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Reverse Searing: Does It Come at a Price?

It enables you to smoke the one cut of beef most people would never dare cook in a smoker.
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Today, you can hardly browse barbecue websites without being urged to try a technique called reverse searing. The process turns the traditional method of cooking a steak or roast--hot sear followed by slow roast--on its head. You start by smoking the meat low and slow to an internal temperature of about 100 degrees, then you char it over a hot fire to raise it to the desired temperature, applying the crisp smoky crust at the end.

Reverse searing has several advantages: better heat control, as you can cook the steak to a precise degree of doneness. The meat cooks more evenly, too: no more "bulls-eye" effect--the dark crust with grey-brown ring of meat just beneath it, fading to pink, with the reddish-blue core characteristic of a really thick steak grilled over a really hot fire. Reverse searing gives you a consistent doneness and color from the top crust to the bottom. And because you rest the meat between low heat smoking and high heat searing, you can serve it hot off the grill. Best of all, it enables you to smoke the one cut of beef most people would never dare cook in a smoker.

But one thing bothers me: Why don't you find reverse searing in any of the great steak cultures--in Argentina, for example, or in Italy or Spain? And what if the much-touted benefits of reverse searing came at a price?

Which brings us to an Italian-inspired grill parlor in Los Angeles called Chi Spacca ("the meat cleaver"). I use the word parlor deliberately because in this world of grandiose steak houses, everything about Chi Spacca is small-scale, from the 33 seats in the intimate dining room to its daily changing, thoughtfully curated menu. Chef Chad Colby grills some of the largest steaks in North America. His bistecca alla fiorentina (porterhouse) measures 3 inches across and weighs in excess of 3 pounds; his costata (dry-aged, bone-in New York strip) tips the scale at 36 ounces. In contrast to the huge meats, he does all his grilling on a wood-burning grill that measures a modest 36 inches across.

Colby's meats are redolent with wood smoke (from California almond wood), but he uses neither smoker nor smoking gun. They're also perfectly cooked--no burnt crust or red-blue raw spot in the center.

He achieves this smoke-scented perfection the old-fashioned way, by working over a two-zone fire--a hot zone for searing, a cooler zone for cooking, with a portion of the grill fire-free where he can keep the meat warm during resting. To cook his monster steaks Colby uses a four-step process:

  • Searing the steak over a screaming hot fire for 3 to 4 minutes per side to crust the surface.

  • Resting the meat off the heat for 6 minutes to let it recover from the shock of the high heat and the aggressive sear of the muscle.
  • Standing the steak upright and cooking it on the low fire side of the grill for about 30 minutes, using the bone to conduct the heat from the bottom of the steak to the center.
  • Resting the steak again--this time on a raised wire rack over a sheet pan, so air circulates freely around it without making the bottom crust soggy.
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    Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is