Don't want to mess up that big piece of meat you just bought? Enter the reverse sear. Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.

Washington - The reverse sear has been part of the home cook's lexicon for a long time now, but even so, there's still plenty of confusion about this close-to-foolproof method for cooking meat.

Now seems like as good a time as any to revisit the topic, especially with food writer and cookbook author Alison Roman (she of #TheCookie and #TheStew fame) featuring the reverse sear in her new book, Nothing Fancy, publishing next month. 

But first, some basics on the technique:

How it works

With the interior of the meat mostly done in the oven, you can concentrate on creating an appealing brown crust quickly over very high heat - without the danger of overcooking the meat just below the surface, i.e. the dreaded gray ring. 

The creation of the crust is further enhanced by the fact that the oven has done most of the work of drying the surface of the meat. That way the outside browns and crisps rather than steams. The heat and energy can focus on the meat rather than on driving off moisture.

What meat to use

It needs to be large enough to benefit from the long cook time, as thinner cuts can overcook when baked for a long time. If you plan to do this with steak, López-Alt recommends using one that is at least 3.7cm thick (rib-eye, strip, porterhouse, T-bone, tri-tip or filet mignon). 

Prep it

The beauty of the reverse sear is that it's more technique-driven than recipe-driven. As long as you have time and a thermometer to monitor the temperature of the protein, this is something anyone can do, regardless of what type of meat you use. 

Season it with salt and pepper, and don't hold back - Roman recommends 1 teaspoon of salt per pound (about 450g) of meat. If you have more time, salt the meat up to 2 days in advance and let it hang out in the refrigerator on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet. This helps with flavor and dries the surface of the meat.

Get cooking

When it comes time to cooking, leave the meat on the rack-and-sheet setup. López-Alt gives a wide range of temperatures, from 90 to 135 degrees, although a lot of the recipes I've looked at tend to focus on the 110 to 120 degree range. It's really a matter of preference, in terms of how much time you have and how perfectly even, and fail-safe, you want your cooking to be. 

What is that target? 

That would be about 43 degrees Celcius for medium-rare, 51 degrees for medium, etc. This, of course, is where that instant-read thermometer comes in handy. (If you have a probe that you can leave it in the meat while it cooks, all the better.) Check the temperature of the meat periodically in the centre, avoiding any bones. 

Searing

Remember, you've done most of the work already. This last bit is to get the outside of the meat beautifully browned and crispy, during which you'll also push the temperature into its final desired temperature. 

Go for a skillet that you can safely use on medium-high to high heat, such as cast iron or stainless steel. Heat a tablespoon of oil until it smokes (some people add butter right before they add the meat) and then, you guessed it, sear it on all sides, including the fat, until deeply coloured. 

For a smaller steak, this can take less than a minute. Larger cuts, such as Roman's rib roast, which she sears fat side down for five to eight minutes, will need longer in the skillet. You can also do your "sear" in an oven cranked to 260 degrees, which will take several minutes. (Reverse sear works on a two-zone grill as well.)

The Washington Post