In the heat of the moment (or the summer sun), with a beverage in one hand and more guests arriving by the minute, the grilling pressure's on. Will you scorch the chicken and leave the inside underdone? Will those beautiful thick steaks go from medium-rare to well-done while you're trying to get a nice sear on the surface? You just. Don't. Know.
Unless you go for the reverse sear, of course.
After blowing my mind about beer-can chicken and loose burger meat, grilling guru and cookbook author Meathead Goldwyn weighed in on why the reverse sear might be the best way to grill (almost) anything.
What is reverse sear?
Fancy steakhouses love to sear their steaks and then finish cooking them in the gentler heat of the oven. The reverse sear is just that same process...in reverse. First, you cook your thick-cut steak or bone-in chicken over indirect (aka low) heat until the interior is almost done, then move it to the direct (aka hot) heat zone to finish it with a sizzling crust.
“Ideally, you have to treat the surface of the meat one way and the interior of the meat another way,” Goldwyn said.
If you cook a steak only on direct heat, you’ll definitely get a crust, but underneath that, it’ll be a rainbow of color: tan, pink, and then, finally, a very thin layer of picture-perfect medium-rare meat. If you're lucky. But with the reverse sear, it's easier to nail that moving target of doneness since the meat cooks through more slowly. “You really want edge-to-edge medium-rare,” said Goldwyn, “The way to get there is by starting the meat at a low temperature.”
Just imagine the backyard bragging you'll be able to do with this technique. After all, you see the same thing going on in Michelin-starred restaurants in sous vide baths. After vacuum sealing and cooking pork or beef for upwards of 70 hours in a water bath, the meat will be almost fork tender but will lack that appetizing brown crust (you are cooking in a bag, after all). To give meat some color and a crisp exterior, cooks will quickly sear it in a pan during service, creating a piece of meat that’s crisp on the outside and almost buttery on the inside. No wonder they’re getting fancy awards.
Here's how to earn a few accolades of your own:
Set up your grill
Regardless of whether you’re grilling on charcoal or gas, first set up your grill with direct and indirect heat zones.
The indirect section is for gently cooking your food up to until it's almost at the ideal doneness. Make sure the indirect-heat section of the grill is around 225°F (use a grill thermometer with a clip to check), then cover the grill. “When the lid is down, hot air circulates around it, and you can gently warm the meat so that from top to bottom, it’s the same temperature and color,” Goldwyn said. You're basically creating an oven for your meat.
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Goldwyn recommends watching the temperature of the food until it’s 10-15 degrees below your target temperature (about 120°F for a medium-rare 1 1/2 inch steak). Once the food hits that temperature, it’s ready to move to the direct-heat side for a quick sear. Once you switch over to the direct side, you’ll need to constantly flip the food every minute, or as Goldwyn says, “like a human rotisserie.”
That will ensure that your meat browns evenly all the way around. Take the grilling food off of the grill once it hits your target temperature (130°F for medium-rare steak, 165°F for chicken) and serve immediately.
What Does It Work On?
Reverse sear is great for any cut of meat that’s 1 1/2 inches or thicker. That includes (among other things) pork chops, steakhouse burgers, baked potatoes, and especially chicken.
“Reverse sear is made for chicken,” said Goldwyn, who likes to cook bone-in chicken on the indirect side before searing it on the hot side, skin side down. “Crisp that skin and get it dark brown and golden.” And just like that, you’ll have moist and juicy chicken on the inside without charring the skin.