Thursday, April 28, 2005

Culinary Mythology: Searing Meat

This is a myth that I have known about ever since reading Harold McGee's excellent On Food and Cooking, some twenty years ago. It always amazes me how many different authors still ascribe to the idea of searing meat to keep juices in.
Harold McGee (1990) introduces and deals with this myth succinctly:
It's in the best of cookbooks and the worst of cookbooks, the simple and the sophisticated. "Sear the meat to seal in the juices," they say. This catchy phrase is probably the best-known explanation of a cooking method. It originated with an eminent scientist. And it's pure fiction.

A nineteenth century German chemist, Justus von Liebig, conceived the idea that high temperatures quickly coagulate proteins at the surface of a piece of meat, and that this coagulum forms a juice-trapping shell that keeps the interior moist. The cooking technique that Liebig accordingly recommended -- start the meat at a high temperature to seal it, then reduce the heat to cook it through -- ran counter to the traditional ways of roasting and boiling. Despite this, or perhaps exactly because it offered a modern "scientific" alternative to tradition, the technique caught on immediately in England and America and eventually in France. Unfortunately, Liebig never bothered to test his theory by experiment. When home economists did so in the 1930s, they found that seared beef roasts lose somewhat more moisture than roasts cooked throughout at a moderate temperature. But Liebig's brainchild continues to turn up in many recipes for roasting, frying, and grilling. It refuses to die.

McGee also explores the question of why it refuses to die; and explains how easily, by simple visual observation, even the most stubborn adherent may be convinced that the myth is indeed a myth.

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