking? Salt will draw moisture out of the meat, making the surface wet again, which is the last thing you want. To avoid this, you should either salt the steak an hour before (or more, especially if it's a particularly thick steak), or wait to salt it until right before you throw it in the pan so there's no time for the salt to pull moisture out of the meat.
So, if you haven't dry-brined, salt either one hour before searing or immediately before searing. Either method will ensure good seasoning and a properly dry surface, but salting one hour before is our preferred method because it gives the salt time to penetrate the steak and bring out its flavor.
5. Preheat the Pan
Along with drying the steak thoroughly, this is an extremely important step. For best results, you have to pre-heat your skillet as hot as you can possibly get it. The best way to do this is to pre-heat your oven to 500F (550F if it goes that high). Leave your skillet in the hot oven for at least 10 minutes (cast iron in particular, which takes a longer time to heat through than clad stainless, aluminum or copper).
Oven temps can vary quite a bit from the actual setting, and stove top burners vary as to how hot they can get. So it's a good idea to know how hot you can actually get your skillet: this way, you'll have a good idea of how long you'll need to sear your steak (see chart below for more info, and note that our times are for a 450F pan: adjust times up or down per the temp of your own pan).
An infrared thermometer (pictured above) is a great tool for this. (It's also great for other kitchen uses: checking deep fry oil, grill temps, pan evenness, and more. It's an affordable tool, that is hugely helpful in the kitchen.)
After the pan has heated thoroughly in the oven, turn a burner on to the highest setting. Remove the pan from the oven and place it on the hot burner. (Be careful! That pan is going to be hot.)
6. Lightly Oil the Steaks (or the Pan)
Now the oil: you can brush either the pan or the steak itself lightly--lightly--with cooking oil (we like avocado oil, which has a smoke point of 520F). We prefer brushing the steak, so there's only cooking oil where it's needed (and not all over the pan).
There is some controversy about this step, as many people don't use any oil at all. We've tried it both ways and prefer just a light coating of oil. You'll get the best crust this way, and no worries about the steak sticking to the pan.
Brush the steak--or pan--with a light coat of oil just before searing.
7. Place Steaks in Pan and Sear to Desired Doneness
We're ready to sear! Use a tongs to place those generously salted, painstakingly dried, lightly oiled steaks in that pre-heated pan and start your timer immediately. After the desired amount of time (see chart below for more info), flip the steak and probe with an instant read thermometer to check the internal temp. If the inside is still very cool (e.g., 80-90F), you're right on track and should give the steak approximately the same amount of sear time on the flip side. To be extra careful, you should probe every 30 seconds or so to make sure you don't overcook. (Don't worry that probing allows juice to escape from the steak. The amount of juice lost from probing is miniscule.)
If the temp is over 110F, your steak is cooking quickly and probably won't need the full amount on the second side. Probe frequently to ensure you don't overshoot the doneness you're looking for.
Again, be sure you're inserting the probe only to the center of the steak, or you will get inaccurate readings.
If you're close to done, it's time to add herbs and baste with butter (see next step).
When the internal temp is 5 degrees below your desired doneness (or up to 10 degrees below for a very thick steak), remove the steak from the pan.
8. (Optional) Add Butter and Aromatics and Baste the Steaks
During the last minute or two of cooking, toss a big knob of butter (1-2 tablespoons), and some herbs into the pan (both are totally optional, but will add flavor). You have to wait until the end because butter will burn otherwise.
For aromatics, choose from thyme, rosemary, smashed garlic cloves, and/or diced onion or shallot.
As soon as the butter melts, tilt the pan to spoon it up and baste the steaks with it. Be sure not to prolong cooking time if you don't want the steaks to overcook.
Butter will enhance both the crust and the flavor. And if you have an unevenly crusted steak (where part of the steak wasn't in contact with the pan to form a crust), the butter will help even things out.
Baste the steak until it's almost at the internal temp you're looking for. Almost is key here: if you wait until it reaches that temp, your steak will be overcooked after resting, as the temperature will climb at least 5 more degrees after pulling it from the pan, as it takes several minutes for the heat to redistribute evenly throughout the steak.
So when the steak is within 5-10F of desired doneness, remove it from the pan.
9. Rest the Steaks Before Eating
Let the steak rest for 5-10 minutes. This allows the juices to cool a bit, which will thicken them up and provide a more enjoyable eating experience. Some folks say this time is required so the juices redistribute themselves evenly throughout the steak, but that's not quite what's happening.
However you want to look at it, resting the steak will improve its flavor by improving its juiciness.
Serious Eats recommends resting the steak until it is 5 degrees below the desired internal temperature. For example, if you want the steak cooked to medium rare, which is an internal temp of 130F, rest the steak until the internal temp is 125F. This will ensure maximum enjoyability.
If you don't want to be doing all that probing to check the resting temp (though it won't hurt anything), just give the steak between 5 and 10 minutes to rest and you should be good.
You do not need to cover the steak, and doing so will impede the cooling-down process. If you're concerned about eating a cold steak, just rest for the minimum amount of time (i.e., 5 minutes). Your steak will still be plenty warm.
That's it! Those are the steps to pan sear steak perfectly.
If you want more information, keep reading: we cover pan searing steak in a lot more detail below.
Pan Searing a Steak: The Printable Steps
If you want to print out these steps, click here to open a printable PDF document:
How to Pan Sear a Steak
- (Optional) Leave steak uncovered in fridge for a day (can also dry-brine with salt).
- Determine sear time based on type and thickness of steak.
- Remove from fridge one hour before searing.
- Dry steaks thoroughly.
- Season steaks generously (if not already dry-brined).
- Preheat pan in 500F oven.
- Lightly oil steaks (or pan--doing steaks produces less smoke).
- Pan sear to desired doneness.
- (Optional) Baste with butter and/or herbs for last minute or two of cooking.
- Let the steaks rest for 5-10 minutes before eating.
What's the Best Steak for Pan Searing?
Just picking out a steak to sear can be an ordeal--there are a lot of options to choose from.
The Best Cuts for Pan Searing
In general, this method works best for more expensive cuts of steak: ribeye, strip steak, T-bone, and tenderloin (e.g., fillet mignon). Top sirloin is also good pan-seared, even though it's a less expensive cut.
Ribeye: One of our favorite cuts is the ribeye. It's sometimes called the "butcher's cut" because so many pros consider it to be the most flavorful cut. It is a well-marbled, fatty cut, and pan searing will render the fat beautifully and produce a super tasty cut of meat. For best results, you should sear all the edges to render all that tasty fat (less than a minute per edge).
Strip steak: Also called New York strip or Kansas City strip, this cut is similar to ribeye, coming from the same general area of the cow, with good marbling and lots of flavor. It can be a little tougher than ribeye, but the flavor is excellent. Sear the fatty edge, too.
Tenderloin (fillet mignon): If you want something less rich and less fatty, a tenderloin is an excellent choice: it is the most tender cut of steak, and it's lean yet quite flavorful. Tenderloin is also usually a smaller cut, so is good for those with smaller appetites. Because it has less fat, it will cook faster than other cuts--remember this when you're deciding on sear times (hint: choose the minimum time given).
If the fillet is particularly round, be sure to sear all sides (keeping a close watch on doneness with your instant read thermometer).
T-bone: A T-bone is a combination strip steak and tenderloin with a T-shaped bone separating the two cuts of meat. It is called a Porterhouse when the tenderloin section is extra large. It's a macho cut of meat, but it's a difficult steak to cook well because one side is fatty and the other side is lean; you can easily overcook the tenderloin side.
Top Sirloin: This is a lean and somewhat tougher cut, but less expensive than the others and still very flavorful. Be sure to estimate low when you cook it and probe it early to avoid overcooking.
How Thick Should a Pan-Seared Steak Be?
The best steaks for pan-searing are moderately thick: around an inch to an inch and a half. Less than an inch and the steak can overcook too easily. More than two inches thick and the steak may get overcooked on the outside before the inside is done.
There's not really a better way to cook thin steaks unless you have a sous vide setup, so go ahead and pan sear if that's what you have to work with--just be very careful not to overcook, and start probing them before the minimum time given in the chart below (which is for 1-inch thick steaks).
If your steaks are more than an inch and a half thick, you may want to use a different cooking method. Sous vide is an excellent way to get great results, and you can still pan sear to finish them.
If you don't have a sous vide circulator, then the reverse sear is one of the best ways to do a thick steak. Check out Serious Eats' guide to reverse searing for more info.
Should I Use a Prime or Choice Cut of Steak?
Steaks are graded by the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) according to their marbling (yes, that means their fat content). In general, the more marbling, the more tender the meat will be, so the most marbled meats get the highest "Prime" ranking. Only about 2% of the steaks sold in the US are Prime cuts, and the vast majority of them go to restaurants. But you can find prime cuts at high-end butcher shops, grocery stores, and online dealers such as Allen Brothers. You can also sometimes find prime cuts at big box stores like Costco and Sam's Club.
You can go even higher grade with Wagyu, but these are even harder to find. If you do come across some Wagyu steaks, you should try them if you can afford it. Their extreme marbling distributes fat and flavor throughout the steak:
You can decide for yourself if they're worth the higher cost, but it's fun experiment.
You can also go lower end--Select is below Choice--but for pan-seared steaks, we recommend Choice cuts or better.
Note that most supermarkets carry Choice and Select cuts--be sure to pick the grade you want.
Dry-Aged, Wet-Aged, or Non-Aged: Which Is Best?
Dry-aged steaks are the most expensive. These steaks are aged in a temperature, humidity controlled environment for 1-10 weeks. Wet-aged steaks is also aged but is done so in a vacuum bag. Non-aged steaks are pretty much fresh off the cow.
Dry aging decreases the moisture content of the meat and allows enzymes to work on the meat, both of which enhance the flavor and make the steak more tender. Wet aging will also create enzymes, but there's very little moisture loss, so the flavor won't get as concentrated.
A dry-aged steak can weigh up to 30% less than a non-aged or wet-aged steak, and costs, on average, about 20% more. Whether it's worth the cost is up to you: some people prefer the complex flavors of dry-aged steak, and some prefer fresh beef. There's no right or wrong answer.
You can't re-create the dry-aging process at home, but leaving a steak uncovered in your fridge for a day or two will allow it to dry out a bit, which will concentrate the flavor; the dryer steak will also sear better and produce a better crust (so it's an optional step, but highly recommended).
Bone-in or Boneless: Which Is Best?
This one is kind of a non-issue. Despite what many "experts" will tell you, there's not really a flavor difference between bone-in and boneless steaks. Boneless steaks are a little easier to cook evenly, but the difference really isn't that great.
Instead, select your steaks based on which ones look best, or if you have another reason to pick one over the other (such as a puppy who would love a bone to chew on).
Is Searing Better than Grilling?
This is very much a matter of opinion.
It's hard to beat the flavor of a grilled steak, but it's not always convenient to grill. It may be too cold to start your grill, or maybe you don't have one.
One advantage to grilling is that the steak is cooked outdoors. Pan searing can create a lot of smoke, both from the super hot oven and the searing itself. Be sure to run your range hood at high power or open a window to draw smoke out. Otherwise, you are quite likely to set off the smoke alarm. (We have more tips about keeping the smoke in a minute.)
One advantage to pan searing is that you have more control over the heat and know exactly how hot the pan is (especially if you have an infrared thermometer). Grills can be more variable--so searing allows you better control over the process.
Flavor-wise, though, it really is a matter of choice. Though most people love the taste of grilled steak, pan-seared is just as good--or worth "settling" for if you can't grill for whatever reason.
Both methods, when done well, produce a delicious steak with a crusty exterior and a juicy interior.
How to Minimize Smoke When Pan Searing a Steak?
There's no way around it: the high temperatures required to sear steak are going to create some smoke.
But if you follow these tips, you can probably avoid setting off your smoke alarm:
- Use a high smoke point oil, such as avocado oil, which has a smoke point of 520F. Peanut, canola, and sunflower oil also have smoke points above 400F, but the healthiest of these is arguably avocado oil. (In fact, avocado oil is an excellent healthy choice for your all-purpose cooking oil.)
- Whatever you do, don't use butter--it will burn and create terrible smoke. You can finish the steak with butter for the last minute or so (doing so adds a ton of flavor), but don't try to sear the steak with it.
- Oil the steaks and not the pan to keep the amount of cooking oil to a minimum.
- Turn on your range hood's exhaust fan before you start to sear. Having it going before you start searing will ensure there's no lag time where smoke can escape to the rest of the kitchen.
- If you don't have an exhaust fan, open the window closest to your range and position a fan in front of it to blow air out of the kitchen.
- If you are still getting too much smoke, reduce the temperature of the oven/pan: browning happens at 300F and above, so you can theoretically sear a steak at a temp as low as this. It will take longer, and you may not get quite the crust you want, but it will keep the smoke to a minimum.
- You can pan sear and finish the steaks in the oven (or vice versa--bake first, then pan finish), which will help reduce smoking (because, less time in the pan). This is called the reverse sear method and it works best for thick steaks (more than 1.5 inches thick). This short video shows you the basics of the reverse sear.
- Be sure to move the skillet off the hot burner as soon as you take the steaks out. Cast iron especially will continue to give off smoke for a long time if it's left on a heat source.
Will this Pan Searing Method Work for Sous Vide Steaks?
Yes! Pan searing is an excellent way to brown your steaks after cooking them sous vide--and this is true no matter how thick the steaks are.
However, you have to greatly adjust the searing times given here. Since the steaks are already cooked, all you want to do is put a delicious brown crust on the exterior.
Follow all of the instructions above to make sure the steak is dry and well seasoned before searing, and get the pan as hot as you possibly can (remember, it has to be above 300F to create browning).
Place the dry, lightly oiled steak in the super hot pan, and sear for 45-90 seconds per side. Because the steak is already cooked, its thickness is irrelevant here--sear until you get the crust you want (being careful to not overcook the steak, of course).
Also, for a thick steak with a nice fat cap, you will also want to sear the edges as well to render as much fat as possible. Doing so will make eating the steak a much more enjoyable experience.
What Is the Best Pan to Use for Searing Steak?
Our number one choice for high-heat searing is cast iron: it's not only an inexpensive choice, but it's also the best material for hanging onto heat and producing a great crust.
You can spend more on cast iron--there are seemingly dozens of boutique artisan brands on the market now--but cast iron is pretty much cast iron (an expensive brand isn't going to heat any faster or more evenly), as long as it's well seasoned, so we recommend going with the classic, American-made Lodge brand. For less than $50, you can own the best steak-searing tool on the market, and it will last for decades or even centuries.
For more information, see our article The Best Cast Iron Skillets: How Much Should You Spend? We share great pointers on buying and include the pros and cons of going with a boutique brand.
If you want to go higher end, our second choice is the Demeyere Proline skillet. Mass is the biggest factor in hanging onto heat, so you want to use the thickest, heaviest pan you own. The Demeyere Proline is a super heavy clad stainless pan that's almost as heavy as cast iron. (It contains about 75% more aluminum that All-Clad D3.) It's also super high quality and should last for several decades or longer. And unlike cast iron, it's an excellent all-purpose pan, with no worries about seasoning or reacting with acidic foods. Some experts even prefer the Proline to cast iron for these reasons. The only drawback is that all that excellence comes at a premium.
All-Clad tri-ply or knockoffs similar to it are usable, but they aren't ideal because they're just a little too thin to hang onto heat as well as you want them to.
For more information, see our article All-Clad Vs Demeyere: Which Is Better?
You can also use a thick copper pan. Copper's best trait is its responsiveness, meaning that it will adjust to heat changes quickly. This is the opposite of what you want for high-heat searing, however, a very thick copper pan (preferably 2.3mm of copper or more) has enough mass to hang onto heat and will produce a good sear. Copper lovers claim it's as good as cast iron, but in our experience, it's the third best choice.
One pan you do not want to use is a nonstick pan of any kind. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the slippery nonstick surface doesn't produce the great crust that other pans will. The second is that you should never, ever heat a nonstick pan above medium. High heat not only destroys the nonstick properties, but if the pan contains PTFE, heat over about 500F or so can cause it to break down and give off dangerous fumes that cause flu-like symptoms in humans and are lethal to birds. (If you own a pet bird, you should not own any PTFE cookware.)
How Do You Know When the Steak Is Done?
We can't emphasize how important it is to learn how to tell when a steak is done, especially if you like a juicy steak rather than a dry one.
Pro chefs can test doneness by pushing the steak with a finger for the amount of spring back, but this is best left to professionals. We recommend, if you are anything less than an expert, do not try this at home. After you've cooked hundreds of steaks, you may develop an intuitive feel for a steak's doneness. But until then, the best way to test it is with an instant read thermometer (pictured above).
It's hard to give exact cooking times because ranges, ovens, pans, and the steaks themselves can differ so much. You have to develop an understanding of how hot you can get your pan (again, an infrared thermometer is a great tool for this). But you should try to get your pan as hot as you possibly can (putting it in a 500F oven for about 10 minutes is the best way to do this.)
Also note that your pan must be above 300F to produce the Maillard reaction--the process that browns the meat and adds all sorts of complex, wonderful flavors.
When you probe the steak, be sure to insert the thermometer only to the center of the steak to ensure accurate readings.
In general: thin steaks (1.5 inches or less) will cook very quickly. No longer than 3 minutes per side for medium-rare--and you should probably start checking after 2 minutes: if the crust is a gorgeous brown, flip the steak (starting the timer again) and probe it with an instant read thermometer. The steak will continue to heat at least 5 degrees more after removing it from the pan, so for medium rare (130-135F), you should remove the steak at an internal temperature of about 125F.
For thicker steaks, cook until meat is deeply browned and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 120F for medium-rare or 130F for medium, usually about 4-6 minutes per side, depending on desired doneness.
Here's a doneness chart to help you determine how long you need to sear your steak. These times are for a pan that's about 450F; these times are going to vary based on how hot your pan is, so use your instant read thermometer for best results.
For a 1-inch Thick Steak*:
*Add approx. 1 minute for each additional 1/4-inch of thickness.
(center: room temp)
remove at 145-150F.
To print out this chart, click this link to open a printable PDF.
About Flipping the Steak
The prevalent wisdom about building the gorgeous brown crust is that you should leave a steak alone for the entire cooking time, flipping just once to get the same result in the other side.
This is a culinary myth. The truth is that you can flip the steak as often as you want, and the crust will continue to build beautifully--and the steak will actually cook a little more evenly than if you flip only once. America's Test Kitchen, Serious Eats, and Modernist Cuisine all concur that this is the case--so we're in good company here.
Either way you choose to sear is fine. We just wanted you to know that if you want to flip the steak several times, you can do so without negative consequences.
What Should You Serve with Steak?
Possibilities are nearly endless. Classic sides for a juicy steak include:
- Green salad with tomatoes, shaved red onion, croutons, and blue cheese dressing
- Caesar salad (here's an excellent--and easy--Caesar dressing recipe)
- Seared mushrooms
- Creamed spinach
- Roasted or steamed broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or broccolini
- Steamed or baked asparagus (best in season in late spring)
- Corn on the cob (best in season, mid-summer)
- Hash browns (see Cowboy Kent's video to make perfect hash browns)
- French fries
- Baby potatoes, cooked any way
- Baked potato with all the fixings
- Au gratin potatoes
- Garlic bread
- Dinner rolls.
Since we're not a recipe site, we only included recipes for the items that we know are exceptional. For the others, you're on your own (sorry).
Final Thoughts on How to Pan Sear a Steak
We hope we've de-mystified the pan searing of steak for you. It's really not that hard if you have the right tools and a good procedure to follow.
Thanks for reading!
Help others learn to the right pan searing techniques, too--please share this article!