Monday, 5 January 2015

Reverse sear: a better and easier way to roast beef

Forerib cooked by the reverse sear method.
Notice the cutting board: no leaking juices. With this method, the juices stay in the meat.
This was a 4kg joint - our 2014 Christmas meal - that took 9 hours at 60°C and then 10 minutes at 260°C.

I and most other people who eat at the restaurant like their beef roasted to a medium rare: pink but not 'bloody' (it's not blood but that's for another post). I used to follow the old, tested method: sear the meat in a hot pan and then transfer to a hot oven to roast. No longer. And I urge you to change. Your family and friends will love you for it. You will love the fact that you never again overcook the Sunday joint.

That's not a bad looking piece of beef above BUT I wanted medium pink and at least a third is a well done grey. There is a way to cook meat that ensures all the meat done the same. It's called the reverse sear method.

If you think about how we cook meat, it hasn't really changed since we discovered fire. We place flesh close to heat. Nothing wrong with this, the result can be a delicious brown joint with a flavoursome, charred crust and melting meat. The major issue with fire was temperature. There was just one: burny hot. The only way of controlling the temperature was to put some distance between foodstuff and fire. Leave it too close to the fire, or for too long and voila: briquette.

What's happened in the intervening years between Prometheus and me is the development of temperature control. The internal of medium roast beef should only be about 55 - 60°C so why put it in a 180°C oven? Why not use the lower temperature technologies? The answer is: tradition and time. Let's take these in order.

Tradition. It's how we've always done it! Cooking is prone to the this-is-how-granny-did-it syndrome. There are many, many kitchen myths still knocking about, despite the best efforts of Harold McGee and more recently Heston Blumenthal. Of course few want to take the time and expense to experiment - people cook to eat - so bad and/or unnecessary practices are perpetuated. McGee's book was one of the first to challenge kitchen lore and he found many of the orthodoxies wanting.

There's a wonderful, erudite website called Serious Eats that regularly test cooking methods and presumptions. These are the people who poach eggs in one degree increments and discern two different types of egg white. They have my heart! You might think little of this level of food pedantry but their major concern is with the eating of it. They love simple food and their results speak for themselves.
Time. Yes, hands up, this way takes longer, perhaps two or three times as much. But oven time doesn't really matter does it? When do you ever do a rush roast? And the major problem with the sear/hot roast method is that timing becomes critical. Five minutes too many and you have overdone meat. Most joints aren't perfectly cylindrical or symmetrical so in a hot oven the thinner end will cook faster. A high temp also means the meat contracts fast and forces out moisture. Who wants dry meat?
Actually, my mother wanted dry meat. She would sometimes send an 'underdone' steak or a piece of lamb back TWICE to the kitchen where the chef would presumably wipe the tears from their eyes as they watched a piece of animal transform to ash, no doubt wondering why anyone would worry about the quality of the meat if they only wanted to burn it. My father would have eaten it raw. I know you think I'm exaggerating but I remember pan fried burgers where I had to cut the grey meat out of a deep charcoal embrace. My mother crunched through the lot telling me how much she liked 'burnt bits'. 
Also, searing meat is a right faff. It's tricky to get a high enough heat and wrestling with a large piece of meat in hot oil is never a good idea. You should see my scarred arms! 

With reverse sear, you cook the meat in a very cool oven. And I mean COOL; so low you can happily handle the baking tray with naked hands. Then take it out and rest it. Then replace in a ferociously hot oven for ten minutes to brown and crisp the outside. The major advantage with this is it's pretty much impossible to overcook your expensive joint. If the oven is 60°C, the meat can get no hotter. You can leave it in for an extra hour without an issue. No rushing back to save the dinner - even the Christmas turkey! This method applies to all. 
The one piece of kit you will need is a meat/temperature probe. But these are inexpensive and readily available.

I took this 1.3kg piece of topside (from F. Normans in Oakwood, N. London) and roasted it for 3 hours at 55°C. My Neff oven is fairly new and capable of very accurate setting. Yours may not be, so just use an oven thermometer. There's much debate about meat temperatures - if you're so inclined to look - with most tending too high in my opinion. This is my own table for beef.
Rare: 50°C
Medium Rare: 55°C
Medium: 60° 
Well Done: 70°C 
As my mother liked it: 95°C

EDIT: there was a lot of interest in this post over Christmas 2015. I received much positive feedback too. One thing that was sorely lacking though was a chart of roasting times. These will vary as much due to the shape of the meat as well as the efficiency of your oven.  This is why I've put two columns for the shape of the joint: basically cylindrical (like a topside or fillet) and essentially square (like a forerib) If in doubt, add half an hour. The actual temperature of the oven doesn't seem to matter much. I suppose it's only a few degrees difference isn't it.

Cooking times for different weights and shapes of beef.

Af the end of the roast the meat looked like this. Not especially attractive - a little flabby because the fat hasn't been rendered. The meat doesn't have to rest for long because it's been slow cooked. Ten minutes is enough. Now, whack your oven to maximum, probably 260 - 280°C (obviously don't use any pyrolytic cleaning settings!) and return the meat for 5-10 minutes. It's already dry so it takes much less time to sear.

This is the result. Perfectly pink throughout with a deep seared crust. Almost impossible to get wrong and no nagging, roasting worries. Why wouldn't you do it?

Further recipes and reading: Roast Potatoes.   Beef Rib.  Yorkshire Puddings.


  1. I'm bloody hungry now! Thanks Jason...

  2. Thanks Jason. How long would you do a 2.1kg joint?

    1. Probably about 5-6 hours Dominic. It will vary with the joint and especially the shape of the meat: a long thin roll will cook faster than a big lump. But timings are not critical with this method. Put it in and leave it. A meat thermometer is key.

  3. This looks amazing, I have a 3.6kg joint of topside, I have a cheap meat thermometer which I cant leave in the ove. Do I season first and then just pop it in the oven on 60c for 5-6 hours testing the deepest part of the joint every half hour, also what do you think about using a roasting bag to keep my wife happy,,,thanks

  4. Yes. Season early; the day before if you can. You will see the meat change colour. The salt will be drawn into the meat. If you have space, leave the joint uncovered in the fridge overnight after salting, this is *similar* to the dry ageing that a good butcher will do.

    5 to 6 hours (maybe more?) at 60°C. You don't need to check every half hour, just after the first five. Remember it *can't* overcook at this temperature. I'd be tempted to stick it in mid morning for an early evening dinner.

    Take it out half an hour before you need it. Crank the over to maximum, or 250°C and blast for ten minutes.

    No need for a roast bag at these low temperatures. Apologies to your wife. Happy Christmas.

    1. Jason,, thats wonderful, the joint I have is about 3-4" thick so will the 5-6 hours apply... I am very grateful for your kind reply, I wish you and yours a lovely Xmas...

    2. 3-4 hours should be fine. What's the joint?

    3. It's topside prepacked from morrisons,,,,a couple of more questions please Justin, because the oven will be taken up at 60c I wont be able to put roast potatoes ,yorkshires etc in so I am going to cook the beef tomorrow do you think that will be ok.
      When I season the joint today do I season it all over and tomorrow cook with the slab of fat at the top.

      I feel a little stupid asking all of these very basic questions but I would like to get it right.

      I also have a Turkey crown to cook on Xmas day (just in case) which I can slice and freeze whatever we have left, do you have any of your wonderful suggestions for cooking that.
      kind regards Russell

    4. Hi Russell (it's Jason btw not Justin).

      Yes, season the joint all over. LOTS of salt.
      Yes, roast with fat on top.

      If you wrap the joint in several layers of foil and then a blanket, it will easily keep warm for an hour or so. Remember you are blasting it at high heat just before eating anyway. So you could cook the beef the same day as pots/yorkies. Have you seen my tips for making great roasties and Yorkshires? The links are at the bottom of the blog.

      I'm no use to you regarding turkey crowns. I've never cooked one, nor will I. I'm not a fan of turkey. One thing though: supermarket cooking instructions are usually far too 'safe'. The times they give are a product of them not wanting to be sued, rather than what makes good eating. I roast my chickens for an hour, for example. This is way under their recommendations.

      Try this link for crown roasting instructions. Generally GBC are excellent. They say 20 mins per kg + 70 minutes.

    5. I'd love to see the end results Russell. Can you take a picture and post it to me? Hope all goes well. Have a great Christmas.

    6. Hi Jason,, sorry about the wrong name, its one of the joys of old age, thanks for the guidance but Iam a little confused when you say I can cook the beef the same day as the roast pots etc,we will be having dinner (hopefully) about 1.30 so if the joint will take 5=6 hours plus plus the 10 mins rest, plus 10/15 mins on high heat, that means I will need to put the jojnt in about 6am but I wasn't planning getting up that early and waking her in doors up plus the grandchildren thats really why I was going to cook it the day before. Would using it the following cause any problems or are you suggesting it would be best cooked on xmas day rather than xmas eve,,, thank you again

    7. Yes it would necessitate an early start I suppose. We eat around 4 so a more civilised hour to wake.

    8. last question ,, I promise,,, would affect the quality of the roast eating the day after cheers happy xmas to you all,,

    9. Flavour wise no. Btw you shouldn't reheat rare meat but you probably knew that.

  5. This reverse sear method was a revelation Jason! And thanks for the introduction to Serious Eats; I'm now hooked on them too.

    One thing I wasn't sure about when using this method is whether one has to ensure the inside temperature of the piece of meat reaches the chosen cooking temperature? So for example, if I want a rare piece of top side do I need to ensure the inside temp reaches 50 degrees? I'm guessing it must but wanted to double check.

  6. Yes. That's right Catherine. Take a few readings with a temperature probe. A rare joint should be around 50°C all over inside. Just bear in mind that when eating at these low temperatures to buy the best beef you can from a butcher you trust.

    1. Groovy, thanks for confirming Jason. And yip, it's Normans of Cockfosters all the way!

  7. Thanks for the advice Jason; 5kgs of topside from Normans of Oakwood (not Cockfosters) was a medium rare triumph! Medium rare rather than rare because of serious oven issues which is why I'm calling on your experience again. You mentioned your Neff being capable of very accurate temperatures; can I ask why you opted for Neff? Was Miele ever a contender for you and if so any particular reason you chose Neff over Miele? I'm in a bit of a Miele vs Neff quandary and figured you're bound to have an informed opinion.

  8. Sorry. Seem to have missed this post Catherine. There's not much in it to my mind. Miele seems more expensive for no real reason though. Bosch, Neff, Siemens, Miele are all very similar. Any one will be good. I'm pretty sure at least two of them are built in the same factory. What did you go for in the end?

  9. No worries, thanks Jason. I went for Miele in the end. You're right they are eye-wateringly expensive but the particular model has a steam on demand function and a higher max temp which is great for bread baking, so just edged ahead of Neff. Doing my first roast tender loin today (Normans) using reverse sear so we'll see how the oven performs at low temps.