Searing steak on the grill is a pleasure. Outdoors, the smoke serves as ambiance and enticement to my guests, and the grill acts as a giant drip pan, requiring little cleanup beyond a quick postmeal scrub with a stiff brush. But stovetop searing inevitably causes smoke to billow and grease to splatter, so I rarely make a go of it. When I do, I use the reverse‑sear method to cook the meat most of the way through in a low oven before pan searing so that the stovetop cooking can be brief. Still, that approach takes the better part of an hour and doesn’t entirely avoid the smoke and splatter.
I wanted a fast, mess-free stovetop method for pan‑searing strip or rib‑eye steaks (my favorite cuts) that would achieve the evenly rosy interior and deeply browned crust that any good steak should have.
Every approach to steak cookery faces the same fundamental challenge: how to ensure that the exterior develops a deeply browned crust just as the interior comes up to temperature. Pulling it off is tricky because the outside of the steak needs lots of heat to brown, while the inside can’t take more than minimal heat before it overcooks.
That’s why the classic approach to pan searing—blasting each side of the steak with heat in a well‑oiled, ripping‑hot pan—doesn’t work well. While it’s fast and produces a great crust, a wide band of gray, overcooked meat can form just below the crust. What’s more, the combination of all that high heat and fat is exactly what causes smoke and splatter. The reverse‑sear method cooks steak beautifully—the interior is medium-rare from edge to edge with only a thin gray band, and the crust is rich and dark—thanks to its combination of low and high heat, which allows the meat to heat up slowly and evenly in a low oven before it’s seared on the stovetop. But this method isn’t for busy weeknights. What I really wanted was the outcome of reverse searing, the speed of stovetop searing, and no mess.
As I started to rethink the stovetop method, I realized that I could minimize splatter by cutting back on the oil, since the well-marbled steaks exude plenty of their own fat during cooking. (Fat splatters when moisture being pushed out of the meat hits it and explosively evaporates, splashing the fat out of the skillet.) In fact, I had a hunch that I could get away with skipping the oil altogether.
To make it work, I moved the cooking out of a stainless-steel skillet and into a nonstick (or carbon‑steel) one. That not only made sticking a nonissue but also produced a more substantial crust because the nonstick pan didn’t bond much to the meat’s surface proteins as they browned. That meant more of those proteins remained on the meat instead of getting stuck to the pan.
I also started cooking the steaks in a “cold” (not preheated) pan. This was a surefire way to avoid the safety hazard of overheating a nonstick skillet, since the food kept the pan cool enough, even when it was over high heat, and the slow buildup of heat mimicked the low-oven phase of the reverse-sear method, warming the steaks gently and encouraging their fat to render without smoking. But to quickly drive off moisture so that the meat would sear instead of steam, I had to immediately crank the heat to high—and by the time each side of the meat was browned over a high flame, the rendered fat had started to smoke and the dreaded gray band had developed.
Clearly I had to reduce the heat, but the steaks’ crusts would suffer unless I figured out a different way to get a deep sear. That’s when I introduced our “frequent flipping” technique, where you flip the meat every 2 minutes instead of browning one side at a time. We’ve used it to brown other proteins (pork chops, swordfish steaks) without overcooking their interiors, and it works by taking advantage of heat transfer: When a protein is flipped, its hottest side is turned faceup, allowing heat to dissipate into the air while the other side gets a turn to sear. And as long as the pan is hot enough, the protein gradually develops a rich crust, like multiple coats of paint applied to a wall. (Note: This method works only with thicker cuts, which can spend more time in the pan building up a crust before their interiors overcook.) The flipping worked so well that I was able to reduce the heat to medium partway through cooking, which completely avoided the gray band and the risk of smoking without impacting the crust.
My gentler method delivered the deep crust and edge-to-edge rosiness of the reverse sear but got the job done faster and avoided the mess. Instead of scrubbing grease off the stovetop, I buzzed together a quick herb sauce that made this weeknight classic company-worthy.