Skip to main content

This secret to a perfectly browned steak is almost impossible to believe

This counterintuitive method will give you a beautifully browned steak every time

Porter house steak
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Every once in a while, a new piece of information goes against everything we’ve been taught, and it’s pretty mind-blowing. It turns out, cursive is useless, Pluto isn’t a planet, and we do carry around a calculator with us all the time (sorry, 1990s-era teachers). From time to time, these new truths also hit the food world, and when they do, it’s pretty exciting.

For as long as we can remember, the key to a good sear on steak has been fat and fast, high heat. Anything else would create a grayish, lackluster piece of meat that was hardly appetizing. But there’s a new trick in town about cooking steak — water. While cooking a steak in water sounds counterintuitive when it comes to proper searing, if done correctly, this technique can create a beautifully browned, perfectly seared, deliciously juicy piece of meat. So, how is this possibly the best way to cook steak, you ask?

Different types of browning in food

The science behind this new cooking method is pretty interesting. In cooking, there are two types of browning — caramelization and Maillard. Caramelization happens when sugars in certain foods are heated past 300 degrees Fahrenheit. When these sugars break down, we get browned, flavorful, sometimes jammy and sweet foods like caramelized onions. Maillard browning occurs when sugars and amino acids break down and reform in proteins like beef, pork, or chicken.

Why water works

Water has traditionally been the enemy of good browning because water turns to steam, which prevents pan heat from getting hot enough to create a proper sear, and that’s where colorless meat comes from. If you cook your meat thoroughly this way, it will end up sear-less and gray, which is just gross, any way you slice it.

However, suppose you add a bit of water to the pan first and simmer your meat just until that water evaporates. What will happen is that the sugars and amino acids will release from your protein, staying behind once the water has evaporated. Essentially, the water pulls the flavor and color out of the meat, leaving it for you to turn into something delicious.

To prevent poaching or steaming your protein, only add a few splashes of water. This is where it’s easy to go wrong. Remember, you’re not trying to cook your meat fully. You’re only giving it enough time to give up some of its extra flavor. Only a few splashes are necessary, no matter what you’re cooking.

This method also works perfectly for vegetables, and even mushrooms, which are hard to sear properly. With a bit of water applied in just the right way, almost everything you make can have a beautifully browned caramelization packed full of flavor. We tried this recipe for sauteed mushrooms with shallot and thyme using this method, and they were the best we’ve ever had!

Sauteed mushrooms and shallots with thyme
America's Test Kitchen / a

Sauteed mushrooms with shallot and thyme

(From America’s Test Kitchen)


  • 1 1/4 pounds mushrooms, halved
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 cup dry Marsala
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth


  1. Cook mushrooms and water in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat, stirring occasionally, until skillet is almost dry and mushrooms begin to sizzle, 4 to 8 minutes.
  2. Reduce heat to medium-high. Add oil and toss until mushrooms are evenly coated. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are well browned, 4 to 8 minutes longer. Reduce heat to medium.
  3. Push mushrooms to the side of the skillet. Add butter to the center.
  4. When the butter has melted, add shallot, thyme, salt, and pepper to the center and cook, stirring constantly, until aromatic, about 30 seconds.
  5. Add Marsala and stir the mixture into the mushrooms. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.
  6. Add broth and cook, stirring occasionally, until glaze is reduced by half, 2 to 3 minutes.
  7. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Editors' Recommendations

Lindsay Parrill
Lindsay is a graduate of California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco, from where she holds a degree in…
This is the best wood for grilling and smoking, according to an expert
Curious about what wood to use for the best tasting food from your grill? Here's what a pro says
Steak on the grill

When it comes to grilling and smoking foods, it's hard to beat old-fashioned firewood for both a heat source and flavor. But did you know that different types of wood will actually bring different flavors to your cooking? Today we will look at the best wood for grilling and the differences between some of the most popular woods to cook with.
The warm glow and crackle of a true wood fire is borderline irresistible, but the stuff in your woodpile may not be the best choice for cooking with. We will explore some favorite wood types you can use to grill and smoke a steak that can be used in almost any smoker or charcoal grill.

What kind of wood is best for grilling?

Read more
How to grill chicken correctly for a tender, delicious barbecue
Looking to ace that grilled chicken recipe this summer? Here's how
Chicken drumsticks on grill

It's grilling season. It's time to stock up on charcoal, pellets, and propane and get ready to enjoy some quality outdoor time with your friends and family. Aside from burgers and brats, chicken is also a grilling go-to for those guests who require a healthier option.

The difference between burgers and brats and the delicious white meat is that chicken can be tough to get right on the grill. We've all had a piece of grilled chicken that was drier than shoe leather. This quick guide on how to grill chicken will help you every step of the way through the process of grilling up tender, moist, and delicious chicken.
The tools of the trade

Read more
Learn how to make perfect grill marks every time
Perfect grill marks are shockingly easy to achieve with these easy tips
Steak on the grill

Let's be honest — when it comes to grilling, a lot of the fun is in the show. It just wouldn't be a proper backyard barbecue without all the hubbub that comes once that grill is ignited. The sounds, the smells, the caveperson astonishment and pride when it comes to all things fire-related. The whole thing is rather dramatic. And part of putting on a good show is, of course, a picture-perfect, Instagram-worthy, beautifully charred, and cross-hatched piece of meat. Be it a steak, pork chop, burger, or eggplant, no grilled entree is complete without the cosmetic upgrade of gorgeous grill marks.

Chances are, though, if you've ever attempted these beautifully blackened lines in your backyard, you know just how tricky they can be. So you may have just tossed in the tongs and forgotten the whole thing. And who could blame you? The truth is that grill marks don't make a huge difference in flavor. With all the cooking methods, tricks, and techniques used today, the technique of how to make grill marks is actually something of a lost art. But damn, they're sexy. And if you can get them just right, you'll be sure to impress your guests at your next cookout. So we're here to help with a few tips and tricks for how to get those perfect steak grill marks and make your barbecue show one worth watching.
How to make perfect grill marks

Read more